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The Art of Online Instruction

"One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man."

— Elbert Hubbard
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"One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man." — Elbert Hubbard

Teaching online is increasingly an option for higher education instructors. Traditional institutions are expanding their reach by adding online versions of their existing programs and online universities continue to add new programs to their catalogs. And in some cases, teaching online is a requirement, as traditional faculty are encouraged or assigned to take their face-to-face courses online.

Online instructors can realize benefits from the virtual delivery of an academic course, but they also face a number of challenges. While they enjoy some of the same benefits that draw online students in terms of convenience and flexibility, online instructors must also master additional skills associated with the technology and administration required of a virtual learning environment.

Comparing Online and Traditional Classrooms

Making the move from face-to-face instruction to virtual instruction is becoming less complicated, as traditional classrooms incorporate learning management systems (LMS), such as Blackboard, eCollege, Moodle, and Sakai. The LMS is now used in many course formats traditional, blended, and completely online to manage and organize course content and provide additional methods for students and instructors to interact and communicate.

When online course sites are used to deliver the course materials, the online instructor’s role is to facilitate the learning experience, student interaction with the materials, and student-to-student interaction. This facilitation involves several considerations that are not typically part of a face-to-face course.

Communication Tools and Techniques

Communication in an online course can be categorized as either synchronous (occurring in real-time) or asynchronous (participants contribute at times of their own choosing). Synchronous tools allow instructors to meet with students as a group or one-on-one when participants are all online at the same time, providing instant feedback. These tools range from text-only instant messaging to virtual classrooms with audio, video, and tools for working collaboratively (i.e. whiteboards, application sharing, web tours). Synchronous tools may be built into an LMS, accessed through a commercial license (e.g. Adobe Connect, GoToMeeting) or available as open and web-based options (e.g. Skype, GoogleTalk). Managing a synchronous event involves a number of skills related to both technology and moderating.

Asynchronous tools allow students to provide their input, feedback, responses, etc. at times that are convenient to them, but within deadlines established in a course. Threaded discussion forums are perhaps the most prevalent asynchronous tool and are usually part of the LMS for each course. This tool allows for class discussions in which students respond to a posted question, and to each others’ responses, at different times. Managing an effective asynchronous discussion involves creating good questions that encourage exchange, moderating via text, and a great deal of reading and writing.

Creating an Online Presence

Online instructors often never meet their students face-to-face. This environment and the relationships between instructor and student are enhanced by the creation of online presence. Patrick Lowenthal and Tina Parscal of Regis University published a list of specific strategies available to online instructors for the development of presence in a course using computer-mediated communication. These strategies are categorized into three areas ñ instructional design, teaching, and social learning. Examples of strategies for creating teaching and social presence in an online course include posting student and instructor profiles within the LMS, sharing personal stories and professional experiences, and using expressions of emotions.

Often universities with online programs will provide some guidance for online instructors on developing an online teaching presence. The Center for Teaching Excellence at Duquesne University is just one example. This information can be valuable, especially if it is based on information and feedback from the university’s online students and successful online instructors.

Developing an Online Community

Developing an online presence is closely linked to the development of an online community. Palloff and Pratt describe the need for an effective learning community in their 2011 book, The Excellent Online Instructor: Strategies for Professional Development. Creating an environment in which students feel they belong promotes engagement, sharing, collaboration, and support, as well as a feeling of responsibility among members.

Wayne Hall, a professor from San Jacinto College, published his list of "5 Ways to Build Community in an Online Course". This list includes: requiring extensive student introductions; sending personal email messages to students weekly; conducting frequent student surveys or polls; providing opportunity for discussion; and conducting synchronous chat sessions. Hall also recommends the use of video throughout the class, in the form of brief introductory presentations to begin units or lessons.

Recent research conducted by a group of instructional designers and faculty at Eastern Kentucky University also found that faculty introduction videos had value from the student perspective. A majority of students felt that viewing their instructor’s videos helped them prepare to participate in their online courses and gave them the opportunity to meet their instructors virtually.

As an online instructor you will also be the one to set the tone for the course in terms of etiquette and netiquette. Your students will look to you for cues. Model the professional behavior you expect from your students in online communication and participation. Be explicit about how you want to be addressed in the course as the community’s leader and facilitator.

Qualifications and Competencies

Each institution will have its own preferences and policies for hiring online instructors. Basic qualifications usually include a minimum level of education in the field in which you will teach, work experience in your field, and teaching experience. You will find these requirements along with a list of skills as part of teaching position announcements. An overview of typical items you can expect to see is provided below. Some of these competencies are not so different from what is required for traditional courses, while others speak specifically to the needs of the online environment and the tools used there to facilitate learning at a distance.

Professional Preparation

  • Education. Level will be based on requirements for the courses and programs. Instructor positions in higher education usually require at least a master’s degree and a doctorate is often preferred.
  • Experience. Many online universities specifically recruit faculty who have recent experience working in the fields they plan to teach. Previous teaching experience may also be a requirement.
  • Expertise. Subject matter expertise in the area you are teaching is typically required as evidenced by at least 18 graduate credit hours of coursework in the academic discipline you are teaching.

General Skills

  • Facilitation. In an online environment, instructors are often referred to as guides or facilitators. Students will have access to course content and supplementary materials on their own. As the instructor, you will guide their progress through this content and the related activities, evaluating their learning with formal assessments. Explore online instructional strategies that can help you serve as guide. An essential component of guiding your class is your ability to facilitate and moderate synchronous and asynchronous discussions. Review a collection of specific suggestions for discussion forums.
  • Organization. Online courses require instructors to have the ability to conduct the course and as well as complete all of the related administrative requirements. You may find yourself teaching courses in overlapping terms or at multiple institutions. Keeping everything straight will be an important part of your duties.
  • Problem-solving. The virtual environment will present numerous opportunities for problem-solving, such as helping a student find the support resources he/she needs and troubleshooting your own computer’s Internet connection. Not all issues can be anticipated and you will be responsible for taking the initial steps toward finding solutions.
  • Time management. Online courses often take place over shorter terms than the semester-based academic schedule used at traditional universities. During the term, your course will be "live" 24/7, so your ability to manage progress and respond to students in a timely manner is important. Some programs have standard policies regarding time commitments for instructors to provide feedback to students. If these guidelines are not in place it will be up to you to clearly communicate what students can expect.
  • Employment negotiation and tracking. Many online instructors work as adjunct faculty and on a contract basis. It is important for you to understand issues related to pay equity, fairness in employment, salary expectations, unions, and employment contracts. You will also want to track your hours and expenses for potential reimbursement and tax implications.

Technology Skills

  • Hardware. As an online instructor, it is likely you will also be a remote employee of the universities where you teach. This may mean using your own computer system for work. Online courses, especially those with synchronous sessions, have additional requirements for speakers, microphones, and web cameras, as well as the skills necessary to use this equipment effectively.
  • Software. Check with your Dean or supervising instructor to find out what software you will need to be able to use in your courses, as well as additional applications such as Skype or Adobe Connect. As a course instructor, it will be your responsibility to use the software and applications effectively with your students.
  • Digital and media literacies. Online instructors, as well as online students, need to be skilled in conducting an online search and assessing Web-content for credibility in terns of its currency, source, purpose, and relevance.

Personal Characteristics

  • Self-confident. An online educator must have the self-confidence to embrace the ever-changing nature of technology and to engage students in the learning experience. Theodore Sizer, former Harvard University Dean of Education, describes the self-confidence necessary to be a successful educator: "A fine teacher does have confidence, but the honest confidence that flows from a fair recognition of one’s own frailties as well as talents and which accommodates both joyfully." (reprinted here) The truly self-confident online instructor embraces the changing nature of technology and the potential for collaboration in the technology-facilitated class as a learning experience for all participants.
  • Collaborative. Online instructors are sometimes called upon to work on committees, participate on online course development teams, and help mentor newer instructors. As in traditional university settings, there may also be the opportunity to participate in collaborative research projects and presentations.
  • Flexible. Being comfortable with change and anticipating the possibility of change is important in the online learning environment where technologies and policies may require a quick shift in procedures.
  • Willing to learn. The online learning environment is a dynamic one. As an instructor you will constantly be required to learn how to use new technologies and innovative course components. Considering the incredible pace of change in technology, even if you are an expert with hardware and software today, there is a real possibility that those systems will soon be obsolete. Be open to learning new systems and to learning from your students who may know more about a particular program or tool than you do.
  • Committed to student advocacy. Online students are also working remotely and will rely on their instructor as a front line resource for assistance with a wide range of questions and issues. You will be their link to additional resources, such as the help desk and library, which may not be a formal part of your course.

There are ongoing efforts to refine competency lists for online instructors through both research and practice. While each school or program may have a list of instructor skills available for you to review, there are others that may be helpful resources as well.

  • Penn State’s Learning Design Community has posted a list of 30 competencies for online instructors organized into five areas: Administrative, Design, Facilitation, Evaluation, and Technical.
  • Education researchers Alvarez, Guasch, and Espasa published a 2009 article in the European Journal of Teacher Education that lists 5 key roles, and associated competencies and tasks, for online teachers. These roles include: Designer/Planner, Social, Cognitive, Technological, and Managerial.
  • In a 2007 publication titled "Master Online Teacher Competencies" by Virgil Varvel from the Illinois Online Network, a list of 7 roles was developed: Administrative (systems, ethical and legal issues), Personal (personal qualities and characteristics), Technological (technology knowledge and abilities), Instructional Design (process, knowledge, and abilities), Pedagogical (teaching processes, knowledge and abilities), Assessment (student learning and abilities), and Social (processes and presence).

Each of these lists, and others like them, provide critical information about the skills and qualifications required for successful online instructors. There is some overlap but each list offers an interesting perspective. There is a lot to think about and prepare for, and a wealth of resources to help you get ready.

Becoming a Successful Online Instructor

The path to achieving success as an online instructor is made up of steps that include preparing for the work ahead, achieving realistic perspectives through assessment and experience, and learning from the pedagogy of online teaching. Some of the resources required are provided by universities and others you will need to find on your own.

Preparation

  • Formal and informal training. If you are brand new to online learning, consider preparatory workshops, courses, and certificate programs offered by private companies, universities, and professional organizations. There are informal options as well in the form of open courseware focused on faculty development and topics related to online teaching.
  • Your school. Once you are hired, explore all of the resources provided to you by your new department. Look for opportunities, and potential requirements, to attend new instructor orientation sessions. You will also find helpful information and guidance in faculty handbooks and other policy and procedures manuals. Locate faculty development resources in the form of tutorials and workshops. Ask your supervisor for information related to online instructor performance expectations, to better understand how the university will measure your success as an online instructor. Ask for access as a visitor to another professorís online course at your university, so that you can learn what is expected at the school.

Perspective

  • Assess yourself. Self-assessments can help you identify your current strengths and weaknesses as an online instructor. Tools such as the Faculty Self-Assessment from Penn State provide a list of critical competencies, feedback on your current levels of experience with each one, and guidance on helpful resources for you to pursue.
  • Take a course. Consider experiencing the online learning environment as a student. This experience and fresh perspective will be invaluable as you work with online students in your future courses. Some schools will pay for you to do this ñ research available options for tuition reimbursement and fee waivers.

Practice

  • Transition. Seek out opportunities to integrate technology into your traditional courses as a way to transition into a completely online course. Taking small steps in this direction will help you build your skills and comfort level with both technology and online communication.
  • If at first you don’t succeed. Take the time to assess what went well and what didnít go well in each online course you teach. Then, formulate a plan for improvement that builds on the successes you’ve had in the past. You will be better able to anticipate problems, and enhance your skills, with every new course and term.

Being an online instructor means more than posting information online and standing back. It also means more than strictly presenting lecture content on the Internet. Effective online instruction requires interactivity both in terms of the course content and the community of learners participating in the class. Prepare yourself for your role as an online instructor with a thorough review of both your current skills and the wide variety of resources available to support your efforts.