Successfully transferring a face-to-face course to the online learning environment requires careful preparations that take into account differences between these two modalities.
“If you simply take your face-to-face class and put it online and teach it electronically, you will fail miserably,” says Paul S. Caron, director of education at Lewiston-Auburn College, whose first experience teaching online taught him some valuable lessons about how to provide students with an effective, supportive, and motivating learning experience.
In an interview with Online Classroom, Caron recommended the strategies to address the main challenges of the online classroom:
Communicate frequently. One of the big challenges of teaching online is communication. The online learning environment lacks the visual and auditory cues that instructors and students often take for granted in the face-to-face classroom. This lack of visual and auditory cues can hinder the ability to develop rapport, motivate, and engage students.
“There’s got to be a level of trust between the instructor and the students. The students need to trust the instructor that he or she will guide them and foster their learning. That didn’t come through very well in my first semester teaching online,” Caron says.
Don’t assume that discussion with students every once in a while will be enough to engage them. And students don’t all respond in the same ways. Some are shy. Some may not appreciate your use of humor. Some may not be very forthcoming about factors that affect their learning, such as a math anxiety. Although students bear responsibility for getting extra help, sometimes the instructor needs to make an effort to reach out to them, Caron says.
One way to keep students on track is to send out a weekly message to let them know what’s coming up. Although the syllabus contains the information about upcoming modules—and students could work ahead—Caron posts a message in the LMS as a reminder and to maintain ongoing communication.
Caron uses email as the primary means of communicating with students. However, he has found that some students prefer other forms of communication, such as Twitter, Facebook, and text messages. It’s important to explain to students how communication in the course will occur. However, he concedes, the popularity of other means of communication may “force instructors to start branching out into different types of media.”
Use multimedia. In addition to text-based communication, Caron uses screencasts in his introductory statistics course (recorded using Camtasia), demonstrating, for example, how to use Excel to make pie charts, bar graphs, and x-y axis regressions.
In addition to the videos he produces, Caron uses publicly available videos. These provide students with a richer learning experience and enable Caron to present content in ways that he might not have the resources or ability to create himself. “There are some great physics demonstrations that I can’t do because I don’t have the material or time to do these,” he says.
Regardless of your discipline, multimedia “can make the course more exciting and relevant,” Caron says. You also can have students produce multimedia content to demonstrate their learning.
Monitor “attendance.” Caron uses weekly quizzes to check that students are engaged in the course between assignment deadlines. “I tell them, ‘I want you to take this quiz on this chapter. I don’t care what the grade is. I don’t care if you get a zero. It tells me that you’re active in the class,’” he says. If a student doesn’t take the quiz, he follows up with the student.
Make the subject relevant. One of the challenges of teaching a core course is that students aren’t automatically interested in the subject. To help engage online students, Caron uses several strategies to make the material relevant to them.
Many of Caron’s students are adult learners, so he asks them how the concepts they’re studying apply to their jobs or other activities in their lives. Since many of his students are sports fans, he often has students do sports-related statistics problems. For example, is there are correlation between a professional athlete’s salary and performance, and how might you measure that?
Despite an instructor’s efforts to address the challenges of the online learning environment, techniques such as these still may not be enough to help all students succeed. This is why before his online course begins, Caron posts an announcement and emails a message that says, in effect, “If you don’t like math you may not want to take this class because I can’t hold your hand as well as I can in a face-to-face class.”