Effective Online Teaching and Learning

Having gained my Masters online with Michigan State University and now having worked with MSU as an online instructor for the past five years I have learned a lot about being an effective online learner and teacher (and I’m still learning so I’m not perfect!). Just recently I was taking an online course with the IB and found myself on the online learning side of the fence for the first time in a long time (at the same time as teaching my online course with MSU!). It struck me how perfect an online learning experience has to be to feel really rewarding as a learner (and as a teacher). Let’s face it, coming home from your full time job and having to do more work (whether it’s teaching or learning) can be a little bit miserable. You can make your experience less miserable by following some guidelines that I’ve learned over the years.




As an Online Teacher
Modules need to be organized in a way that leaves nothing to the imagination. Students shouldn’t be guessing what is meant to be studied or worked on. Modules should not be opened if they haven’t been vetted for broken links or incorrect information. The online teacher should have their own organizational system to keep track of work submitted and assessed. My tool of choice is Google Suite. In the current course I teach in, we communicate (see below) and share a spreadsheet with all students listed, all tasks to be completed, and the dates they need to be completed. Students type “done” with a link to their work as they go through the course.
Course structures needs to organized in a way they students aren’t hunting for the place to go next. Explicitly structured learning areas is key.

As an Online Learner
A bit more difficult to ascertain as everybody’s life is different but there are some general organizational foundations you need to lay down. Create your coursework area on your desktop or in online cloud platform (ie. Google Drive). I like to put a “-” before the folder name so it stays on top alphabetically in my storage area. Create folders for each module. Create calendar deadlines for each task and set reminders. When a module opens, first read through it skimming and scanning for what the general expectations are to get a sense of what you will need to do.




As an Online Teacher
So very important. I strive to be as clear as possible with my online students. Vague and inconsistent communication from online teachers kill an online learning experience. If you say you’re going to do something then do it. Don’t have students hanging around waiting. Timely individualised feedback from the teacher in small online learning courses (not even possible in MOOCs) is absolutely paramount. Communication about each module’s (or each week’s) expectations and tasks is critical in allowing online students the time to plan their to-do list ahead of time and with the minimum amount of stress. Weekly live office hours via Zoom etc. are also mandatory.
Another false positive of online courses is the use of the discussion forum and it’s perceived use in facilitating collaboration and effective communication. More often than not these are prescribed duties a student must do. Students use it because they are told to. Not out of choice. The template of discussion forums in most CMS platforms are counter-productive in facilitating conversations and communication (step forward Moodle). In our recent courses my co-instructor and I have moved these “discussions” out onto Twitter with hashtags where at least some authentic “outside” conversations may happen. Again, not ideal, as forced communication is never the answer if students really don’t have the inclination to do so and just want that passing grade!

As an Online Learner
If you don’t understand content or instructions as an online learner it is up to you to communicate with the teacher about your situation. Although if the teacher has established an environment where communication is minimal at best; you may not bother and I don’t blame you. Waiting until the last minute before a deadline or not asking clarifying questions and just submitting work is not going to work for anyone. Online learners owe it to themselves to communicate everything and anything that may affect their progression in their course. Again, your questions should be few and far between about instructions and expectations if the teacher has communicated clearly course and module expectations.


Attention to Detail


As an Online Teacher
As an online teacher you need to look for trends and behaviour in your students and pay close attention to anything that may be inhibiting effective online learning. You also need to pay close attention to the structure of your course and assess/reflect on whether the learning journey that the students are taking is the most effective. More detailed and pinpointing exact areas for improvement in feedback to struggling students is, obviously, something that needs to be present.

As an Online Learner
Read, re-read, and read again all deadlines, rubrics, expectations, and instructions that are given along with tasks and assignments. In my experience a lot of dropped marks in assignments are due to certain assessment criteria not being paid attention to. It’s as simple as that. It goes without saying if there’s a syllabus or a course guiding document read that. And then re-read it.


Build Relationships


As an Online Teacher
This is hard and something that doesn’t always happen in online courses. Without fail, though, every time I teach a course I end up talking more often to one or two students on a more personal professional level as they may have similar interests to me or hold a similar role. We start off each course with the students filling out a document detailing what their role is and their interests and anything they would like us to know about them.  This helps us, as teachers, understand where each student is coming from and their professional background. From this we can use this information to give effective feedback and relatable stories throughout the course.

As an Online Learner
If the teacher doesn’t offer anything up about themselves (we make a short video at the start of our course introducing ourselves) look up your teacher online…yeah, that right. I want to know the teacher’s experience and expertise, there’s nothing wrong with that. I did it as a student in the online course I did in December. See what they’re up to on Twitter, if anything. LinkedIn is fair game too. What is their educational history?
Initiate conversations and be personable in any questions you may have to your teacher. They are human too and with the same stresses and life events happening. Demanding something or being overly negative is probably not a healthy start to any online relationship. Constructive criticism is always welcome of course; provide a suggested solution to any problems you may be having. The course I am teaching online recently one of our students suggested putting in anchor links at the top of our feedback document to stop us scrolling forever to find the right module. Done. Works great and I don’t know why we didn’t do it before.




As an Online Teacher
Life has a tendency to suck, everyone knows it. It’s how we deal with those life-sucking moments that affects our accountability towards jobs that we are being paid to do. I was laid up in hospital for a few days whilst I was teaching my online course this year. No biggy, I knew it wasn’t going to affect my feedback timing and I let my co-teacher know that he would have to send out our weekly message and postpone our weekly Skype call.
As an online teacher you have an accountability to all students for them to get the most that they possible can out of the online course you’re teaching. You expect them to let you know of any issues that they may have meeting deadlines and you should hold yourself to the same regard.

As an Online Learner
Life has a tendency to suck, everyone knows it. It’s how we deal with those life-sucking moments that affects our accountability towards courses that we have paid or signed up for or our schools have paid for us to take in order for you to develop professionally. Every year at least one of my online students has something come up in their personal life and every year we front-load our course by acknowledging that life happens and to please keep us in the loop if life is infringing on your ability to meet deadlines.

I’m sure I’ll add to this list as I go along my online learning and teaching journey.

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