Why Best Practices Matter
As an online instructor your style of teaching and conduct online play an important role in shaping the learning environment. While the impact of the Internet on distance learning has been largely positive, students can also find it an isolating or confusing experience, particularly if this is their first time studying online. The good news is there are a number of things you can do to help your students to have a successful and fun learning experience. This article will out line some of the best practices for online learning that you can incorporate into your teaching strategy.
1. Be Available
One of the first and easiest best practices for online learning to put into effect is to make sure your students know both how to contact you and also when to contact you. It is important that your learners feel they can get in touch with you relatively quickly if they encounter any problems.
At the same time, however, the very nature of the Internet can lead to some students expecting you to be responsive at any time of day or night. To save both them and yourself a good deal of stress it can be helpful to set clear office hours. These are likely to be more flexible than they would in a face-to-face teaching situation and should include some availability at evenings and weekends if that is when many of your students will be studying.
If you are not the first point of contact for technical difficulties, ensure your students know who they should contact and how. Provide telephone numbers and email addresses for yourself and any additional technical support in case students can’t get access to the online learning environment.
2. Encourage Social Interaction
Distance learning via the Internet can be a culture shock for students used to comparing notes in the classroom, chatting in the corridors or going for a coffee together. When communication is limited to assignments and on-topic forum discussions it is easy to feel alienated from the instructor and from the rest of the group. In considering best practices for online learning, researchers such as Gilly Salmon (2002) and Alfred Rovai (2007) stress the importance of social interaction, above all at the beginning of a course. Encouraging social discussion and even building purely social activities into the course design allows students to develop a sense of presence and to relate to one another.
Some examples would be starting ‘getting to know you’ type discussions where each student tells the group something about his or her background, interests and aims. Salmon particularly recommends giving these disussions a cultural focus in order to promote understanding if you are teaching an international or cross-cultural group. As the instructor you may wish to add additional structure by providing a set list of questions for each person to answer or you could even set some easily accomplished group tasks that get your class communicating with each other and give them a sense of achievement.
It is also important for learners to feel that the instructor is approachable, so be sure to contribute to the virtual classroom interactions yourself rather than just silently monitoring discussions or giving instructions. This is a balancing act as students may fall silent if the teacher dominates discussions too much! You can also project a friendly image by using emoticons and avoiding unnecessary formality.
3. Provide Clear Guidelines
Another potential pitfall of the online learning environment is that the reduction of visual cues and lowered social presence can sometimes result in undesirable behaviors such as ‘flaming’ or to misinterpretation of the tone of text-based messages. Provide clear guidelines at the outset as to the expected conduct of students. For the benefit of any students new to online learning it can be helpful to explain ‘netiquette‘
Clear guidelines should extend to the other aspects of your course such as how much participation is expected, what elements of the course will be assessed, and exactly what is required for each assignment. Communicating clearly and ensuring learners know what they need to do to be successful is one of the most important best practices for online learning to integrate into every stage of your course.
An online calendar is a useful way of providing a week-by-week breakdown of the course along with any key events and deadlines. You may also want to have an ‘important messages’ area of the bulletin board or discussion forum where key information can be displayed.
4. Use the Technology Wisely
Selecting the right tools for distance learning can make the difference between a motivating online learning experience and a demotivating one.
Online instructors now have access to a whole host of Web 2.0 applications which can be used to enhance the learning experience. By combining traditional methods of instructional delivery with innovative tools you can create courses that keep students involved and interested. For example, instead of simply providing learners with print-based documents why not try adding a video lecture or a podcast? Likewise, rather than confining all discussion to a VLE-based forum, experiment with synchronous sessions via chat software such as Skype.
Keep learners involved with a class wiki, blog or website that can be added to by every member of the group. Or set small group activities that can be worked on collaboratively via online tools.
Keeping it varied can make course participation more enjoyable for everyone. Just be careful not to be too innovative. Not all of your students may be familiar with Internet technologies. Some learning tools could also have technical requirements that make them unusable for students on older computers, dial-up connections or certain operating systems or browsers. Give learners time to become comfortable with standard course tools and always provide alternatives if using any technology that could exclude members of your group.
Implementing best practices for online learning in your course design and delivery is a great way to ensure that each learning experience is effective for your students. It also reduces stress for you by allowing you to focus on teaching rather than constantly dealing with student worries and problems. If an unexpected difficulty does arise, you will have time to focus on resolving the issue.
Salmon, G. (2002). The five-stage framework and e-tivities. E-tivities. The Key to Active Online Learning, London: Kogan Page: pp. 10-36.
Rovai, A.P. (2007). Facilitating online discussions effectively. The Internet and Higher Education 10(1): pp 77-88.