Are you teaching online classes or plan to in the near future? Do you have a set of practices you follow to prepare yourself for teaching, to become highly effective?

Educators have discovered online teaching can be exciting, rewarding, frustrating, demanding, and challenging all at the same time. The opportunities for new online instructional positions are becoming fewer now because of the number of instructors who are interested in teaching and the process of acquiring an adjunct position has become very competitive. For example, it is not uncommon for someone who is highly experienced and educated to find it challenging to obtain new assignments.

What should you do while you wait for your first (or next) online teaching opportunity? The best answer is to become prepared for the role by learning about the essentials needed for teaching in a virtual environment. There are best practices that every online instructor needs, which will allow you to become prepared once you are familiar with and understand how to apply them.

The work of an online instructor is measured by contractual facilitation duties and end-of-course evaluations, along with periodic classroom reviews. However, meeting the minimum instructional expectations does not ensure you are effective with classroom management or creating optimal classroom conditions which promote learning. It is important to have a positive mindset and disposition about your role as an educator, feel comfortable working in a virtual class, have the time available to devote to your students, and be skilled in managing a class while coaching students towards meeting specific learning objectives. It is possible to become a highly effective and engaging online instructor by adopting common best practices which are student-focused.

Online Instructional Basics

An online instructor must manage their time efficiently and have a well-developed schedule as a means of completing the required facilitation tasks on time. The two components of classroom facilitation that require the most time throughout the entire week involves participation in class discussions and providing meaningful feedback. If you wait until the end of a class week to begin to work on your instructional duties it can be easy to find yourself overwhelmed and likely to experience stress, along with potentially missed deadlines. The unfortunate side effect of reaching this point is that it will show up in your attitude, the tone of your posts, and the quality of your involvement, interactions, participation, and feedback – all in a potentially negative manner. Your students will quickly pick up any hints of stress and frustration and this can cause students to disengage from the class.

There are instructional basics that are first determined by the faculty contract you are required to sign, along with any other documents such as a faculty handbook. There are specific requirements concerning the number of days you are expected to check into the class and post participation messages, timelines for completing feedback and responding to student inquires and questions, along with other mandatory tasks. It is extremely important for the development of your position with the school to read and re-read the required policies on a regular basis to remind yourself of the general expectations.

It is also important to read updates that are communicated to faculty, whether by email or through the faculty website, so you remain current and are not taken by surprise when changes are implemented. You will receive periodic class reviews and audits that will help to improve your instructional practice, and you need to be open-minded to the feedback so you are able to reach your full potential as an educator.

Another basic aspect of your instructional strategy involves the expectations you develop for your students for their performance and involvement in class. It is important to communicate what you expect, whether it is noted in the syllabus or a classroom post. Try to avoid holding your students accountable for something you believe they should do if it isn't obvious to them. You can provide clarity about the learning activities and assignments, taking into consideration specific elements that you want to emphasize. For example, if you are teaching an undergraduate class and students are just starting to learn a formatting style, clarify the expectations and provide a sample paper template or other resources that provide guidance. It is helpful to establish high expectations for your students, provided those expectations are attainable, and you offer constructive feedback and support.  

Online Teaching Challenges

The initial challenge for new online instructors (and students) is making a transition from interacting with others face-to-face, with the benefit of visual and verbal cues, to digital communication. While some students may equate interactions on social networking websites with proficiency in communication through a technologically-enabled environment, there are some distinct differences. One of those differences is related to communicating in complete sentences and articulating your thoughts clearly and concisely, instead of relying on text speak or short, abbreviated statements. In addition, exchanges and messages through status updates or other online posts generally do not require the use of proper spelling and grammar. With time and practice any educator (or student) can become proficient with this form of communication. An instructor has the greatest responsibility to engage students and help them become acclimated to the virtual classroom.

Another perceived challenge for online instructors is the distance factor as the belief is that they are at an immediate disadvantage. A common misconception is that you cannot help students if you cannot see them. I've found through my own teaching practice that an online instructor has a potential for more interactions and involvement with their students. Most online classes have a built-in discussion activity and instructors are required to provide substantive, meaningful feedback. This can help to engage students in the learning process and establish productive working relationships.

The level of commitment and dedication made by an instructor will ultimately determine how well the class functions and students perform. It is easy for students to become discouraged and disengage from their class if the instructor is not virtually present and involved with the class on a frequent basis. The more an instructor is engaged in their class, the greater their responsiveness to students will be in the long-term.

Essentials and Best Practices for Online Teaching

There are essentials that every instructor needs for the development of their instructional practice if they are going to be a successful online educator, and these essentials serve as best practices for online teaching.

#1. Supportive Instruction

The first is developing and maintaining a supportive approach to instruction. Any time you shine a spotlight on a student's involvement and performance in class, especially when you are asking follow up questions or providing personalized feedback, it may create an uncomfortable feeling – especially if they believe they have made enough of an effort and do not understand your perspective. This is where support is needed most as the distance factor can create a separation between you and your students, and frustration can lead to disengagement.

Your support is necessary to help promote a growth mindset or one that involves a willingness to participate in the learning process and persist as challenges arise. Students need reassurance from their instructor as they work towards meeting the required objectives and developing the required academic skills. They have to learn to be productive and establish both habits and behaviors that allow them to succeed. Your encouragement can make a difference when they are faced with challenges. They will either persist and continue or quit and give up. Your support can also help to bridge the distance gap.

#2. A Positive Instructional Presence

The second essential requirement and best practice for online teaching is the establishment of a positive instructional presence. You must be readily available and accessible for your students based upon whatever conditions you can establish and the time you have available. For those instructors who are working as adjuncts, they will likely have other responsibilities to balance and an ability to log onto the classroom or check email may be limited during the day. However, you can establish a working schedule and communicate your availability to your students.

It is helpful for them to also know the general time frame you have planned to answer emails and student questions, and when you may be available for direct contact through office hours, chat, phone, or other options that you have provided for them. Your active presence is also needed to assure students you are in control of the class and aware of the conditions of this virtual environment. Your involvement also has another effect, you are humanizing the learning experience for students and this will help them feel a sense of belonging to a community of real people rather than a collection of student identification numbers.

#3. Mastery of Your Academic Skills

The third essential requirement and best practice for all online educators is developing mastery of their own advanced academic skills. As a faculty peer reviewer I have observed poorly written and formatted discussion posts and student feedback, which does not necessarily interrupt the flow of the class; however, it creates a possible negative perception among students. This is especially true for those students who are struggling with the development of their own academic skills and they observe numerous errors made by their instructor.

If you are not confident with your writing skills or the required formatting style, seek out professional development workshops and classes. You could also find supplemental resources and for the materials you find are helpful, share them with your students. I'm certain they will appreciate the additional assistance.

#4. Course Preparation and Ongoing Development

Another challenge related to time management is course preparation, which occurs if this is the first time a class is being taught or the first time an instructor teaches a class online. It is imperative that the materials are thoroughly reviewed as that information needs to be utilized as a knowledge base during class discussions, along with all learning activities and written assignments. If you haven't read the materials the class discussions may not be as engaging as they have the potential to be and it may also be difficult to provide a thorough assessment of the written work submitted by your students if they have based their perspective on the assigned materials.

Students look to what you post and what you state in your feedback to guide their comprehension and analysis of the course topics. If you aren't prepared it could result in a missed learning opportunity. Being informed and prepared means you are knowledgeable about the course topics and ready to guide the learning process.

#5. Cultivate a Love of Learning

Another essential requirement that is critical to your work with online teaching is cultivating your own love of learning so that you can inspire your students. It would seem that this should be a natural characteristic of an educator; however, it can be easy to make this a low priority when there are many other demands made of your time for facilitation responsibilities and classroom management. One method of cultivating a lifelong learning approach is to have an intellectual curiosity about the subject you teach and conduct ongoing research to find sources that add to your knowledgebase and can be shared with your students.

A love of learning may also inspire you to write and perhaps publish blog posts or articles related to your area of specialization and professional interests. Whatever avenue you pursue, continue to be curious and find resources or associations that cause you to grow professionally. All of these options will allow you to increase and leverage your knowledge and expertise.

Be an Example for Your Students

The most important aspect of becoming prepared to teach online and excel as an online educator is to establish a high standard of excellence for your work and hold yourself accountable for the responsibilities that come with this position. Above all you must establish yourself as an example for your students, as someone who is fully engaged in the learning process, actively participating, concerned with academic integrity, always posting well-crafted messages and documents, and skillfully managing your classes.

You want to teach students the value of education and the powerful potential of distance learning through your interactions with them, the value you add to the class, and the manner in which you guide their development. The level of your involvement will influence how your students perform and respond to this virtual class environment. Follow these best practices as an important aspect of your instructional practice and you will establish a rewarding and meaningful career for yourself.

About Dr. J

Dr. Johnson has worked in the field of higher education and distance learning since 2005. He specializes in distance learning, adult education, faculty development, and online teaching. Dr. J's roles included Chief Academic Officer, Dean, Faculty Director, Faculty Development Manager, Dissertation Mentor, Faculty Workshop Facilitator, and online instructor.

Dr. J has extensive experience with curriculum development, having authored courses and curriculum for bachelors, masters, and doctorate programs. He also developed a Faculty Performance Model, Faculty Orientation Program, Faculty Training and Mentoring Program, Faculty Professional Development Courses and Workshops, and a Faculty Remedial Program.

Dr. J has a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement, and a Master of Business Administration, MBA. As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference. He has also published over 200 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and career development.

About Affordable Quality Writing

Dr. J founded Afforded Quality Writing in 2003 to offer skill-based resume writing and strengths-based career coaching. Dr. J helps hundreds of clients each year by providing a well-written and highly effective resume, along with instilling in them a renewed self-confidence and sense of purpose.

Dr. J's Featured Resources

Dr. J's new book is available as a downloadable PDF, and as an eBook: Transform Adult Education: Expert Teaching Strategies for Educators

Dr. J also published the following resources:

  • Transform Online Teaching: Expert Strategies and Essential Resources Every Educator Needs
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