As an adjunct professor and one who works daily with faculty in helping them understand online education, I have noticed and heard of increasing numbers of professors going missing in action (MIA) while teaching their online course. This is particularly disturbing since engagement is the number one characteristic that faculty must strive for when teaching from a distance.
Being MIA can take several forms. There is the extreme of providing no communication, feedback, or encouragement to students. In this case, the online course becomes nothing more than a self-directed correspondence course. Another form is when feedback is either not constructive (perhaps an assignment is hurriedly graded) or arrives too late for the student to improve in subsequent assignments. How can students expect a genuine learning experience when the instructor does not provide the guidance and help that is so desperately needed in a timely and beneficial manner? Yet another form of going MIA is lack of presence in interactive assignments such as blogs or discussion boards.
So what can we do?
- Set times to “go to class.” I always recommend to my students they imagine their online course as a face-to-face course and to “attend” on a regular basis two, three times a week. The same holds true for the professor. By “going to class,” you can catch up on grading assignments, respond to emails, provide guidance for interactive assignments, and generate meaningful announcements that help keep the students on task. This will also prevent your own falling behind and becoming discouraged.
- Find ways to personalize your course with your presence. Include media such as a welcome video at the beginning of the course, or insert media at the start of each module so that the student can see or hear you, and consider video/ audio feedback for some assignments. In addition, occasionally include a video or audio segment within your announcement section so once again your students can make connection with more than a computer. How does this help you not go MIA? When you personalize your course, the student will sense your presence repeatedly throughout it, and you will feel more invested in the course and more likely to remain engaged.
- Seek opportunities to engage students in creative ways. Like any discipline, teaching online is not something one learns overnight. One professor I know writes personalized emails to two or three students a week with nothing more than a positive affirmation of some task the student performed that week. Another professor responds to writing assignments using a self-recorded Adobe Connect session so that the student can see and hear the critique. He finds this produces responses even more quickly than typing out or marking up a written assignment. Use a product such as VoiceThread to respond to discussion board postings—again, this is another way the student feels you are present by virtue of seeing and hearing you.
- Use discussion boards wisely and often. Despite the calls for instructor-free student discussions, it is wise to intervene regularly, for several reasons. First, just as in a face-to-face course, you can prevent the session from going off topic. Students can quickly veer off point, but your presence helps keep them focused and on task. Second, students will know that you care about what they are saying. They know you will be looking at their responses—responses that can be praised, critiqued, or called upon for more critical thinking. And finally, by remaining active in a discussion board, you can monitor any inappropriate responses. Your presence will certainly alleviate the fear that you have somehow gone MIA.
- Remember that online does not mean off-line. Just because the content, assignments, and assessments are online does not mean that the actual teaching and instructor presence can be off-line. One could have a beautifully designed online course, but with an off-line professor the learning experience will lack the depth, breadth, and richness of a true learning experience. You may not see your students, but that does not mean they do not see you or are not looking for you. Make yourself available through virtual office hours. Once a week, open up a synchronous session using Adobe Connect or a chat function where students may come to talk with you. Better yet, conduct a review session prior to a quiz or exam.
Remember that teaching online is not a spectator activity—it is a participative one!
Steve Dwinnells is director of the e-Campus Instructional Development Center at Eastern Kentucky University.