It would be great if the material offered in the online classroom—posted lectures, textbooks, other course resources, and our feedback on assignments—were enough to give each student the information necessary to understand and embrace all that is being taught. But we know this rarely happens. Rather, we must intervene continuously to explain; clarify; unscramble; and show concepts, ideas, information, formulae, and systems. While doing this may seem easy, to be most effective at student intervention several approaches must be considered.
The online classroom offers a wide variety of tools for intervention: know them all. As course delivery systems—Blackboard, Engage, eCollege, etc.—become “smarter,” the options for intervention become greater. From adaptive learning (the new kid on the block who uses the computer for interactive teaching) to the basic feedback on assignments and emails, courses are offering more opportunities for online instructors to intervene with students so instructors can improve their efforts in the classroom. It's important to know all possibilities for these interventions, so make a list on your computer with an order of use, why each would be used, and when each should be used. This way you'll always know where to go and what to do when intervention is needed.
Post an “I'm here to help you” announcement on day one of class. Yep, the students certainly assume we are there to help them; we are, after all, their teacher. But when students hear from us on the first day of class in an announcement that can be read throughout the course that says in essence we care, we want them to succeed, and we are always available, it makes an impression: it reinforces that teaching equals helping. Give students a list of the possible ways they will be receiving feedback and input.
All intervention must be honest, to the point, motivating, and must tell a story. A large portion of our responsibility in the online classroom is to give students help in becoming better at and more confident in the subject at hand. As mentioned above, there is a wide variety of tools available to do this, but there is also a right way and wrong way to intervene. The right way is pointing out the errors, letting students know why it was wrong, and providing information on how to get it right (along with suggestions of resources to help); sometimes relating the importance of the item to the world of work, to our lives, or for other courses; and to be motivating and encouraging in a wrap-up comment. This comprehensive approach takes more time than a simple “That's wrong—find out how to do it right!” but it results in a much better educated and more satisfied student.
Keep track of students who need the most amount of assistance. Online teaching can be overwhelming at times with the number of students, the many deadlines, the constant barrage of emails and other student notes, assignments to grade, and discussion boards to monitor—it can be easy to lose track of a student or two. But we mustn't. There are many students in our classes who are pretty much okay running on autopilot in the course, but the students who need a great deal of intervention must be watched closely. It's important to be in constant contact with them: the more help they receive, the better for life in the class and life beyond school.
Be quick to recommend a lab, library, or tutor. Universities and colleges with online courses often have highly effective and comprehensive libraries as well as specialized “help” labs (e.g., writing, math, biology, and computer) and tutoring programs. Each of these affords extensive assistance for students, and the one-on-one tutoring (and sometimes the online labs) can offer extended time with a student that it would be impossible for us to give in our online classes because of the number of students in class. It is easy to overlook these resources, but don't: recommend them in general to all in class but also specifically to students who demonstrate a need for one or more in their assignments. These become a wonderful extension of our efforts in the classroom.
Be quick to recommend chapters or section in a text and additional in-class resources. More specific to the subject of the course and to weekly lessons on the subject is a recommendation in assignment feedback to students of various textbook and/or lecture readings as well as other resources posted in the class. Often, these recommendations not only tie in to a future class assignment but also serve well as long-term education in a problem area. Each time this is done there is a simple yet important reaffirmation to the student: “I'm here to help you learn!”
Always employ reality-based education to reach students. It can be difficult for a student to comprehend how to get something right in an assignment, even with an explanation. But when that item is tied to its importance in the larger world of work, the student often better understands the necessity of getting it right and has more internal motivation to understand the concept, problem, component, etc. For in the controlled lab of an online course there can appear to be no end value in an assignment other than a grade, but when the material is made to come alive through its connection to the students' lives beyond the course it is often easier for a student to “get it.”
Don't hover—it's important that students have space to learn. To intervene often is certainly a good thing, but like anything it can be done too much, to the point where the students come to depend more on the instructor than on themselves. We will be their teacher for a limited time. After that they are on their own and thus must be given time to understand and integrate our suggestions and information. The more they do this, the more they will own the material they need to know, and thus the better the chance for them to retain this knowledge beyond the course.
Dive into phone, video, social networking, and audio to intervene. It's the age of constantly evolving technology, and so we are presented with opportunities to intervene that were not available just a few years ago. Certainly, phone calls to students will never go out of style. That personal connection can be a crucial linchpin in helping a student achieve in the course. But also consider audio feedback, creating YouTube-type videos for individual students and the class, the use of tweets and texting for offering help, and developing PowerPoint (and the like) presentations to clarify various course materials.
Keep a paper trail of student interventions. We hope all our interventions will be successful. We expect that all students will appreciate our efforts. But sometimes it's just not going to happen. There will be students who blame us for their low performance in class, students who drop out, and students who feel we could have helped them more. In case an advisor, faculty manager, or course/program chair asks us for our take on these students, it's important to keep track of all interventions given to the students, especially those needing it the most. This includes jotting down dates and outcomes of any calls or other non-paper-trail correspondence with the students. The result: a proven record that shows much was done to help out the students in question.
REMEMBER: Elephants, eagles, and polar bears take great care in watching over their young, teaching them to overcome obstacles and understand their strengths. Should the online educator be any different with students?
Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for 19 years and has a national reputation in the subject, writing and conducting workshops on distance learning, with national recognition in the field of distance education. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his second online teaching text. Please write him at firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions and comments— he always responds!