Recently, it was reported that some schools' open (read: free) online courses would give credits to students who took them—and in some cases these courses have no instructors. There are also online courses in which the participants merely follow the syllabus, take a few tests, and receive credit—but, again, with no live instructors involved. While this trend of the absent online instructor will not wane, there will remain a huge need for online instructors in most courses offered by colleges, universities, high schools, and corporations. Yet how does one who teaches online elevate him- or herself to a plateau where the individual can be considered essential to a school? Extra effort and hard work are simple answers, but the specifics must be embraced. Here they are:
Go beyond all requirements of your school. Nearly all online instructors are given faculty handbooks, formal training, general school requirements, and words of advice (from a faculty supervisor) before teaching an online course. These should be considered as merely starting points for you. Look at each item the school requires of you, and then decide how you can build on it, how you can outdo it, how you can go beyond what is a bottom-line must. Need to post in discussions at least three days per week? Make it five. All students should be given individual “Welcome to the course!” emails at the start of a class? Add on mid-course “So, how is it all going?” emails to each student. The more you give above what is required, the better an asset to the school you become.
Be a true facilitator. Long gone are the days of instructor-centered teaching. It is now—and always should have been—student-centered teaching. The needs of the students are paramount in any online course, and to meet these needs the online educator cannot make dictating, lecturing, demanding, and insisting de rigueur. Rather, these should be infrequent tactics (with lectures posted for students to read as part of their text). The indispensable online instructor must guide, advise, suggest, point out, and build on student assignments, comments, postings, and emails—and always in a positive manner. The online student needs a great coach.
Communicate frequently with students. An online course is stocked with the information that students need to learn a subject: textbooks (etexts or paper), lectures, discussion subjects, and (perhaps) other resources. But these alone make a course two-dimensional. It is the instructor's constant presence that makes this material come alive, turns students' questions and confusion into clarity and comprehension, offers crucial feedback on submitted assignments and discussion postings, and offers suggestions to connect course material to “the real world” and the students' lives. The more an online instructor communicates with his or her students, the better the online learning experience is for students.
Adopt a no-exceptions 24-hour response window. An online course is a 24/7 learning environment. While we do not need to check for student missives every hour, it is crucial to check at least a couple of times per day—and immediately respond when students write. Doing this provides three benefits: (1) The students get timely feedback, and thus they do not have to delay an assignment or posting to a discussion thread, and any confusion on the syllabus, assignments, or other parts of the course will be short-lived; (2) the students know they can depend on the instructor for quick responses, thus making for a smoother and more satisfying experience in the course; and (3) that all-important student–online instructor rapport is strengthened.
Make your assignment feedback invaluable. The ideal student assignment feedback extends outside the course. Thus, in pointing out errors to a student, most feedback should indicate when there is an error, explain why it is an error, and offer information on how to get it right. (You can have a premade bank of assignment comments, and each can always be tweaked based on instructor or student need.) This type of feedback extends the online instructor's teaching far beyond the course, making it far more valuable than something only useful for a higher grade in the course.
Embrace technology. Adobe Connect (and other such live chat/meeting software), updated versions of Microsoft Office and Corel WordPerfect, many “paint and create” software programs, PowerPoint and Prezi, Facebook, and Twitter are some of the technologies available for the online instructor, with new technologies appearing all the time. Using one or more of these in the online classroom (always under the umbrella of what a school will allow) can result in increased student engagement, more interactive and exciting learning, and a course that students want to stick with. Explore software availability on your own and seek colleagues' suggestions—just adding one extra piece of technology to an online classroom can boost the students' overall learning experience.
Motivate, enthuse, and excite. Students feed off the motivation, enthusiasm, and excitement that online instructors bring to the classroom. If instructors are dull or flat, students will react in kind, but with online instructors who constantly motivate their students to improve, who stay enthusiastic about teaching and the students' learning, and who show excitement over what happens in the course, that excitement will be mirrored by the students. Make no mistake: an online instructor's name on the course, constant presence in the course, and communications with students in all areas can be perceived as nothing more than perfunctory gestures if the online instructor is bland. Students should perceive you as truly wanting to be there.
Continually practice reality-based teaching. Students always need to know how what they are learning in a course ties in to their professional and personal nonacademic lives—this reality-based approach to teaching takes any point, any subject in the course and makes it more than words, elevates it beyond information that is needed only for a grade. And a great way to help this teaching strategy is by asking students (through discussion, assignments, and/or individual contact) where they can connect the course information to their personal and professional lives, now and in the future. Students enjoy sharing parts of themselves with the class, so combining the online instructor's and students' efforts in making the course subject matter relevant results in an online learning trip that offers so much more than what students initially thought they would receive.
Seek out ongoing professional accomplishments. Always look to grow as a professional. This obviously keeps you relevant in your field(s) of expertise. But it is important to also look for regional and national opportunities where your reputation as an online instructor can be widely enhanced. Writing for professional journals, penning a book, starting a blog, presenting at a conference, hosting a schoolwide or national webinar, giving a keynote, consulting for other schools or for corporations, applying for grants and professional awards—and being successful—allow the online educator to garner a positive reputation beyond what is earned solely from teaching at a school, thus strengthening the asset potential of that online instructor.
Establish a library of extra resources. Beyond what the course offers, it is important for the online instructor to establish additional resources in one or more sites in the course. These add to the students' learning by offering additional information, new takes or discoveries on older materials, insight into how the course content is being used in the professional world, and helpful items that augment materials in the course. These can take the shape of a webliography, posted articles and essays, videos and audios, and newspaper and journal clippings. Creating this library offers a course that reaches into all the nooks and crannies of what the students are studying, while also exhibiting an online instructor who puts in the extra effort for his or her students.
REMEMBER: The folks who win Oscar, Grammy, and Emmy awards are sought after because they have been judged the best of the best—but they have only reached that pinnacle by doing more than the ordinary, going past what others were accomplishing.
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 to him at firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions and comments—he always responds!