Educators' Guide To Making Online Learning Easier

Part I - Activities that Create an Excellent Online Experience The sudden, unplanned move to distance learning during spring 2020 rocked the world of face-to-face instructors. Many institutions lacked fully formed distance-learning alternatives and/or distance-learning training programs, leaving in-person instructors scrambling during their transition to online learning. Many attempted to recreate the in-person classroom through the use of video technologies, quickly realizing that engaging students in digital learning activities and conducting classroom interactions was very different from the face-to-face classroom. 

What are the qualities of an accomplished online instructor?

Most face-to-face instructors may consider themselves to be an accomplished instructor, but not so much when teaching in an online environment. More and more, we are seeing instructors be resilient during their transition to online learning. Many instructors tend to rely on their passion for teaching as a catalyst for professional learning related to how to capture and sustain the interest of their students while teaching online. So, what are the qualities of an accomplished instructor in a digital learning environment.

  1. Accomplished online instructors can create, enrich, maintain and alter instructional settings to capture and sustain the interest of their students and to make the most effective use of time.
  2. Accomplished online instructors are adept at engaging students and adults to assist their teaching and at enlisting their colleagues’ knowledge and expertise to complement their own.
  3. Accomplished online instructors successfully use a range of the generic instructional techniques, know when each is appropriate, and can implement the techniques as needed in a digital learning environment.
  4. Accomplished online instructors know how to engage groups of students to ensure a disciplined learning environment, and how to organize online instruction and learning activities to allow for students to meet the learning outcomes of the course. 
  5. Accomplished online instructors understand how to motivate students to learn and how to maintain students' interest even when they are not successful.

Motivation and Learning Theories

Social interactions are such a rich part of the learning experience. If instructors solely rely on video technologies to lecture to students online, social interactions will be reduced and students will not be motivated to learn. The face-to-face classroom environment naturally provides many of the key motivational drivers for students such as in-person guidance from teachers. Therefore, it would benefit student engagement and motivation if virtual courses were built on learning theories. Many learning theories are not new. However, we feel that they are important enough to revisit and can provide a starting point that instructors can understand and implement relatively quickly in their online classrooms in order to capture and sustain the interest of their students.

Adult learning theories provide insight into how adults learn, and can help instructors be more effective in their practice and more responsive to the needs of the learners they serve. In attempting to document differences between the ways adults and children learn, Malcolm Knowles popularized the concept of andragogy (“the art and science of helping adults learn”), contrasting it with pedagogy (“the art and science of teaching children”). A comparison of the ways that adults and children learn is presented to assist instructors in being responsive and capturing and sustaining the interest of their students.


Implications for the Online Classroom

  • Because adults need to know why they are learning something, accomplished instructors explain their reasons for teaching specific skills. 
  • Because adults learn by doing, effective instruction focuses on tasks that adults can perform, rather than on memorization of content. 
  • Because adults are problem-solvers and learn best when the subject is of immediate use, effective instruction involves the learner in solving real-life problems. 
  • Because adults are more internally motivated such as self-esteem and worthiness, accomplished instructors create a sense of belonging by making learners feel heard. This could include activities, topics, and examples that students identify with so they feel comfortable in bringing their authentic self to class each day.


Part II Online Instruction - Back to Basics

A Sudden Lack of Structure

The disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have dramatically altered many people’s normal routines, which makes it that much harder to cope with the stress that people are feeling. Many online instructors have quickly discovered that the constant isolation and lack of a normal schedule can be mentally taxing. This lack of structure and routine exacerbates feelings of distress. In addition, there have been instances where campus support personnel and teams have not been available to help instructors learn about and implement online learning, leaving them to improvise quick solutions in less-than-ideal circumstances. Many instructors have understandably found this process stressful.

The second part of this series aims to reduce the stress of online instructors by providing easy and simple strategies that can assist them to teach online in an effective manner. Rather than sharing the impressive bells and whistles of certain digital learning tools, we offer advice and strategies related to select instructional strategies that we know work and serve as a foundation of teaching and learning. We chose this approach for two reasons:

To enhance the skills of online instructors so that they can carefully plan for online learning that includes not just identifying the content to cover, but how to support different types of interactions that are important to the learning process. This approach recognizes learning as both a social and a cognitive process, not merely a matter of information transmission.

To provide a basic set of teaching and learning concepts that online instructors can quickly implement in their courses. We selected basic remote teaching solutions for instruction that would otherwise be delivered face-to-face. These tips allow for online instructors to focus on their behaviors in order to develop habits that they can control as a means for reducing stress and adding a sense of predictability to their day.

Four Basic Remote Teaching Solutions That Can Reduce Stress

Remote Teaching Solution One: Planning

What Is It?


Planning is when instructors formulate a course of action for carrying out instruction over a year, a semester, a course, a week or several weeks, a day, or a lesson. Decisions made by instructors as a plan for instruction have an influence on all aspects of their classroom behavior and, consequently, on the nature of the learning outcomes that result from instruction. Effective online learning results from careful instructional design and planning using a systematic model for design and development.

Why Is Planning Important For Instructors?


If instructors attend to content, instructional materials, activities, learner needs, and goals in their instructional planning, then the resulting preparedness can increase the probability of effective classroom performance.
If instructors plan, then they experience more confidence, direction, and security in their performance in the classroom.
If instructors attend to elements such as the instructional setting (whether it’s a physical setting or a virtual setting), the selection of basic texts and materials, and familiarity with social and academic development of their students early in the year then a framework for future planning can be established for the year.

What Can Instructors Focus On During Planning In Order To Reduce Their Stress?


Effective instructors are experts at goal focusing which is the instructor’s consideration for a general aim or expected outcome of instruction. The instructor should focus on the intended student outcome that should result from instruction both in general terms and in specific terms. For example, the instructor could state:


“My goal is to have this group through ---  by the end of the year.”


“My goal during the first week of this course is to help students understand ----- .”


“The first objective in our course is to describe ---- in order to help students ----- .”


“Students have always known about ---, so today I am focusing on ------ .”  


Effective instructors are able to identify the state of their learners and can indicate what their learner does know (or needs to know), what they should be able to do, and how they should feel. This diagnosis is an important process to planning a segment of instruction. The instructor should focus on sharing statements that focus on student ability or achievement, background preparation, or needs in the course. For example, the instructor could state:


“They understand the concept of ----, but they need to understand the concept of ---.”

“My learners will need to be able to ---- first in order to ----- in Week 4.”

“I have two students enrolled in my course that do not know -----, but they can -----. They have strength in -----, but ---- seems to be a weakness based on ----.”

“My students do not have trouble with ------, but they do have difficulty -----. So, I’m sure that I will be revisiting ----- for additional practice this week in order to follow-up and prepare them for ------.”


Effective instructors are able to cite an order or pattern for a series of activities. The instructor should focus on analyzing instructional activities and break down an activity into its component parts specifying such things as sequential steps, how materials will be used, and instructor/student participation in the activity.
Effective instructors are able to evaluate their instructional activities in order to specify the format of their activities. The instructor should focus on judging the appropriateness of their instructional activity on the basis of specific criteria such as learner state, match with content, instructional format, available time, or other factors deemed important.

How Can Instructors Effectively Plan For Learning?


While we can state with certainty that planning influences classroom teaching, there are very few correlational or experimental studies of the effects of planning on instructor behavior in the classroom or student achievement. This lack of knowledge about the direct and indirect effects of various instructor planning activities or behaviors precludes the formulation of a research-based prescriptive model of effective planning, at this time.

The instructional planning model is a popular formula for instructors to apply during planning which includes:


-- Specifying behavioral objectives.
-- Specifying students entry behavior (their knowledge and skills).
-- Selecting and sequencing productive learning activities to move students from entry behavior to objective.
-- Evaluating the outcomes of instruction in order to improve planning

Despite the popularity of this formula, the most definitive thing that we have learned from research on planning is that the instructional planning model is consistently not used by instructors as a linear model while planning for instruction. This is not because the formula is ineffective; it’s because the order of consideration for the various components and the decisions made within each component appears to be variable from instructor to instructor and cyclical in nature rather than linear. For example, it appears that certain parts of the analysis of content actually occur as an instructor is structuring the activity to be used for instruction rather than as part of a planning component that is exclusively concerned with content coverage.

Traditionally, instructors have been taught to plan using a linear model in which they first state objectives, then specify the students’ knowledge and skills, select learning activities and finally evaluate the outcomes. Evidence is abundant that instructors do not typically initiate the planning process with a statement of goals and objectives, but with a concern for activities, content, learner needs, or materials and resources. Additionally, objectives receive little explicit attention in the planning process of most instructors. The findings of several previous studies continue to be relevant to this day, making them appropriate to reference in supporting this claim.

Brown (1988) found that during planning, instructors’ first considerations were what instructional activities to use and how these fit the schedule, curriculum guides, content, and students’ ability and interest. Zahorik (1975) asked 194 instructors to list their planning decisions.


-- 51% listed the content as their first decision
-- 81% listed instructional activities as a decision but only 3% listed as first
-- 28% started their planning with objectives


Hill et al. (1983) found that instructors used more than one starting point to begin planning such as materials or activities, but they did not start with terminal objectives. Another factor instructors considered in planning was their repertoire or what they have taught in the past.

There is some evidence that planning according to a linear model beginning with a statement of goals may have adverse or unintended consequences. Once instructors state objectives in advance, they strive to maintain a lesson focus that will enable them to attain the objectives they have set. Zahorick (1970) analyzed the behaviors of two sets of teachers, both of whom had been assigned a particular lesson. One group was supplied with a partial lesson plan outlining the content to be covered. The other group was not. Analysis of the results showed that instructors who planned in a more regimented style exhibited less honest or authentic use of students' ideas. Zahorick’s conclusion was that the objectives-first planning model decreases the teacher's sensitivity to the ideas, thoughts, and actions of the learners.

Reflection

Take a minute to think about how you formulate a course of action for a lesson. Consider these questions to get you thinking:

What is the process that you go through?
How did you arrive at this process?
What has influenced the way that you prepare for instruction and how you make decisions?
What is the extent in which you map out specific steps that you as the instructor will take during the lesson?

A Systematic Approach to Effective Facilitation in Online Instruction

A key element of being an effective facilitator is to ensure you keep the principles of adult learning and the assumptions of andragogy in mind.The following are some core elements of creating a dynamic learner-centered environment focusing on the adult learner:

  • Generate learner-centered classroom discussion.
  • Build rapport.
  • Ask questions.
  • Create a collaborative environment and learn together.
  • Challenge students to develop higher-level reasoning skills.
  • Integrate content knowledge and personal & professional experience with course objectives.
  • Guide the student.
  • Encourage students to gather and synthesize information.
  • Empower students' learning.

The adult learner can thrive in a classroom setting where these principles are applied and nurtured.

Facilitating Learner-centered Classroom Discussions

Facilitating discussion can be an art: where to add input, what to add, and how to direct the discussion are all areas facilitators may approach in different ways. Some approaches might work better than others and facilitators often refine their practices over time. One particular approach is the ABC Facilitation Model which consists of three parts to the facilitator's participation messages.

  1. Acknowledge the value of a relevant idea or question from a participant.
  2. Build upon the idea or question in your response by adding additional concepts or perspectives to help expand the topic and examine it more critically. 
  3. Conclude the post with a focused follow-up question that can stimulate additional discussion.

As the facilitator in an assigned discussion starter, instructors should post at least three to four messages that build on the input of participants and help to move the discussion forward. However, the volume of posts will vary depending on the activity level of your group and individual style. 

When choosing where to add your input as the facilitator, look for opportunities to highlight, and build on ideas from the weekly topics and learning objectives. Often, students will mention a topic but not explore it in as much depth or as critically as possible. As the facilitator, you have the opportunity to help students consider portions of the weekly readings or other sources they may have overlooked or not read. Open-ended questions that encourage critical thinking, such as "Why," "How," "Provide an example," and so forth are good stimuli for further reflection 

After the discussion has been going for several days in their classes, instructors will want to move forward to the next topic, tying the learning objectives from the current week into the next week, so they can allow the initial discussion to end on its own. Another helpful approach is to post a wrap-up note summarizing some main ideas brought forth in the discussion and thanking everyone for their input. Below is an example of a wrap up message.

Hello Learners,

This week, you were introduced to Learning Teams. It was a pleasure to see you connect the readings, resources, and your personal experience to this important topic!

By creating a Learning Team Charter, members of a group can establish an agreed-upon structure for their collaborative learning objectives. As you know, the creation of a charter document can help group members make decisions about when and how to accomplish team goals. To accomplish team goals, a number of considerations and potential challenges must be taken into account. Various conditions, resources, skill sets, attitudes, and behaviors must be assessed to create successful outcomes. All team members must share in making the team successful. Naturally, when working in groups, some conflict is bound to arise. Managing conflict effectively and taking proactive measures to minimize conflict is crucial.

The road map for team success is founded in the team charter. As the facilitator it is important that you encourage the use of the Charter and even consider making it a required assignment in Week One or Two, depending on the structure of the team assignments. The Learning Team Evaluation is also an important element of team learning, and is a learning goal espoused by the university in its bachelor, master, and doctoral-level degree programs. This form is helpful for students in evaluating the team experience, voicing any challenges they experienced with member contributions, and identifying improvements for future interactions.

You are encouraged to continue discussing this topic as we wrap up this week. Consider the following questions:

• What was it like to work asynchronously to complete your Learning Team's Charter? What worked well?

• What could have been done differently for a better process and end product?

Build Rapport By Using Proper Tone in the Online Classroom

Conveying proper tone in the online classroom is critical. There are inherent challenges we must overcome when our personalities are communicated through the written word. Facilitators must portray themselves in a professional, friendly, and respectful manner at all times in the online classroom. Communicating in a courteous way and modeling proper tone is the foundation of developing rapport with their students.

Netiquette should be applied and upheld in all classroom exchanges to ensure that professional connections are established. Effective online tone can provide a sense of encouragement and help guide your students to success. Consider the WRITE acronym:

• Warmth

• Responsiveness

• Inquisitiveness

• Tentativeness

• Empathy


As instructors, our classrooms take on a personality based on the tone we set and the environment we help to create. Some instructors insist that higher education needs to be formal while others insist that the informal nature of the classroom helps with student engagement. Instructors will want to be consistent in many areas of classroom facilitation in order for students to experience unique classroom environments. The following elements can contribute to the tone of the classroom:

  • Font (style, color, bold, italic)
  • Use of images
  • Use of technology
  • Use of humor
  • Subject Lines
  • Greetings
  • Coaching/Feedback tone
  • Typos
  • Organization of threads


Back to All Blog Posts
Learn More