10 Steps to Becoming a Rock Star Online Instructor

Are you teaching online?  Do you want to teach online?  There are plenty of options available to you today, and thousands of people are already doing it.  However, there are online teachers and then there are rock star online teachers.  If you are going to do it, why not strive to be one of the best?  In order to get you started, here are ten tips.

1. Invest in the art and science of online teaching.

Online teaching is not the same as face-to-face teaching.  There are distinct teaching strategies, communication strategies, and best practices.  There is an entire field of study that is focused upon online learning, and you can learn from scanning some of this research.  While there are certain character traits that remain important and constant from face-to-face to online teaching, there is much that is different.  Getting informed about the research and the many options available to you is critical to your achieving rock start status, and this goes far beyond just learning the technologies.  The technology is a small part of the distinct knowledge.  The good news is that there is a wealth to be learned online through any number of blogs, LinkedIn Groups (like The Online Learning Coach Network that I recently started), Twitter hash tags, and webinars.  Take advantage of them and build your expertise as an online teacher.  You can even earn online teaching certificates from a variety of schools.

2. Initiate contact with your students. 

In other words, do not wait for students to reach out to you.  Contact them individually and collectively throughout the course.  These may be short encouragements, quick tips for success with a specific unit or part of the course, efforts to re-focus discussions or draw student attention to something important, or even sharing relevant news and current events related to the course.

3. Get to know your students. 

This means learning about them.  More than just learning their name, get to know about their background, goals, interests, strengths, challenges and life experiences.  Then you can refer back to these things in your interactions with students individually or as a group.  This builds rapport, respect, and community.  It also allows you to customize your comments to the people in the class. This can be done easily with one or two introductory discussions, through a quick survey that you invite them to complete, or even with a weekly or bi-weekly email message (asking students to reply to a question or two).  If your course design allows for it, you can set up a short learning journal that you ask students to complete weekly, allowing you to get to know them better, and allowing them to relate the course content to their own life and experience.

4. Respond to student emails and questions daily. 

Online learning can be highly social, but it can also feel lonely, especially for new online learners.  It can be disconcerting to sit down, ready to get your work done, realize that you are stuck, and then have to wait days to hear back from the instructor before you can move on.  A quick response, even if it is just an acknowledgement of the message and an estimated response time, can reduce student anxiety while also building positive rapport.

5. Provide students with examples and non-examples. 

When you are an online learner, even the most carefully crafted instructions sometimes leave you with a few question marks.  In these cases, a good example of what you are looking for can promptly clear up any confusion.  Similarly, if you know or expect students making certain mistakes, then warn them about that in advance.  Give them a non-example.  This is an example of something that they should be sure to avoid.

6. Give ample informal and ungraded feedback. 

The first time that students hear from you about their performance should not be in the form of a grade.  Grades are meant to reflect what they have learned as a result of your guidance and support.  if you have not yet given them guidance in the form of ungraded feedback, then grades are really just a measure of what students can do without you.  An easy way to do this is to invite students to consult with you prior to submitting something for a grade.  Or, if time allows for it, you can invite them to submit an early draft for quick and initial feedback.

7. Champion what is best for the students. 

If something in the course is not working for the students, work to get it changed.  In some online programs, the course is pre-developed and you don’t have much flexibility, but you can still submit suggested changes to the school or University.   If the school or University refuses to listen to your suggestions, you remain convinced that it is not good for the students, and you have tried talking to the appropriate leadership about it, then it may be best to consider another University teaching opportunity.  It is, after all, about the what is best for the students.

8. Be loyal to the school. 

Yes, I just said that it is important to be loyal to the students, but it is equally important to be loyal to the school.  If it is a school worth teaching at, then it is a school worth supporting.  When you are reviewing places to teach, look for one’s with a mission, vision, and approach that resonates with you.  There are hundreds of online teaching options, and you want to find a place where you can be true to your own convictions while helping further their mission.  Once you find that place, take pride in your work there, speak about it to people, and join in reminding students about the distinct mission, vision and approach for your school. In essence, become an extension of the brand for your school through your online (and offline) words and actions.  If you find yourself complaining and speaking negatively about the school, then find a different place to teach.

9. Do not over-commit. 

There are people who teach at 5-10 different online schools, even at the same time.  That gives them job security and it may allow them to make much more money.  It does not, however, result in great teaching, and it risks turning students into dollar signs rather than…well, rather than students.  Out of respect for yourself, the profession of teaching and the students who are paying for a good education, please only commit to teaching a number of students that you can serve well.

10. Share student success stories with the school leadership. 

When you see exemplary student work, learn about student accomplishments (in or out of the class), or have a class that is running especially well, let people know about it.  If you are teaching in the business program, for example, then share the news with the dean or department chair.  Or, if you have a direct contact with an office of online learning, you might want to share it there as well.

I’m Seeking Online Mentors More than Online Teachers

I have been involved with online learning since my first online high school pilot in the mid-1990s.  Even in those days, I distinguished between the design of effective online courses and the teaching of those courses.  By separating the two, I soon started to break down the role of online teacher into distinct tasks that can be accomplished by a single person or by a blend of people and technologies.

Eventually, I came to realize that the role of teacher, in the traditional sense, is not especially important in highly effective and engaging online courses.  Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that online teachers are unimportant.  In some ways, I’m suggesting the opposite.  In many content areas and with many learning outcomes, there is great need for modeling and mentoring to take place. It is within modeling and mentoring relationships that people learn to become a practitioner of a given discipline, that they progress toward expertise.  With the exception of a few prodigies, one doesn’t become a great musician without ample modeling and mentoring.  The same is true in many areas of study.  As a result, some of the most powerful lessons learned in traditional classes come from students carefully observing the teacher, sometimes imitating the teacher, as well as getting persistent and customized mentoring from the teacher.  Each of these things are important in the formation and transformation of a learner, but it doesn’t necessarily require a teacher in the traditional sense.

This is where my concern resides with what I see happening in online learning, even in my own online teaching.  Imagine that you are a teacher who believes that your greatest contributions come in the form of presenting new content, facilitating a few class activities, and providing feedback on student papers.  Now put that person in an online course where the content is pre-developed and the activities are pre-determined.  What do you do with your time?  Unfortunately, some decide that their only important tasks are to promptly respond to emails, give a few closing thoughts on threaded discussions, and give good feedback on papers.  I know this from firsthand experience, both as an online teacher and an online student.  This isn’t necessarily bad.  I’ve had wonderful learning experiences in online courses where the teacher did little more than these three things.

With that said, this is where we have an opportunity to fundamentally transform teaching (yes, I intentionally wrote “teaching” instead of “learning” in this instance) in the digital age.  What I am about to suggest is not a claim that this is the only right way to do it.  I see great potential and value in computer-based instruction, self-directed learning environments, peer-to-peer learning, game-based learning environments, highly scalable online learning and a variety of other traditional and emerging perspectives.

However, alongside each of those, I would like to ensure that we also capitalize upon the power and potential of the highly committed mentor in the online learning industry.  What if I enter the course believing that my primary responsibility is to mentor students individually and collectivity with regard to the course outcomes, even the overall program outcomes? How will I spend my time and effort differently?

  • Perhaps I will host real-time office hours.
  • I might create required one-on-one and small group synchronous sessions to workshop ideas.
  • I might experiment with recording audio feedback on work so that I am more likely to offer lengthy narrative feedback that is personalized, includes stories and examples, and gives a more intimate form of asynchronous interaction than comments embedded in a rubric or inserted in a PDF or Word document.
  • I might provide feedback on projects and papers through Skype and phone conferences, suggesting improvements, letting the student work on them, and then having a follow-up meeting.
  • I’m probably going to take the extra work to give students a chance to demonstrate their knowledge orally and not just in writing, given that oral communication is often a key to their performance in the workplace.
  • I’m likely to use lots of ungraded formative feedback and allow the submission of multiple drafts.
  • I’m less likely to grade a test or paper and move on without ensuring that the students can use their performance on the work in order to improve.
  • My feedback will not be solely focused on form or substance, but the student’s progress toward expertise with the area of student…the student’s ability to apply the ideas in real-world contexts (even, or especially if it is a liberal arts course).
  • I will know the students by name and I will strive to be aware of their individual strengths, weaknesses, goals and aspirations.  I will recognize that they often have other life commitments and I will take that into account as I interact with and mentor them.
  • I will simultaneously teach students as individuals and a group.
  • My written and oral communication with them (individually and in online group settings) will be informed by knowledge about them individually.
  • I will carefully monitor student progress and provide frequent encouragements and gentle corrections in an ongoing manner.
  • I will adjust and customize learning experiences, content, and assignments based upon my assessment of what will best help that student progress toward expertise.

In a time where so many people are looking at the promise of massive open online courses, computer-based instruction, automated paper grading, and other efforts at efficiency and scalability, I am looking for a team of people who want to start a parallel revolution in online teaching and learning, one that is driven by the belief that online learning can be high-impact, highly relational, and transformational through the persistent passion and commitment of mentoring in the digital age.  Are you in?