Teaching Online

Teaching online can open up interesting opportunities. Always wanted to teach at UCLA but live in Minnesota? Teach online! Want to moonlight but want to keep your full-time job? Teach online! Don't have your PhD yet but want teach postsecondary classes? Teach them online!

The “take it anywhere” and adjunct-friendly nature of online teaching means flexibility with where you can teach and getting started even if you’re not sure you want to be a professor full time or if you’re still working toward earning your doctorate (and we all know how long that can take).

Of course, there are some drawbacks: being able to take your job everywhere means that work tends to follow you around. And as students get used to the flexibility of logging in whenever they want, you may find yourself grading and offering feedback at odd hours.

There’s also the matter of the system learning curve. It’s not easy mastering new technology — especially when your work depends on it. But once mastered, taking your teaching skills digital can give you flexibility to travel, a great part time job option or simply a change of pace from your classroom experiences. Here’s what to know about teaching online.

Online Educational Technology

What kind of technology goes into online learning? Most learning management systems (LMSs) used for online courses simply require a good Wi-Fi connection, a laptop with a webcam and keyboard, a set of earbuds and, depending on the program, a phone to dial in.

Educational technology has adapted quickly, enabling online programs to be better than ever for 21st-century learning. Built-in cameras and microphones in our computers, the ability to quickly and easily watch video, “Web 2.0” structures that allow for discussions and exams — these are all basic technologies that most people have access to, and the best online master’s degree programs should be putting these technologies to use.

A strong online program should have the following:

Virtual Live Classes

The earliest forms of online learning were fairly “static”; much of the course content was in writing, and even the few videos or other interactive content were all designed for individual use. Now, an engaging online program can and should have live classes that facilitate real-time discussions on a high-quality, easy-to-use platform.

Live classes give students the ability to:

  • Listen to the professor in real time and interact with other students as the lecture happens.
  • Be visible via webcam (which holds students accountable to paying attention and engaging in the lecture). As with real-life classes, participation makes for better online learning.

Live classes also tend to keep class sizes limited because it’s easier for students to participate with fewer than 15 or so people per session.

Another important capability is the ability to “break out” into smaller groups for discussion. You may think group projects are relegated to in-person classrooms, but a good LMS should allow for instant, randomized creation of small groups for discussion.

A Good Learning Management System (LMS)

Online courses are made possible through LMSs, which are the software application platforms that deliver educational technology content. That content should be diverse, including videos, charts, slides or files of the professor’s live session notes and other media, like links to reading material or outside media.

Because an LMS is also used for live sessions, a good learning management system is key to making things easy for the professor, who will need to quickly and clearly share media without too many technical issues. Students, too, will want a simple, reliable system for contributing their own notes, discussion threads, and most importantly, tests and assignments.

Familiarizing yourself with the learning management system (LMS)  platform you’re using is the best way to make sure you’re taking advantage of all that online learning has to offer your students. Not only will you reduce mistakes and fumblings in working with the system, you’ll learn ways to save time, add variety to your lessons and get insight that’s just not possible in a traditional classroom. A few components to focus on:

  • Identify the most common technical issues.

Don’t be shy when working with your course creators: Find out the most common issues, technical or otherwise, and they can put together a list of fixes you can draw from to help students experiencing problems. You should also have tech backup to whom you can refer students—make sure you get that phone number or email address too, and save yourself a struggle with tech issues that may be someone else’s responsibility.

  • Discover platform hacks to make learning and discussion more efficient.

Ask your course creators if the system has special tools and functions. Is there a way to simultaneously poll all of the students to gauge their understanding of a topic? Can students type thoughts or questions into a chat or discussion while another student is speaking and save time on the additional verbal back and forth? You don’t want to discover special capabilities halfway through a course!

Interactive Course Content

If you’ve ever sat through hours of lectures with only a few page-turns in your textbook to entertain yourself, you’ll appreciate one advantage online learning has over brick-and-mortar classrooms: interactivity.

Online classes have evolved, and simply reading assigned content is a thing of the past. LMSs should allow for quizzes, discussion questions, and real-time features, like chat, to keep conversations lively and learning active.

The best online colleges will make content interactive whenever possible to help you learn or to recognize what you’re not quite understanding yet.

Tech Support

Navigating a technical platform may be most people’s biggest fear about online learning. If you’ve never been technically savvy (and really, most of us who aren’t IT people don’t seem to have that magic force field that compels tech to behave), computer-related issues can be a real concern.

Even beyond issues with the LMS, your own computer may act up, thwarting access to live sessions, submission of assignments or proper display of content.

Good programs understand this and provide their own tech support staff. This resource is also available to professors, who will want immediate help should their PowerPoint presentations crash during class time. Removing this burden from teachers allows them to focus on their lessons, while students can rest easy knowing there’s help for any issues they may encounter.

Mobile Access

For working people — a large percentage of online users — the ability to access content offline can make all the difference in making going back to school a real possibility. Being able to watch a lecture on a lunch break, the train ride home or even while traveling for work can be a huge benefit, and one that the best online programs should offer.

Adapting a Curriculum for Teaching Online

Online teaching requires special considerations. You may find that much of what you’re used to telling students verbally now needs to be translated into text. You’ll also want to know what technology options are available to make sure you’re taking advantage of your options: Are timed quizzes available? Does your learning management system (LMS) allow links to YouTube? Can students video themselves answering discussion questions, or does their homework have to be written? Beyond knowing the ins and outs of the LMS you'll be using, here are some ways to ensure a successful adaption of your curriculum:  

  • Understand your school’s process for course material creation. 

Depending on the program you’re working with and the system they have in place, you may have resources available to you for adapting your in-classroom material to an online environment. You may be asked to divide what you’d normally teach in daily hour-long classes into 10 or 12 1.5-hour live sessions with about 20 minutes of “asynchronous” material (i.e., learning materials your students engage with on their own time, like homework).  

  • Prepare homework and reading materials accordingly.

Remember, you won’t need to pass out papers or limit reading assignments to what’s in textbooks. In an online environment, you can link students to online journals, YouTube tutorials, TED Talks, blogs — whatever you find interesting and helpful.

While communicating with course material creators, explain why you teach material the way you do. They’ll need to know the “why” just as much as the “how” to help you translate verbal lectures into interactive course content, like videos, slides and exercises.

  • Get answers from experienced online teachers.

Chances are someone’s taught this class before you, and you may be able to use their existing asynchronous content. How will you design your live sessions to coordinate? Will you use new resources or assign different homework? Make sure you’re aware of what you’ve already got to work with before wasting effort.

Few people — even online course designers — are aware of what it’s like to teach online courses the way that teachers who teach online are. Ask your burning questions and get tips and tricks from other teachers in the program, or consult with teachers at other schools who use the same LMS technology.  

  • Vary assignments for all learning styles.

With online learning, it may be more difficult to get to know students’ learning styles on an individual basis (this guide to online teaching from NEA can help). Try to include a variety of assignments and course materials to make sure every student has an opportunity to learn in the way that’s best for them. This is another area where knowing your LMS can help you track class performance on different types of assignments and gain a better understanding of how students are learning the material. Keep in mind that some demonstrations involving a whole classroom of people cannot be done when students are all in different places, but you do have the opportunity to include videos and tutorials that may not have been used in the classroom.

  • Understand what your class size means.

Just as with live classrooms, you’ll want to know how many students you’ll be teaching, as it will affect the types of lessons and assessments you’ll conduct. For example, short answer or essay tests may be challenging to grade with large classes, but technology can make things like multiple choice exams even easier to grade than in a brick-and-mortar classroom.

Class size will also shape asynchronous (homework) vs. synchronous (live) course material. Will you have time for students to individually present during live sessions if there are 20 of them in a section, or does your technology allow for breakout groups that can present as one?

Another consideration is how you’ll catch students up on missed classes. Class recordings of live sessions and comprehensive asynchronous content can help students stay abreast of class material, even if they miss a class.

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Communication While Teaching Online

All professors have office hours, and online instructors are no exception. Make sure you know how to help students reach you. Hosting a Google Hangout at the same time every week? Scheduling phone calls as needed? Staying after class with students who have questions? Find out if your program has a policy, or if it’s OK for you to develop your own system for student check-ins. 

It’s important to establish a schedule for the course and have clear expectations, especially in an online classroom where things may feel less formal so that students have an understanding of their responsibilities. It’s a good idea to keep your course in line with your program’s best practices so that you can shape your online teaching according to what has been proven to work.

There are fewer opportunities to give feedback in an online classroom, so it's a good idea to provide feedback quickly when you can. It’s also a good idea to ask for feedback yourself on how students are doing and what they need more of, and pass that information onto course creators so that necessary changes can be made. It can be hard to anticipate just what the student experience will be like for online learners, so asking for input can go a long way in shaping great experiences for future students.

Teaching a Live Online Class

Online classes have traditionally been asynchronous, meaning students engage with the course materials on their own time. But now there are programs that feature live sessions, where the teacher and students meet online for a live-streamed lecture and/or discussion. While this can be a huge advantage for students who stand to benefit from in-class discussions with other students, live lectures and real-time interactions, it can be overwhelming for a teacher who’s conducting an online class for the first time.

If that’s you, your first step to preparing is familiarizing yourself with the technology you need to instruct the class, including all the functions you may need and actions you’ll perform. Do you know how to present a slideshow? Share your screen? Transfer controls to a student who’s giving a presentation? Check with your tech team to be sure you understand how to perform the basic functions of your class.

  • Don’t be intimidated by the process. 

It can take a while to learn the steps, but eventually teaching an online class will become automatic, and you’ll be able to pull from your skill set again and again with every new class you teach.

  • Seek support. 

Many programs offer support for your first class, such as a tech person sitting in on your live session in case you need help. Simply knowing there’s aid if you need it can help you relax and enjoy your first class a little more, so find out if that’s an option.

  • Embrace the flexibility. 

Live sessions mean the ability to teach from wherever you are while still experiencing the student-teacher interaction of a classroom. Learning new technology can be stressful, but focusing on the rewards can make it a little easier.