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22 Secrets from the Most Successful Online Educators

Posted on Tuesday October 2, 2012 by Staff Writers

The fundamentals that define a great teacher don’t differ much whether classes are taught in the online setting or off, but there are certain things that need greater emphasis and gain greater importance when a teacher is working with students who aren’t in a traditional classroom setting. Knowing how to highlight these things to help students reach their potential and get more out of a course is what separates online teachers who are good from those who are great.

While that might sound challenging, the reality is that many of the things that make the best online educators so successful aren’t especially strange, shocking, or even all that revolutionary. Even better, many of these educators are willing to share their secrets and to help other teachers moving into the online forum figure out how to adapt their teaching strategies to the online world. Read on to learn what it takes to excel at teaching online and gain a new understanding of what really separates great online educators from the pack.

  1. What students can teach each other is just as important as what the professor teaches.

    Joan Goloby, a communications professor at Endicott College who has taught online courses for more than 12 years, offers this as her No. 1 tip for teaching online. She believes that peer learning is one of the biggest assets of online education, and that professors working in the online environment should capitalize on it. Instructors should assume the role of facilitators and should help students start conversations, share experiences, solve problems, and help each other through the course material. This, she says, creates a richer and more engaging online experience for students.

  2. Online should never mean easy, for teachers or students.

    While online courses might have a reputation for being easier and less rigorous than their offline counterparts, Goloby argues that that shouldn’t be the case. Instead, high expectations should be set from the beginning and students should be told just how much time and involvement they’ll be expected to put forth to be successful in the course. Yet high standards aren’t just for students. She also states that teachers should understand that online courses will take much more time to develop and facilitate than classroom courses. A willingness to commit to putting in that extra time is a big part of what defines successful online teachers.

  3. Giving thoughtful and regular feedback is essential.

    Another critical element to online teaching success is feedback. Professor Goloby believes that feedback and assessment in an online course should be continuous, because, just like their in-class counterparts, online learners crave recognition and comment. In fact, many students find this kind of engagement to be even more essential to feeling successful and recognized in the online environment. She advises online instructors to give students thoughtful and regular feedback throughout the course. If there isn’t time for a lengthy response when a student emails or messages, then a response should indicate a later date at which this feedback can take place.

  4. Decide how you want to communicate with students.

    There are many avenues for communication available to instructors working with students but it’s critical that the right one is chosen for a given type of information. Some communication with students should take place in discussion forums, while other conversations are best to have in a private email. Using a variety of methods to communicate and experimenting with which works best for a given group of students, is important for online education success, according to Kristen Betts, an online educator at Drexel University.

  5. Understand that it’s not just a day job.

    One of the keys to excelling as an online teacher, according to West Texas A&M professor Richard Rose, is understanding that being an online educator isn’t the same as working a 9-to-5 job. He believes that being an online educator is much more a lifestyle than an occupation. Students can run into trouble and need guidance at any time of the day, meaning sometimes the an online educator’s workday won’t end until 10 or even midnight. Those who are really committed to teaching a successful course don’t make students wait until it’s convenient for them to answer urgent questions, and instead respond as soon as they can. This doesn’t mean educators have to give up personal time, but it does require a fair amount of flexibility and a willingness to stretch work hours well outside of the traditional boundaries.

  6. Be proactive about course management.

    As an experienced online educator, Lawrence Ragan knows a thing or two about what separates a successful teacher from one who struggles in the online environment. One of his key strategies for success is practicing proactive course management. This includes monitoring assignment submissions, reminding students of upcoming deadlines, and making course progress adjustments when they’re needed. How much or how little of this kind of course management will need to be done depends heavily on the needs of students, but Ragan advises that online educators will be more successful, regardless of the experience or dedication of students, by putting greater emphasis on this in the early weeks of the course as students adapt to the new responsibilities of online learning.

  7. Establish patterns for students.

    While online learning offers a great deal of flexibility, Ragan also advises that it also have a set and repeating structure to it. This can help instructors to prepare materials and can also be beneficial to students who will know what is expected of them week after week and can more easily arrange their non-course activities. Over the course of the semester, this sort of scheduled activity creates a rhythm that can make it easier for students to build time management skills that will help them to succeed.

  8. Have a contingency plan.

    Whether the course management site decides to crash or you get unexpectedly ill, there may be times during an online course when the usual rhythm of things will be interrupted. These occasions can be far less disruptive to students if an instructor has a plan in place for these kinds of unexpected events. Ragan believes that online instructors must have a plan for how they’ll communicate changes to students or have a person who may be able to step in for them or act as an emergency contact should something serious take place. This reduces stress for both the instructor and the students and ensures that online courses will operate with limited hiccups regardless of any unexpected events.

  9. Think before you write.

    In the online environment, lack of context, tone, and facial expressions can mean that some things don’t translate how they should. As a result, misunderstandings and misinterpretations are common. While there is no way to absolutely ensure that a message will be received as intended each time you communicate with students, Ragan advises adopting a policy that requires instructors to “think before you write.” He states that not only should communications with students be clear and concise, they should also be read before sending or posting to make sure that there’s little room for misinterpretation or for students to find them offensive. It’s not a foolproof method, but it can help to avoid some of the most common problems with communicating in the online environment.

  10. Help students track their progress.

    Without information about their progress and feedback about where they’re going in the class, most students in an online course will feel pretty lost. As a rule, Ragan believes that student assignments and tests should be returned within a couple of days and grades should be posted online as soon as the instructor has them available. It’s also important to touch base with students throughout the semester, especially those who are struggling or may need a little more encouragement to push themselves to their potential in the course.

  11. High-quality course materials count even more online.

    One of the most important things to remember about teaching a successful course online is that content quality counts, perhaps even more so than it does in the traditional classroom environment. From editing errors to broken links, course material needs to be of the highest quality to avoid any confusion with students and to ensure that they have access to the best possible resources for learning a given topic. In order to develop course materials that are in line with this ideal, Ragan advises focuses on three key areas: content accuracy, instructional design, and systems performance. Each plays a critical role in determining the online learning experience, and should be addressed when necessary to maintain a high-quality course.

  12. Emphasizing active learning.

    Encouragement of active learning was one of the traits found to be central to successful online learning by a study conducted at the University of Central Florida. Active learning is a model of instruction that puts the responsibility of learning on the learner. While instructors can be facilitators of this process, students should understand that they will get more out of the course and achieve a better grade when they take responsibility for their own learning. While this can be true for any type of course, it is especially important in the online forum because students aren’t being monitored face-to-face.

  13. Let students get to know you as a person.

    One of the traits of a successful teacher, as defined by Ken Bain in his well-known book What the Best College Teachers Do, is building rapport with students. A key element of building this relationship is allowing students to see you not just as a professor, but also as a person. According to a 2011 article in the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, this is also an incredibly important element of finding success in online education. In fact, it may be even more important than it is in traditional classrooms, as the remote environment can sometimes feel isolated and students who have closer relationships with their instructors are less likely to feel lost or unsure and are more likely to ask for help when they need it.

  14. Get to know your student population and their needs.

    Connected to the establishment of a rapport with students is another key element ascribed to successful online educators by the Journal of Online Teaching study: the best online teachers get to know the needs of their students. Understanding the student population allows an instructor to best determine how much or how little help they need and to tailor lessons and feedback to those needs. Some students may be struggling with work, family, or financial issues and may need more motivation and support. The report quotes Ken Bain’s approaching to college teaching, stating, “You don’t teach a class, you teach a student.” That same sort of individualized approach is just as critical in the online environment, if not more so, than in a traditional classroom.

  15. Keep students motivated and engaged.

    Much of the interaction in online classes happens in discussion forums and chatrooms. While students can and should be allowed to communicate with each other without the constant supervision and encouragement of the instructor, the instructor does play a key role in helping students get the most out of these experiences. The Journal of Online Teaching research suggests that teachers should ask questions in these settings that will help to get and keep students interested in the subject matter. Asking questions that facilitate reflective thinking, collaborative learning, or knowledge building can be especially helpful.

  16. Be present.

    Dr. Judith Boettcher has been working with online education since the early 90s and has written numerous books on the subject of online teaching, making her a bit of an expert on the subject. In her “Ten Best Practices for Teaching Online,” her number one tip for success is for educators to be present at the course site. That means using communication tools, participating in discussion forums, and generally being a daily presence for students. Dr. Boettcher believes that this helps to facilitate bonding with students and ensures that they’ll feel supported in their studies. The most successful online educators, she says, set virtual office hours and make it very clear from the start of the course when and where they’ll be available to students.

  17. Ask students for feedback.

    While reading course evaluations at the end of the semester can be useful, far more so is getting feedback from students while the course is actually going on. Instead of waiting until it’s too late to change things, this allows online teachers to make adjustments as the course is going on, which can be far more beneficial to students. This is another of Dr. Boettcher’s key ways to build a more successful online course and she advises to ask for feedback as early as week three of the semester.

  18. Ensure that course expectations are very clearly defined.

    Students should know from the outset of the course how the instructor will communicate with them and how much time they should be spending on the course each week, according to guidelines for success laid out by Dr. Boettcher. Every course site should lay out exactly how students are expected to communicate with one another and the instructor as well as the specifics of the activities and assignments they’ll need to complete on a weekly basis. Setting this out at the beginning of a course and making sure that its readily available to students will reduce confusion and allow students to figure out how they’ll fit the coursework into their lives.

  19. Be willing to use a variety of different learning methods and tools.

    The online environment provides the opportunity for instructors to employ a wide range of teaching and learning tools and methods. Being open to a wider variety of these can help to keep students engaged, advises Dr. Boettcher. For instance, she suggests allowing students to work both independently and in groups, and making use of online tools that allow for both synchronous and asynchronous activities. Each of these activities may require different tools, from chat rooms to quizzing programs, so instructors need to be both willing and able to employ a variety of methods throughout the course to keep students learning and advancing.

  20. Know the online learning platform in and out.

    It shouldn’t be surprising that research at the University of Illinois has defined this as one of the key traits an online learning facilitator will have. Online teachers should have extensive knowledge of the tools used in delivering online programs, the methods used to communicate with students, and the course management systems used to bring everything together. Being comfortable with these technologies, or more desirably proficient in them, allows educators to spend less time thinking about them and more time focusing on the content of the course, as well as providing a valuable foundation for developing innovative ways to use these platforms for learning. In addition, it can make instructors a better resource for students who may struggle with learning to use these online tools.

  21. Be willing to revise and refine your lessons.

    Even experienced online educators need to be flexible when it comes to a willingness to revise and refine lessons. Certain groups of students may need additional support or information may just need to be presented in a different way for some students to really understand it. While a total overhaul isn’t necessary, online instructors will find greater success through adapting course materials to the needs of students, not forcing students to adapt to the needs of the course.

  22. Online learning may be remote, but it shouldn’t be solitary.

    Perhaps the most important secret to success as an online educator is that online education shouldn’t be a solitary endeavor. Students may be working remotely from homes, libraries, or workplaces, but they should never feel like they’re alone in the online learning process. Support from instructors and other students is critical for success. There are a variety of methods to achieve this, and each course should use them to adapt and respond to the needs of students.