Looking at the pros and cons of remote learning often leads to rumination on the pitfalls of not being in a classroom. A more useful activity would be to assess the various innovative online teaching methods that have proven effective and to review an assortment of pertinent considerations that have come out of educators’ learning over the past several years.
There are an array of benefits to online learning, including possible advancements in retention, accessibility, and personal student preference. These stem from thoughtful applications of technology that take advantage of the new affordances offered by digital platforms. Some of the most useful information on these topics can be found in this quick-view guide to successful online teaching.
Online Course Organization and Class Management
In person and remote learning are different in a myriad of ways, but perhaps the most striking divergence between the two models is the classroom environment. In essence, physical proximity facilitates a community where students exchange dialogues amongst themselves and with the instructor on matters pertaining to the course. The classroom is the primary venue for the course. While virtual classrooms can strive to offer a similar atmosphere, without the familiar presence of the classroom, there becomes a greater reliance on learning management systems (LMSs)–sometimes called virtual learning environments (VLEs). Thus, Brightspace, Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, and other commonly used software fills the venue role previously held by the classroom. Even when in-person classes operate with LMS shadows, the importance of a well-maintained course page is significantly higher in online learning.
Luckily, LMSs are typically simple to operate, and basic adherence to a few insightful tips can lead to a well-delivered course. Visualizing the entire course is the key strength of LMS software, but course content can overwhelm students if the design is not delivered with clarity.
Integrate Digital Media in Course Delivery
Most LMSs strive to structure the course by week or module, containing materials such as lectures, readings, and questions on each. Within these, consider integrating digital media (videos, images, etc) and interactive elements (polls or surveys), both of which are simple to do and work to diversify the course content mediums in interesting ways.
Moreover, it might be useful to consider specific functionalities of whatever LMS you are using. For example, the Brightspace ePortfolio feature acts as a record of development and achievement, and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra is a unique video conferencing platform.
Leverage Data for Learning
Educators may also be inclined to draw from the data gathering dynamics of these softwares. With education practices becoming increasingly data-centric, LMSs have become gathering centres for various student metrics. This goes beyond the traditional student success measures (such as enrollment and retention), and into the realm of more complex student and teacher performance metrics. Data can lend insight to organization and management of the course by allowing educators to understand what parts of the online interface are engaged with and what activity is going on.
Design a Syllabus with Student Comprehension in Mind
Beyond the LMS, it might be worth considering ways to helpfully digitize the syllabus, which is still considered the organizational document in higher education practices. There are numerous ways to use what the online environment offers to provide a document with greater communicative clarity and consistency. Depending on the specifics of the course, there are several options, including:
- Collaboration using Google Docs or other collaborative editing software
- Visualization via an infographic syllabus capturing key points in a visually-pleasing way
- Interactivity supported by a website.
Each of these offers students a new way to organize learning that may help gently sheppard students into the digital learning world.
Given that for many students and teachers online learning is an entirely new experience, educators have been developing new strategies for engaging students in the virtual classroom. To start, disengaged students may have difficulty with completing assigned readings. With this issue, it may be ideal to train students in the reading tools offered by digital texts (highlighting, bookmarking, and annotating), as these activities work to keep students actively participating and alert.
Perhaps the most important tool to combat disengagement is a deep consideration of the student-teacher relationship. Positive student-teacher relations have been firmly substantiated as a key contributor to student retention and engagement. A number of tactics may be employed to encourage connections in the online environment. Keeping your camera on, checking in frequently, and using familiar assignments/activities all work to strengthen the student-teacher bond.
This is not the only important relationship when it comes to student engagement, as peer relationships are just as valuable to the learning process. Encouraging collaboration amongst students is essential.On the whole, strategies for instructor-faciliated discussion often emphasize stimulating follow-up questions, visual representations, and maintaining a distance from the conversation. Take some time to think through a proper application via technology. Features like whiteboards and breakout rooms can become useful additions to the discussion.
Educators often wonder how to grade assessments online and how to grade assessments fast. And how does fast online grading relate to fair grading strategies or rich feedback to help students perform better. To ease the burden that grading can place on workloads, there are several ways to streamline the process to make it more manageable and useful to the student.
Anecdotally, many educators note the optics of online grading; prior to digital assessments, the stack of papers or booklets provided a visualization of the amount of work that needed to be completed. With online grading, it can seem endless. However, here are a few ways increase efficiency:
- “Chunking” or splitting up the stack into multiple, smaller stacks
- Splitting up students into multiple grading groups on an LMS submission page
- A focus on sharing one important area for improvement
- Banking feedback for reuse
- Peer grading may be an option worth trying, as it not only reduces workload but allows students to enhance their learning experience.
Many of these tips are greatly aided through the use of a digital grading tool, like Crowdmark. Crowdmark was built to empower instructors to spend less time flipping through papers so that they can spend more time evaluating students’ learning. Crowdmark’s comment library not only allows comments to be reused within an assessment, but is exportable and importable into any subsequent assessment. That means when lead instructors see feedback that will be beneficial to future students, they can save it to be used again. For richer feedback, comments in Crowdmark are also fully markdown and LaTeX friendly, and graders can place images, equations or even links to additional resources right on a student’s assessment.
Stress and Anxiety
Any guide to online learning would be remiss if it were not to include discussions of stress and anxiety. Both teachers and students have been faced with immense challenges associated with the digital educational world, and strategies to recognize and cope with mental health issues is an important dimension of the online learning discourse.
For educators, it starts with faculty well-being, the overall institutional level of support. Institutional structures dictate workloads and management of academic resources, employee needs, and workplace tasks that correlate to overall wellness. Many studies take into account more holistic views of well-being and look to non-tenure faculty or instructors, who typically do not get the same institutional support.
Despite institutional efforts, educator burnout still occurs. Since 2021 teacher burnout has become widespread. Burnout is a severe issue as it pervades into mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Common signs include fatigue, lack of enthusiasm, difficulty focusing and feeling dread regarding the workplace.
Combating burnout is possible, and involves first recognizing how common it is. Effects of burnout can impact job performance, but this does not make someone experiencing burnout a bad teacher. Mechanisms to avoid burnout include strong self-care habits, frequent breaks, organizational clarity, technological simplification, speaking with professionals, and workplace ergonomics. At a more concrete level, much stress is caused by assessment design, so using different assignment modes (group work, presentations or essays), may break up a sense of monotony.
Thinking Through Online Learning
While online learning may seem daunting, educators can see the benefits of the remote delivery model by breaking challenges into their constitutive parts and finding targeted solutions. A few pedagogical approaches–such as discussion facilitation strategies and digital media integration–will combat the risk of student disengagement. Beyond this, simple tips like LMS organization and efficient online grading can save time and offer students greater clarity. While not all the stress-related issues that arise from the digital world can be combated, this foundation in effective online teaching and learning will put you well on your way to success online.