Tips for New Online Teachers
Updated: Dec 17, 2022
A common mistake that teachers make when starting to teach online is that they approach the course as they would in a face-to-face course. Yet, the skills required are much different.
Tips to Help
Here are some of my personal tips to help new online teachers smooth out the road bumps during the first term - things that have served me well in teaching online since 2005.
This is a very common problem among online teachers. In online teaching since the course is online that means it is always there, always accessible, and it is very easy to just sign in and check on all the time. The problem is that teachers who do not set boundaries and guidelines for how often and when they will do this may find they are online all the time and spending far more time than they should on it, which eventually leads to burnout. It can also interfere with one’s personal and family life, as it is so easy to sign in at night when one should be taking a break from work and/or spending time with partners and family.
See this link: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/working_home
If you work from home, then set ‘work hours’, such as 9-5pm, and don’t break it. At 5pm turn off the computer and ‘go home’, just as you would with a real job.
Create methods and practices that give quality feedback and attention to students but in an efficient and effective way that maximizes your time. For example, you often write the same kind of feedback, so save it and reuse it over and over.
Offer many ways for students to contact you, but at accounts you can 'close' at the end of the day. Such as phone, email, Facebook chat, IM chat (Yahoo, AIM, Gmail), etc. But, make sure they are all non-personal accounts so that you sign in when you are working, and when you are done you sign out and they don’t have access to you on your personal time.
My strategy: I created special Instant Message (IM) accounts (Yahoo, Gmail, AIM, MSM) just for work and students, but kept my Skype and a second Gmail account just for family and friends and don’t give that to my students.
Summary Treat the job as if you were going to a real office during regular business hours, and make rules about when, how and where to work. Stick to these rules. This will go a long way to keeping burnout under control.
Don’t underestimate the need to become efficient with feedback and student support. In the face-to-face course, you explain things at one time to the entire class. 20 birds with one stone. But, in online courses often there is no lecture (as is common in distance learning), so instead you will get 20 emails and then have to respond to each and this gets exhausting.
If your course does not yet have a discussion forum labeled “Virtual Office” or “Announcements” then create one and put all extra helpful files, tips, writeups, tutorials, etc, here for the entire class, at one time (also email it).
Each time you write up something to help one student, then go to your Virtual Office and post it for the entire class to see. Because if one student has this question, probably two do.
If it is a common question asked by several students during that module, then in the future post your write-up/lecture/tutorial/tips in advance of the start of that module to preemptively strike all questions and save yourself the time and trouble of having to respond at all. Decide, also, if the directions for that assignment or item might not need to be updated so that it is more explicit and clear.
Each time you answer a student’s questions by email, ask yourself if this is a question that you might answer again in the future? If so, write it in a way that you can then save in a file, and in the future just cut-n-paste in the answer.
Save it! Whatever you write up to help students, even just a response to an email, save it! You may use it again in the future, and this way you save time re-writing it.
Make your time work for you, not the other way around. Don’t spend time doing anything that isn’t necessary. Do not give extended and helpful feedback to students who clearly did not spend more than 10 minutes on their 8-page paper.
My strategy: Here is a good trick: For students that severely failed an assignment - I give feedback saying they did not meet the assignment requirements, but that if they email me then we can set up a time to IM or talk on the phone, and then with my feedback they could rewrite it. This way I put the ball in their court. I make them be responsible for following up with me, setting up an IM/phone time with me, and make them be in charge of their learning. Those who email me get very extended help, and I let them redo their work. Those who don’t care about my help nor their grade don’t contact me.
Create a Q&A area alongside your Virtual Office, and encourage students to ask questions and to help each other there. They learn more by what they explain to each other, and this saves you time. Just moderate it to correct any errors or misconceptions.
Have a ‘cheat sheet’ at your desk, with quick references to proper formatting and APA rules (because as the teacher you should be the model of proper referencing in all posts you make), and also lists of numbers and emails for administration, such as the Academic Director, or Student Services.
Create email and file naming protocols, and force students to use it or don’t help them if they don’t. When you are teaching three online courses with 30 students each (100s of students!), and you get an email from a student where the email address is unrecognizable and they don’t put their name or what class, then you waste your time having to reply and ask them who they are. So avoid that.
Save, SAVE, all assignment feedback you use. Put it all into a file and keep it to reuse in the future.
My strategy: I create my grading rubric in an excel file, and then copy it to several more tabs in the same file. The first tab is the original, untouched. The second tab is an A paper. The third a B+, etc. There will be one with feedback on using proper APA, or on having referencing at all (you will get papers with no referencing and no source list!). This way I save myself time. I just cut-n-paste that premade grading rubric with that feedback into their paper, and then personalize it where necessary and adjust it. It saves a lot of time as you will give the same feedback on the same things over and over…save it and reuse it.
Save everything you write up to reuse in the future, and post help to your Virtual Office and email it to the entire class so that all students get it rather than one. Before a module post anything you have already written up that you know students will need.
In face-to-face teaching we have body language and facial expressions that help soften the blow of constructive criticism or feedback. This is all lost in online discussions and feedback. It is very important for a teacher to find their online personality and tone, and to create an online tone that is professional and supportive while still being authoritative.
The tone of the wording used can make all the difference in how a student perceives their teacher’s feedback. See these two examples:
Cold and could be perceived as harsh by the student: "Hello John. I see that you forgot to answer the fourth required question. Be sure to do all the required work. Do that right away please by replying with your missing work here. Prof X."
A warmer and more friendly tone that is supportive yet telling them to pay attention: "Hi John. Nice work on your post. I really like your example about xxxxx, it nicely illustrates xxxx in our book. I noticed that you forgot to answer the fourth question. I am sure that is just a simple oversight, but I would hate to see you lose points for that. So can you please reply to me here with that response today. Let me know if you have questions, and keep up the great job. Prof X"
Emoticons, word choice, and sentence structure go a long way to helping students (particularly younger ones from a generation that uses emoticons regularly) to understanding a teacher’s intent and tone in online communication. See these two examples:
Student may be unsure if the teacher is joking here or not, being friendly or insulting: "Hello John. I see you are a bit obsessed with dogs. Prof X."
By adjusting tone, words and adding in emoticons, the student will be very clear about the teacher’s intent: "Hello John. I see you are a bit obsessed with dogs! LOL. ;) They are cute, so it is hard not to be. Prof X."
See this link for a list of commonly used emoticons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_emoticons
Pay special attention to your online tone, words used, and sentence structure. Use emoticons when appropriate to help clarify meaning and intent. Create your own online personality and tone that is warm, fun, and supportive while also authoritative, in charge and the course leader/topic-expert at the same time.
A supportive learning community is as important in online learning as in face-to-face learning. It is also harder to create in online learning, and therefore dropout rates are much higher in distance learning than in traditional face-to-face courses.
Research shows that students who submit or do some activity connecting them to the professor during the first week of the course are less likely to dropout.
My strategy: I personally put a ‘Welcome to Class’ announcement in my Virtual Office (and email it) telling students to reply to the email so that I know we are connected. For those who don’t reply I track them down and ask why, and say: “I want to make sure we are connected by email so that you get my announcements”.
I have seen other courses where students are required to submit a one-page introduction to the teacher in week 1 via email, or have to complete a ‘Course Scavenger Hunt’ in the first week to make sure they know where things are and that they have looked at the syllabus. Any kind of activity will do as long as it connects the teacher and students in the first week.
Always use the student’s name, and find out nicknames where appropriate and use them.
My Strategy: I ask them to tell me any nicknames they prefer in their course introductions during week 1. I write it down on a list and use them from then on. For each email sent, feedback on papers, replies to discussion questions, etc., always start with their name, as this personalizes the connection.
I read their introductions in week one, and on a list at my desk with their names I will note a few facts: lives in CO, likes dogs, wants to join the army… etc. Then during the course discussions in subsequent weeks, when possible I will try insert some personal item, as this makes the student feel that the teacher knows ‘who’ they are and cares about them:
"Hello John. Good thoughts on the need for more regulation of outdoor natural spaces. I suppose that since you live in Colorado, which is known for its outdoors, this must be of special importance to you. What natural parks in Colorado do you feel would most benefit from a policy proposal such as we are discussing? Why? Prof X"
Stay in regular touch with the students through your Virtual Office and email announcements. At the start of each week a little email should be sent out welcoming the students to the new week and outlining required tasks. Always communicate that you, the teacher, are available to help and answer questions on any of the work. The more you open the door, the more they are likely to feel welcomed and integrated into the online course.
As outlined above, create special accounts for your work hours (Instant chat, etc), and give those to the students. Also, having online Web 2.0 accounts that students can connect with you at is a good way to build better rapport with them.
Example: Use Web 2.0 social tools online to connect with students, this is particularly key in cases of asynchronous online learning where you will never meet them in person. Many teachers choose to keep two Facebooks, for example. One for students to connect with him or her at, and one just for friends and family. While it is forbidden by Facebook to have more than one account, the reality is that Kermit the Frog has a Facebook! Do as you think is best so that you can maintain the clear lines between your personal and professional life. In online learning the students never meet you in person, and being able to connect with you on a professional Facebook, Myspace, (etc) account allows them a chance to know you as a real person. It can go a long way to creating a stronger learning community with them. Just be VERY wary of what you post on any account that colleagues and students connect with you at!!
Connect with students right away during the first week and require they email you or submit something to you. Note facts and information about them from their introductions, and keep it on a list by your computer to pay attention to in the coming weeks. Build a supportive, warm, inviting and open learning community with them through constant communication and sharing of ideas, and use Web 2.0 tools to better connect with your students.
As in a face-to-face class the teacher will very quickly note the different personality types: the know-it-all, the rude/belligerent student, the meek/timid student, the needy student, the independent ‘just leave me be’ student, etc. The first week of discussions is a great place to take note of these items. The student who emails you 10 times in week one with a million questions will be your needy student who will expect you to give immediate support and guidance. Others will prefer you leave them be as they like to work autonomously. Don’t make the mistake of assuming all students want your help. Rest assured, they let you know if they need your help! Note who will need it, and give it to them, and leave the rest unless they ask for it.
Note different personalities in week 1 on your list of names kept by your computer.
If any student has been absent the first week, or worse, the first two weeks, email and call them on the phone right away to talk with them and get them back on track.
Post regular help, tutorials, tips, and lectures in your Virtual Office and email it out to all to try and preemptively give help rather than having to respond to 20 individual emails.
If you note someone being rude in the discussions don’t let it go, as often it just gets worse. Never say anything to them in the public forums. Instead, delete the offending post if it is bad enough. Then reply to the student privately and say something similar to the following, which in my own experience has always stopped the problem immediately:
"Hello John. I wanted to thank you for your interactions at our discussions. You bring a lot of experience and interesting ideas to our talks. I definitely encourage differences in opinion, as differing opinions are the foundation for fun debates and new learning. But, I wanted to remind you about your Netiquette. I am sure it is not your intent, yet sometimes the tone you use in your responses could be perceived as rude by other students. I am sure you don’t mean it, and I know that tone in online discussions is hard due to the loss of body language and facial expressions. So, perhaps review the file on Netiquette posted in my Virtual Office, which has some tips and help on how to have a good online tone, and be sure to let me know if you have any questions about this. We can definitely disagree with each other in the discussions, but we should always do so with respect for each other as well. I would be happy to call you and talk about it by telephone if you prefer. Keep up the great work in class. Prof X."
If a student emails you complaining about another student who is being rude, then reply something of the following (as you should never bash one student to another or share any disciplinary actions with them, just say you’ll speak to them and leave it at that):
"Hello Jane. Thank you for contacting me with your concerns about John. I know that sometimes in online discussions people may seem like they are being rude, and that can feel frustrating. But I have found that usually they really don’t mean it. Remember that body language and facial expressions are lost, and for some it is hard to learn a new style of communicating. I will go and take a look immediately to evaluate the situation, and if necessary will speak with John about it, and I am sure this will be resolved quickly to everyone’s satisfaction. Keep up the great work in class, as your interactions at our discussions are very valuable. Let me know if you have any further concerns. I am always here to help out. Prof X"
The bane of all teachers now that the Internet is so widely accessible. After many years of teaching I have found that stressing out about it does nothing but to up my blood pressure: as we cannot stop it. We can, however, try to circumvent and/or catch it. Solutions:
If your school does not have Turn-It-In (www.turnitin.com), then use Plagiarism Checker: http://www.plagiarismchecker.com/, which is free. Each week select about three random students and submit their discussions. If you find one that has copied something online, then check all their work for all weeks. Submit all papers.
Note: TELL students on day one that you due this, and often that scares a few enough that they don’t do it.
Try to be creative and create assignments, essays, and discussion questions that are very hard or impossible to plagiarize with, thus removing the problem entirely.
Anecdotal example: I was working with some online teachers, and one was complaining endlessly about all the plagiarizing in her course. Yet, I found that the problem actually was from bad course design. For example the following discussion question was asked:
Review the EPA’s website and list some of the toxic substances found in most normal households, then explain if you have these substances or not, and how you would dispose of them. Naturally the students just went to website for the EPA where there were lists of household toxic substances and just cut-n-paste them into their discussion post. And, why should they not? I would too! Poorly designed directions and requirements such as this lead to plagiarizing. Instead create directions and requirements that make them synthesize knowledge, discuss personal views, and integrate facts into their own plans, projects or constructions, and then it becomes harder for them to plagiarize.
When a student has been caught cheating, then often I use it as a ‘teaching moment’ and tell them they have one chance to redo the paper and submit a new one to me (one a new topic), and I will not report them the first time. But I outline the severe repercussions should they do it again. I have found they never do it again (at least not in my course) as they know they will get caught.
Often the problem of plagiarizing can actually be avoided in the first place by well placed and timed warnings about the use of online plagiarism checkers, and also having a well designed course with assignment and discussion directions that require work hard to plagiarize.
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