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Benefits and Challenges of Online Instruction

For those preparing to teach online, the prospect might seem both exciting and daunting. Plenty of instructors have already taught online and have much to share from their experience. Here are some of the benefits and challenges faculty frequently report when teaching online.

Benefits

Convenience and flexibility. Teaching online offers instructors more options for engaging in instructional activities. Online faculty have more flexibility in teaching during non-traditional class times. They can also teach anywhere they have access to the Internet. Some examples include teaching from home or while traveling to a conference.

Getting to know students better. The online environment provides a more comfortable venue for shyer students to participate in course activities and discussions. This increases the pool of participants, the likelihood of varied perspectives, and the richness of course discussion. At the same time, the online environment attracts students who are self-motivated and more likely to initiate conversations, pose questions, and collaborate with their peers and instructor. And, since every student is expected to post a response to the discussion board, the instructor gets a strong sense of his/her students’ understanding of course material.

Greater engagement and learning. In online courses, students’ engagement and learning increases. Since all students are required to participate in discussion threads, every student needs to work through different problems and generate ideas and solutions. Students who typically don’t participate in the face-to-face course are more likely to post to a discussion and interact with their peers in the learning process. Since students have more time to reflect and respond to the instructor’s question, instructors get more in-depth, researched responses from students.

Efficiency. Instructors find increased efficiency in some rote tasks. Some tools in online teaching automate processes and save instructors time. For example, exams taken in D2L’s Quiz tool drastically reduce the amount of time spent grading.

Enriching experience. By teaching online, instructors reach a broader student population that would not have been otherwise possible. Interacting with students from different parts of the country or the world not only enhances the students’ learning experience but also the instructor’s.

Challenges

While teaching online presents several challenges, there are ways to address these challenges to have a successful teaching and learning experience.
Online teaching requires

  • a knowledge and comfort in the use of technology.
  • re-envisioning course goals, activities, and assessments.
  • building a community of learners.
  • facilitating discussions.

Strategies to Address Challenges

Requiring a knowledge and comfort in use of technology. Having a strong understanding of how the learning management system and other Web technologies function enables instructors to leverage instruction in pedagogically sound ways. Take advantage of opportunities for training and workshops, speak with colleagues who are currently teaching online, and request consultations with an instructional designer.

Re-envisioning course goals, activities, and assessments. Going online with a course requires course redesign, and this can take considerable time and energy upfront. Such redesign can be especially successful when started well in advance of the course start date and in consultation with an instructional designer. In many cases, goals, activities, and assessments that work well in the face-to-face class can fall flat in the online environment. This happens when little consideration is made for the unique features of an online course, such as its asynchronous nature, the lack of visual and verbal cues, etc. The goals, activities, and assessments of a face-to-face course can still work online; however, the design and tools used to accomplish this may need modification.

Building a community of learners. Recognize the need to keep in frequent contact with students and understand that various kinds of dialogue accomplish different goals. For example, setting up content-specific discussions provides students with opportunities to problem-solve and demonstrate their growing proficiency in course outcomes. Equally important is designating areas for practical questions because it decreases frustration, gives students an opportunity to help each other trouble-shoot logistical and technical issues while also letting the instructor clarify his or her design intentions. And, setting up discussions that provide a social outlet for students fosters a learning community by creating cohesion among learners.

It’s also important to note that sending private and frequent initial e-mails that encourage/praise stellar work or express concern in an online student’s absenteeism shows students that you are online and monitoring all activity. Such deliberate attempts at contact are especially important in demonstrating effective instructor presence in the online environment.

Facilitating discussions. Facilitating discussions online is not as easy as it may seem. Posting a question and expecting learners to generate responses that resemble an integrated, face-to-face dialogue rarely happens. Setting expectations for how discussions should proceed is the first step in generating in-depth, integrated responses and meaningful exchanges. In any setting, content-specific dialogue can generate disagreements or require clarifications. In a face-to-face class, instructors interject if a discussion is heading in the wrong direction or praise and emphasize well-thought out responses. The online facilitator should expect to do the same. Students need to feel comfortable in challenging each other’s discussion contributions in tactful, constructive ways or asking for their peers to support their claims with research. As facilitators, instructors need to demonstrate how this can happen in the online environment.

Further Readings

Collision, G., Elbaum, B., Haavind, S., & Tinker, R. (2000). Facilitating Online Learning: Effective Strategies for Moderators. San Francisco, CA: Atwood Publishers.

Garrison, D. R., & Vaughan, N. D. (2007). Blended Learning in Higher Education: Framework, Principles, and Guidelines. Madison, WI: Jossey-Bass.

Ten Ways Online Education Matches, or Surpasses, Face-to-Face Learning 

Faculty Self-Assessment: Preparing for Online Teaching, Pennsylvania State University

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