Tips for Teaching Online

In today’s information age, teachers are increasingly being asked to teach online. Many teachers find that teaching online is very different from the classrooms they are used to, and it comes with its own set of challenges and skills require to be successful. Teachers must do more than simply take what worked in their face-to-face classrooms and move it online. Teaching online requires paying special attention to designing instruction, creating cognitive presence, and supporting students.

Designing Instruction

Teaching online requires an extraordinary amount of planning and developing prior to any student completing the online activities. Teachers who are used to simply walking into a classroom and “winging it” will find that much harder to accomplish successfully in an online setting. Creating a successful online learning experience begins with deliberate application of instructional design principles, beginning with the selection of technology. Generally, you want to keep the technology as simple as possible. Design with the lowest common denominator in mind. In other words, depending on your student population, not all students will have access to the same technology or have the same level of technical expertise. You should also remember alignment…alignment of your learning activities to your learning objectives, and your assessments aligned with your learning activities and your learning objectives. If one or more of those components is out of alignment, it can impede your students from achieving what you’ve set out for them to accomplish.

Creating Cognitive Presence

Cognitive presence refers to the depth at which students interact with the content of the course, think critically about what they’ve learned, and apply it in meaningful ways. For learning to take place, online or otherwise, the brain must physically change. New knowledge must be integrated with existing ideas and understanding in a way that makes sense to each individual learner. One way to create cognitive presence is to provide multiple interactions with the same content. Each time learners interact with a particular lesson or concept from a slightly different angle, they make additional connections and learn a little more. Make sure to plan online activities and lessons that recycle previous content in new contexts.

Inquiry-based projects are another way to increase cognitive presence. In inquiry-based learning, the learners come up with a question and then find the answer. Inquiry-based projects are common in science subjects, where students hypothesize and then test out their hypotheses and draw conclusions based on their tests. However, this type of project can be used in a variety of subjects with enough planning. Inquiry-based projects typically have an “essential question” that guides the research. There is also a task students are required to do in order to answer the essential question and show their understanding.

Supporting Students

Several studies have shown that in courses that do not provide support to learners, students reported feeling isolated and unmotivated, and were less likely to begin assignments and projects on their own. Students need to feel the instructor cares about their success in the course. Additionally, online learners need different types of support than face-to-face learners may need, so it is important to consider your learners and prepare to support them accordingly. One way to support learners is to provide instructions for using technology tools. Most of your learners will probably have sufficient skills to navigate the course materials and submit assignments, but some learners may need tutorials including step-by-step instructions. If your course requires any specialized technology, or perhaps uses existing technology in a new way, you should provide clear instructions on how to use it.

You can also support students by providing scaffolded lessons and activities. The concept of scaffolding in instruction comes from the work of Vygotsky and his Zone of Proximal Development. Essentially, you provide the learners with a structure that builds on what they already know and guides them through new tasks step-by-step, gradually allowing them more autonomy until they can complete tasks on their own. You may need to provide background knowledge to some of your learners that other learners already have. You might want to enlist the help of more knowledgeable students as mentors to help you assist less skilled students as they complete coursework. In short, provide students with the tools and guidance they need to complete their assigned tasks.

Author: Justin Shewell

Justin Shewell holds a Ph.D. in Educational Technology and an M.A. in TESOL. He is the co-designer of Teach English Now!, one of the world's largest online TESOL certificate programs, and the author of "50 Ways to Teach Online: Tips for ESL/EFL Teachers". He runs several websites for teachers, including eslactivities.com, which provides tools for creating BINGO cards, crossword puzzles and other online and paper-based vocabulary activities, and jshewell.com, where he provides articles helping teachers integrate technology into their classrooms and improve their teaching practice.