Preparing to Teach Online

As we stumble move closer to the end of the semester, it’s already time to begin thinking about the Spring term. That might seem like overkill, considering it’s crunch time right now and difficult to think about the next semester while we’re still neck-deep in finishing the current one. That’s both the blessing and curse of teaching in higher education: we get a new start every semester–but we have to prepare for that start as well. This is particularly true for those of us scheduled to teach an online course this coming spring; not only is there the regular course prep work to do, but if it’s your first (or one of your first) go-around with online teaching, there’s an additional level of preparatory labor necessary to create the foundation for a successful online course.

Whether it’s building an entirely new course online, or moving a course from face-to-face to online, it can be hard to know where to start. The first time I taught online, I discovered I needed to find the answers to a bewildering array of questions? What differences are there in course design between these two modalities? How is teaching online similar to and different from face-to-face teaching? How do we create an online course that doesn’t just replicate the most ineffective features of a face-to-face pedagogy? There has to be more than just linking videos on Blackboard, right?

What I discovered, as every first-time online instructor discovers, is that presence matters. The students need to feel present in the course, and to see us as consistently present, to engage in the ways that make online learning meaningful. Building this “social presence” is the sine qua non of successful online teaching. We don’t realize how much nonverbal interaction occurs in a face-to-face classroom–facial expressions, body language, and other nonverbal cues0–until it’s absent in an online environment. A lack of physical presence means we have to find other ways to be present with our students, and create the kinds of spaces where they can be present with one another as well.

I also learned that organization, explanation, and consistency are vital to teaching and learning online. Sure, these are parts of any successful course, but in an online environment–again, without being physically present with students to discern areas of ambiguity or questions–it’s important to be proactive in addressing things that could potentially disrupt student learning. Such barriers could include, for example, inconsistent organization, difficult-to-find instructions or informational material, or students being asked to use tools with which they aren’t familiar. Making sure each unit of the course is laid out for students in a similar fashion, or building a conistent rhythm and routine into the course, can help students engage regularly and proficiently with the course material and one another.

So there are a lot of issues and concerns that online teaching bring, and navigating through them can be a daunting task. Fortunately, there are a number of excellent resources available online (naturally) and via the CETL. Here are a few places to start for new (or newer) online instructors:

For effective practices in course design, from the general organizational framework to specific considerations regarding documents and assignments, Oregon State University’s e-campus (one of the largest online educational entities in the country) has put together this handy reference guide. You can complement the guide with this brief overview of the essentials of online course design from Inside Higher Ed. For some specific tips and tricks in designing an effective online course, consult this Rob Kelly article in Faculty Focus. 

Moving from design to actual teaching, one of the most difficult parts of online learning is developing a pedagogy that promotes successful student learning without being in the same physical space with those students. This is a difficult transition, especially if you’re like me and taught face-to-face courses for fifteen years plus before tackling your first online class. The best place to start is in figuring out where you’ll need to focus most intently as you begin teaching online. A self-assessment is a useful tool for this, and you can find an excellent one linked in this Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation page on getting started with online teaching. Some other useful strategies, ranging from creating presence to managing your time and workload, check out this post by Sharon O’Malley in Inside Higher Ed. Finally, the National Education Association produced a brief guide to online teaching that contains several useful suggestions and considerations from the programmatic down to the individual instructor level.

CETL is finishing up a set of online modules for new instructors that will be housed on Blackboard, and we’ll keep everyone updated on its progress. But we also have a great collection of resources in the CETL Teaching and Learning Library, and we’d also be happy to consult with anyone preparing to teach online about any questions or issues you may encounter. We’re here to support all teaching and learning at Grand View, whether it’s face-to-face or online. Let us know how we can be of service.

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