Online Education Tips: Unfollow These Commandments

The do’s, the don’ts, the maybes and some thoughts about educating online

by Aris Panagis

She celebrated an anniversary recently. It’s been five years since she taught her first online course. Five years is a short, yet enough time to point out both the advantages and the pain points of what we call e-learning as a method and an ongoing experience. I read her story and started to ponder not only on what it takes to be an online tutor, but also on what it takes for an e-learning software to meet the tutor’s and, subsequently, students’ needs.
Michelle Everson shared some of the lessons she has learned over the years of her experience, in need to help those who might be questioning whether online teaching is right for them. She admitted that, when she first started to think about teaching online, she realized she had a lot to learn. She had neither been an online student nor did she know much about distance education. Despite that, she did not ease her urge to fulfill her dream and carry on being a teacher, a teacher as the best of teachers should be. What she quotes sums it all up:

“I just knew I wanted to be a part of something I felt would benefit those students who — for whatever reason — could not come to a traditional classroom setting. I wanted to help create quality courses for these students that would incorporate the kinds of activity and discussion that typically took place in a classroom-based course.”
For most tutors who get involved in online teaching, their attempt is a leap of faith, driven by motives both they and their students share, especially those of the latter who crave for quality education but are deprived of the means to access it.
But before becoming an online tutor, one should bear in mind the following
(This is not a list of commandments. They are not unquestionable and they are far from indisputable. But it is a good beginning, plus I am not delivering them amidst a cloudy roar in two stone plates):

Teaching is not for the meek. Well, not quite.
You don’t need to be a teacher to understand it. Having been a student is enough for anyone to get a grasp of the love, passion, effort and time it takes to be the person who delivers knowledge to a heterogeneous –by all means- audience. Online teaching is not an exception to the rule; teaching online is a lot of work.
Up front, it takes a great deal of time to put curricular materials together for an online class. One might spend as much as several weeks reshaping their classroom materials to work for online students. In some cases, activities that are being used effortlessly in the classroom couldn’t be adapted at all for online use, such as hands-on activities.
In the beginning, the workload of an online course seems bigger than that of a face-to-face environment. But it only seems as such, because it requires a different planning. Not a better or more detailed one; on the contrary, online tutors agree that in the online setting, the workload is distributed and both planning and execution are far more efficient and flexible.
To epitomize, transferring an actual classroom to a virtual one is like moving to a new house. You keep what you like, get rid of the scrap, know well what to avoid, opt for more efficiency, creativity and fun. Therefore, you keep the best, enhance them, adapt them and then let your mind experiment and come up with new methodology.

Everything takes more time online.
Assignments and activities that are adapted from a classroom setting to an online environment typically take more time to complete.
For example, in a classroom, all students are together in one place, announcements can be made and questions can be answered for the entire class. In other words, a great deal of teaching can be done in one sitting. An activity (or several ones) can be completed during a single class period, and any issues related to that activity will be discussed in real time with the entire class. Online, students will likely be working at different times during the week, and their questions will trickle in accordingly. Plus, an activity that might take 20 minutes to complete in a classroom setting might take a few days to discuss online, especially if students are not able to be online together at the same time.
But the essence of online education is self-paced, substantial learning.
Online learning doesn’t require the clocks neither to speed up, nor to freeze down.
Time and space are no longer a matter, unless you set them as such.
Each student can work as an individual at its own pace, but this does not necessarily mean that online-team building is impossible, useless, or both.
On the contrary, community building in an e-learning environment not only is possible, but is also useful and more democratized than the offline one. Why?
Well, think about this:
Even though, at first glance, exchanging opinions and questions on a subject online seems time consuming, it is far more intrinsic and valuable for judging, distilling and digesting knowledge. Moreover, when a discussion breaks out in a classroom, it is a priori going to help evolve the route of a course. But seldom are argumentative rules implemented in the process. By exchanging opinions online, a healthy sequence of consecutive arguments is de facto implemented, and the participants have the time to filter the facts they come across.
So, sacrifice quality for a clock? Rather do the opposite, and rest assured that time well set is time efficiently spent and lessons thoroughly learned. And in the not-so-long term, you will find out that you do save time thanks to online teaching. Well, that happens when you don’t sacrifice something; you save it.
Students avoid regular communication and timely feedback on their progress.
Students may also feel anxious at the thought of taking an online course, and it should be part of the instructor’s job, as much as possible, to put students at ease right from the beginning.
Let your students know that you’re available online, and that you want to hear from them. Most discussions that take place in and out of a classroom among students are not listened to by the teacher.
By creating a supportive online community, students feel free to take risks in discussion, attempting to explain their understanding of challenging concepts and ideas. By modeling ways to respond to posted messages, students will begin to feel comfortable responding to each other in discussion areas.
Feedback helps students know what their strengths and weaknesses are and gives them time to ask questions and seek assistance before subsequent assignments are due.
Based on comments from previous and active students one knows that they value the tutor’s efforts to be involved in the course and to provide them with consistent and timely feedback. What is deduced is that the instructor who is not comfortable communicating with students electronically might need to think twice about teaching online.
Many great tools exist but aren’t always necessary.
Many amazingly cool tools can be used in online courses, but it’s important to balance what’s necessary against what will make the site look impressive.
If the tools don’t work as you anticipate, or if your students find it difficult to use them, it may have a negative effect on your course material and on your students’ ability and, more importantly, on their will to learn.
When online teaching was young, most instructors/tutors didn’t use audio or video (havoc, those dial-up connections) and avoided uploading large files.
Those screen-battered veterans of online lessons are still vigilant about identifying what is absolutely necessary, in terms of technology, to achieve the learning goals.
Nowadays, video is an integral part of the online learning methodology, alongside a series of tools that ameliorate the lectures, increase student engagement and create a unique experience. But even though devoted tutors spend time creating video tutorials with the assistance of a professional cameraman, they often worry that sooner or later this investment goes in vain, because their material may be outdated in a short period of time, due to its nature or the tutor’s wish to provide better, enhanced and up-to-date material.
And then along came the smartphones. Yes, they render the services of a cameraman useless, provided you possess a smartphone or an i-phone. With a tripod and a brief tutorial on how to ameliorate sound, light and vision, you can record your lectures in a professional manner, and in the same way you post a selfie picture in your social media account.
The procedure of preparing lectures, tests, quizzes, assignments, as well as the tutor-to-apprentice relationship and the team building process within a group of the same lesson attendees is fun, easy and has been simplified. In one word, gamified.

Students need extrinsic motivation.
Some students are motivated by wanting to learn the material, and wanting to practice applying what they are learning. Other students need to be motivated extrinsically. In a traditional classroom, with the instructor looming nearby, in-class work is often extrinsic motivation enough. Online, however, if an assignment is not collected or graded, some students will simply skip it, even if you strongly encourage them to do it for the sake of better understanding the material.
Leaving aside the fact that most students who take online courses are there to improve their academic and vocational skills thus do not fit in the typical in-class student profile, there is a whole new universe of methods that cajole and encourage students to be involved in the lesson, take quizzes, excel and progress, fending off the diseases of traditional classroom lecturing.
Now one can include the ample opportunity for students to collaborate, creating a community where they have opportunities to get to know each other and learn from each other. Most importantly, each individual wants to surpass himself/herself, compete with the rest but in a creative and evolving framework. Gamification is the answer.

Gamification is the concept of applying game mechanics and game design techniques to engage and motivate people to achieve their goals. Gamification taps into the basic desires and needs of the users impulses which revolve around the idea of Status and Achievement.
Gamification techniques strive to leverage people’s natural desires for Competition, Achievement, Status, Altruism, Community Collaboration, and many more.
Businesses can use Gamification to drive desired user behaviors that are advantageous to their brand. One common technique of Gamification is to increase engagement by rewarding users who accomplish desired tasks.
Rewards such as Badges and Points are used to elevate Status by showcasing the talents, expertise, and accomplishments of users.
Competition is another technique that can be used in gamification. The desire to appear on the leaderboard drives players to complete more tasks, in turn fueling deeper engagement.

Due to potentially problematic consequences of competition (which can result in unethical behavior, low cooperation and low collaboration, or in disadvantaging certain player demographics), current gamification designs try to refrain from using this element. Gamification, as it should be, preserves the love of the game and combines it with the pursuit of knowledge and the will of self-and-team improvement.

Give deadlines. Or are they dead lines already?
Yes, deadlines keep students on task and ensure that they are working through the material at a similar pace. But this is the state of a traditional classroom, and, subsequently, traditional tutors cringe at the terms “self-paced” and “individual study”, because they confuse them with failure to comply to deadlines, milestones and given tasks.
Self-paced means flexibility, not recklessness. The tutors who believe that strict assignments will keep a classroom in a similar learning pace are the ones who haven’t taught, and when they do –offline-they will see that the “similar learning pace” is an illusion. Not all the students are the same, not all the students perceive the material in the same manner. But online learning gives them the opportunity to discuss it and underline their questions, weaknesses, and critical thinking. Assignments and quizzes are flexible, as well as performance.
No doubt you have encountered students who get off track if they have even seven days when nothing is due.
You may want to attempt to make certain that students are accountable for something, whether it be taking an assessment or participating in a discussion or completing a more formal homework assignment or project.
But the quizzes and the participation that comes as a result of a gamified engagement process provide far more useful information on the strengths, weaknesses and capabilities of your students as individuals and as a team.
A tutor is not asked to rid of the traditional assessment tools, but rather acquire more thorough knowledge and sense of the status of their classroom as well as the quality and effective communication of their material.

Online courses are not right for all students.
Maybe, but they can become the right fit for each and every one of them, provided the tutor makes good use of the available tools and his or her own good practices.
Bear in mind that one of the main advantages of online learning is the aforementioned fact that students, in their vast majority, know very well what lesson/school they chose to attend, and why.
Try to provide students with many opportunities to make informed decisions about whether the course will meet their needs. If you are able to release your syllabus and materials before the course officially starts (when the course follows a schedule and is not available online regardless of a strict syllabus), students will have an opportunity to preview the course and think carefully about whether it will meet their needs.
It is even more intriguing when you make an assignment of going through the syllabus and the site itself. It is the good old gamification method, and it helps the student not only become aware of what lies ahead from the very beginning, but also position himself/herself in terms of knowledge, engagement, time sacrifice and capability.
A quick tour of the school, its lectures, assignments and methodology is the key to unlock engagement and better performance for any student.
Emphasize the fact that online learning is a more conscious approach of the learning process. It is rarely mandatory, and it is the outcome of free will and the desire for self-improvement and personal progress.

O student, whence can thou judge thy teacher? Ask students what works and what doesn’t.
Stay feedback-oriented. Gather feedback from students about what works and what doesn’t and how the online course or online resources can be improved, and make sure you invite them to share their thoughts thereabout anytime.
Online teaching gives tutors the unprecedented opportunity to amass information about what they teach, how they teach it and how any weakness can be mended, what topics interest most and which flirt with dullness. This data can be summarized and filtered, and it can provide the chance to make decisions on the planning of each course.
Many tutors avoid participating a lot in student discussions because they worry that their presence might stifle the conversation. They only interject if a major misconception or error comes up that nobody else catches. Through feedback, the tutors learned that the students wanted to hear more from them, if anything just to let them know they are on the right track.
Make it a point to participate more and make sure that students know you are there in case they need you. Cheer them on, listen to them, question them, or provide direct instruction or other examples for them to think about if they are struggling. There are many ways to participate without necessarily giving away all the answers.

Thou shalt not share. Share ideas, collaborate, and commiserate about the online teaching experience.
Never hesitate to reach out to others who teach online to collaborate, exchange practices and share ideas. Collaboration among colleagues is as important as collaboration between teachers and students to achieve the optimum outcome.
There is a looming fear that sharing what you do and communicating how you do it is like giving away the secrets of your success.
Ah, the irony! The teacher, who is by definition the one transmitting knowledge, illuminating the minds, should be the least possible person to refuse to share anything that is connected to the work they offer.
The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery. It is by teaching that we teach ourselves, by relating that we observe, by affirming that we examine, by showing that we look, by writing that we think, by pumping that we draw water into the well, by sharing that we possess.

“The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.”

Aris is the Co-founder of Paced. Helping online educators make better courses.
He still can’t understand why he should refer to himself in the third person.

Originally published at medium.com on October 15, 2015.

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