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How Not to Teach Online


Teaching online is more difficult than it may seem. Online instructors must become accustomed to an entirely new way of thinking about teaching and learning. If you’re thinking about becoming an online teacher (or are one already), make sure that you avoid these all-too-common mistakes.

1. Don’t assume that the class will teach itself.

African woman typing on laptop next to sta...
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You wouldn’t let a traditional class teach itself, only popping your head in the door every now and then to give a word of feedback or make a point. So, why do so many instructors assume that online classes can run themselves with little to no work on the teacher’s part? The best online classes are run by actively engaged instructors that are interacting with students weekly, posting on the discussion boards, and helping students when they encounter problems.

2. Avoid hiding your personality.

Many online classes are now developed by publishing companies or instructional designers and then given to faculty members to teach as-is. If you receive a voice-neutral class that is given to multiple instructors, make sure that you let students know who you are and how you can help them. You may not have had any input on the content of the course, but you can make the course better by becoming more fully present. Try posting a picture of yourself, giving a bio, and sharing relevant experiences throughout the course. Students tend to feel isolated and hesitant to ask for help if they don’t feel like they know the instructor, even a little bit.

3. Don’t treat your students as anonymous numbers.

Likewise, keep in mind that your students are actual people. It seems like a silly reminder, but it is common to lose the feeling of human connection when you’re separated by technology. One way to connect to your students is to ask them to tie the curriculum to their lives when posting on discussion boards. Some classes also have an “any topic, any time” board where students and instructors are free to share recipes, ask for ideas, and talk about anything they please just like they would in the minutes before and after a traditional course. You may also want to ask students to post a photo or avatar that will appear when they upload assignments or post to the discussion boards.

4. Try not to underestimate the students.

When universities first began offering online classes, it was unfortunately common for these online offerings to be substantially easier than their in-person counterparts. In fact, students from some schools would take the online sections of particularly difficult courses simply because they knew they could get away with putting forth less effort. Instructors building the courses often felt like they couldn’t make the courses particularly challenging because students would become confused without in-person guidance from an instructor. Now, instructors are realizing that online students are just as capable, provided they are given the support they need to succeed in the course.

5. Don’t underestimate the time it takes to complete major assignments.

On the other hand, some online teachers seem to have no concept of how long it takes to complete an assignment. They figure that they can load students with multiple essays, discussion questions, and quizzes every week. Online students should have more work to complete because their classroom hours can be applied to the individual work they do. However, expectations should still be reasonable.

6. Make sure to avoid disappearing when you’re away from the computer.

Almost every online instructor has the pleasure of receiving a minutes-before-the-deadline email from a student that expects an immediate response. Students need to learn how to manage their own expectations (an online instructor isn’t a search engine, after all). However, instructors should make sure that they don’t leave students hanging by not answering emails for an extended period. Let students know your expected response time upfront (24 hours is usually reasonable). If you’re leaving on vacation or will be away from the computer for a while, let students know that you won’t be responding.

7. Don’t throw your handouts onto a website and call it an “online class.”

An online class made up of handout PDFs and uploaded PowerPoint presentations can be miserable. When you’re designing an online course, think outside the box and use technology to connect to your students rather than try to fit your in-person curriculum into the online world. Your students will thank you and it will be a more enjoyable online teaching experience for you as well.
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