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Dealing With Your Online Teaching Challenges

Tips to improve the online teaching experience.

September 30, 2014

Andrea Zellner is a PhD student in the Ed Psych/Ed Tech program at Michigan State University. She can be found on Twitter at @AndreaZellner.

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So the semester has begun and we are well past the beginning transition into coursework, teaching, and adjusting in general to graduate school life. For many of us, graduate school brings with it a first foray into teaching, and that is a big learning curve. Throw on top of that the growing online offerings at almost all of our institutions, and you might find yourself building the plane while you are flying it in your online teaching. In my experience, forcing myself to take a moment at this point in the semester to take stock of what’s going well in my online teaching, as well as what still needs adjustment, is a necessity to ensure that I’m doing the best job.

In that spirit, I’ve gathered a list of common issues people find themselves having after the rush of the start of the semester has passed, as well as some hacks to solve them.

Challenge #1: Not really knowing the LMS. Most institutions that have invested in online offerings have also invested resources into a Learning Management System (LMS, also known as a CMS for Course Management System). There are tons of them out there, and each institution, in general, will commit to one of them. Examples include Blackboard, Moodle, and Desire2Learn. The MOOC revolution saw the development of even more systems like MIT’s OpenEdX. Google itself recently jumped into the fray with the rollout of Classroom. Each of these LMS have features in common such as rosters, gradebooks, etc. However, the ways each of them handles student data and organizes information, outside links, and embeds all differ. Some systems are even trying new assessment strategies like digital badges. Whatever the details of your system, many online instructors struggle with the right features to match their content or pedagogical goals.

Solution: Taking a few minutes a day to find online tutorials, or even signing up for your institution’s training on the LMS, is a great way to figure out the less obvious features of your LMS. Even taking the time to press all the buttons you’ve never pressed before can be a great idea—understanding the ins and outs of the features can sometimes inspire new lessons or ways to have students interacting. Finally, start asking your fellow grad students and colleagues about ways they’ve used the LMS or even just their favorite feature. Conversations about best practices are a great way to better understand the system you are working with.

Challenge #2: Dealing with the Extra Data (aka Grading). When students are entirely online, they end up producing a lot of data that then needs to be dealt with by their instructors. In face-to-face classes, looking around the room and generally noting who is engaged in a discussion or not is a quick moment of observation. In an online course, each of those interactions is rendered in black and white, and each of them should be attended to—after all, the students are spending time creating these work products.

Solution: At the very least, use the “Find” function in your browser. It always surprises me when teachers new to online teaching are constantly scrolling through student discussions, trying to track one student. Maybe your deep dive into the LMS will reveal a quick way to track student interactions. Finally, consider “chunking” your students and each week focusing very closely on just a subset of your total students. This is a strategy borrowed from my High School teaching days when I had 120-150 students each day. I would chunk sets of 4-5 students to focus on each day (unbeknownst to them) to make sure I was actually checking in on them in a focused way. It’s easy for students to get lost in the crowd, and this cycling through of the students ensures that they are getting focused attention on a regular basis.

Challenge #3: Lackluster Teaching Videos. I am the first to admit that I hate editing video, oh boy, do I hate it. And yet we know that instructor presence is an essential aspect to a positive student experience.

Solution: In my unscientific polling of other online instructors, chunks of videos of 5-7 minutes max are better for students than one long 15-20+ minute video. Bringing in music, images, pop culture, and even humor is another way to spice up these videos. If you really want to take the videos up a notch, incorporate interactive elements. Services like EdPuzzle (free) or Articulate Storyline ($$, but institutions sometimes buy access) are great services to get you started.

As with all teaching, there is always room for improvement. Online teaching brings with it a unique set of challenges and solutions that require both creativity and patience. What challenges have you dealt with lately in your online teaching? What creative solutions do you have for common online teaching pitfalls? Let us know in the comments!

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[Photo: Andrea Zellner once smeared lipstick on her teeth to make a point in an online teaching video about proofreading.]


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