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Successfully Teaching University Courses Online

Higher education has served the Western world for nearly a millennium but has never seen more change more swiftly than in the past 20 years. In that time, online course study has grown into an essential part of higher education services in Australia and around the world. Student demand for such courses will continue to grow.

At this time, 23 Australian universities offer 207 courses online. Many of these are full-time online courses. The United States has a growing number of universities that only teach online. Even the best-structured programmes will not succeed unless instructors know how to successfully teach online courses.

Despite near panic about the future of face to face higher education in some quarters, online education will not replace the traditional classroom. Many higher education consultants argue that online courses provide a great supplement to face-to-face classrooms. They also provide many with higher education services that were inaccessible before the digital age. Barriers, such as not living near a college campus or requiring more flexible hours for course time because of family and work commitments, used to make it near impossible to attend in-person classes. 

College instructors need to add the ability to teach online to their toolkit. This will expand their own professional opportunities while helping them reach a broader range of students. Instructors, however, must understand some of the basics of online education.

Know Your Students

Before designing a course, the instructor needs to understand the students who will likely take the courses. Traditionally, professors think of students as campus residents without jobs and a great deal of free time. This may reflect both their own student experience and also what they see most of the time on campus. Because the instructor does not see the students in class during the week, they may be tempted to create a larger workload, assuming online course students are like traditional students. It would be detrimental to do this before gaining an understanding of what your online student population looks like.

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Online students carry a broad range of backgrounds into the course. While some do live on campus and live a standard student lifestyle, many juggle coursework with other responsibilities. These may include raising children, working a part- or full-time job, deployment in the military, or other obligations.

These students often live more in the culture of the general community rather than immersing themselves in campus life. They will tend to have different priorities, interests, and backgrounds than other students and, often, even instructors.

When opening a course, start with a ‘getting to know you’ assignment that mines student backgrounds, ideals, and expectations. Many online courses can benefit from the sharing of perspectives usually not found on the traditional campus.

Know the Technology and Expectations of the University

Many fields of study do not prepare instructors for teaching online. This includes relatively new professors as well as those who have taught for decades. Mastering the technology requires a whole different skill set than traditional teaching.

First, instructors need to take time to get to know their platform. Different schools use different platforms, and each has its own levels of complexity. Tutorials are usually available, but getting to know the system requires some hands-on practice. When dealing with a new platform, take some time to make sure you have a grasp of how to use it.

Universities have a broad range of expectations for online delivery. Some allow instructors total freedom to craft their own courses. Others require specific times for video broadcasting, use of certain software or technology, or other mandates. Also different from traditional classrooms, some online courses grant intellectual rights to created courses to the institution rather than to the instructor.

Listing all of the different issues faced could fill a book. Instructors need to make sure they know the rules and also know their rights before they register as a higher education provider for online learning.

Resist the Temptation to Overburden

Knowing that online students have to juggle various responsibilities outside coursework, resist the temptation to burden them with more work than those in a traditional class. Some instructors feel that the hours not spent in class must be ‘made up’ through increased readings or assignments. This rarely adds value.

Also, instructors need to know their own limitations. Grading quizzes, essays, papers, and projects properly requires time. Factor in the time it takes to grade, the number of students in each course, the number of courses taught, and how much time you have to do the work. When an instructor overburdens herself or himself, the students often get shortchanged.

Structure Your Course and Stick to It

Sticking to the structure has far more importance to an online course than a face-to-face class. Successful online courses start with clear syllabi that lay out the structure of the class. A good structure will also include timeframes, specifically scheduled events, and even response time expectations for emails from both instructor and student.

Online courses do not offer instructors the same luxury of flexibility that in-class teachers usually have. Instructors often set times for exams, class chats, or other events that require direct student participation. If students have specific times to attend to certain tasks for their online class, they likely have scheduled work, parenting, or other assignments around those times. Instructors can cancel if necessary, but should not arbitrarily change those times.

Instructors also need to stick to the course syllabus regarding what subjects will get covered day by day or week by week. The lack of direct contact makes changes more difficult to communicate

Remember the KISS Maxim

Another problem that often surfaces during online courses goes back to course complexity. Technologically savvy instructors sometimes tend to like showing off, not just their knowledge of the subject, but also of the online course technology. Those instructors who create elaborate labyrinths within their course expectations will foster confusion more than learning.

Assume that the student has as little online course experience as the average faculty member and follow the KISS maxim of ‘keep it simple, stupid’. At least keep it as simple as possible while covering relevant information and creating beneficial assignments. If a significant number of students take as much time to try to figure out obscure technology as they do mastering the material, the instructor has not created a successful course.

It may sound counterintuitive, but online students do not always have superior technological savvy. Those with full-time jobs and parenting responsibilities probably have less digital IQ than traditional college students. Instructors should remember this when crafting courses.

TEQSA Has Specific Guidance for Online Instruction

While TEQSA does allow for, and even encourages diversity in delivery, it still has special expectations for online instruction. TEQSA consultants can help universities and their instructors craft courses that benefit students, but also that meet national standards. Providers must show that the courses meet TEQSA requirements for:

  • The design of the course of study
  • The specification and assessment of learning outcomes, delivery and staffing
  • The maintenance of academic integrity

Courses must also include mechanisms that will help non-traditional student populations cope with the demands of online education, particularly if they have only taken face-to-face classes prior. Higher education consultants can also assist in determining what level of support will help the students and satisfy requirements.

Expansion of online course delivery and participation will bring many changes to higher education services. Those registering as higher education providers in Australia, especially from other countries, may need consultants’ help to comply with both the law and guidance statements issued.

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