For some colleges, offering distance education is old hat. Other institutions have been forced to make the move to online more recently. Interestingly, schools that fall on both ends of the spectrum share a lot of things in common. They all aim to deliver quality instruction, create an effective learning environment and provide students with the support they need.
Unfortunately, many instructors at different schools run into the same problems with online learning. There are simply some challenges that are unique to virtual instruction. But while it’s likely that you’ll face a few bumps here and there, you don’t have to accept major issues as inevitable.
You’ll soon see that being strategic in how you organize and teach online courses can help you avoid some common issues. And if you do notice that problems are arising, having an understanding of how to act ahead of time can be valuable. With the right approach, your online classroom can be poised for success.
5 Common problems with online learning that instructors can mitigate
Maybe you’ve recognized a few challenges already. Or it’s possible that you just want to be proactive to help prevent problems in the first place. In either case, you have the opportunity to improve the online classroom experience for you and your students.
1. It feels impossible to personalize education for students
There’s no denying that the experience of teaching virtually is far different than leading a physical classroom. When everything takes place online, it’s harder to put faces to names. Research has shown that some of the primary concerns for instructors who are new to online learning are not being able to convey or read emotion and the inability to adapt to diverse student needs. Essentially, they worry that the experience will feel impersonal.
The very first step any instructor can take toward creating connections with students is to fully fill out their profile. Include photos, share your hobbies and include other details that show students you’re a relatable person. The next phase is to ask students to do the same. Once students have completed their profiles, take some time to read through them (and periodically revisit that information throughout the term) so you get to know each of them better.
It’s also worth thinking about how your communication tactics can be more personalized. It’s certainly convenient to send mass emails, but you should also follow up with individual students. You’ll likely develop better relationships as a result.
2. Instructors have way too many messages to keep up with
A recent literature review focused on issues in online teaching indicates that time management is a common concern among instructors. If you’ve been teaching online classes for a while, you’re probably well-aware of how quickly various emails, direct messages and other student-initiated communications can pile up. Learning how to tackle students’ questions without devoting all your free time to sending responses is imperative.
You’ll be able to eliminate a lot of repeated messages by frontloading your learning management system (LMS) with information-packed documents. Be sure to make rubrics, the syllabus, handouts and supplemental reading lists easily accessible. It’s also a good idea to give students access to these resources in multiple ways to ensure they know where to find what they’re seeking. And as much as you can, try to create resources that answer the types of questions you anticipate hearing. You can post a message to the entire class that addresses FAQs or even upload a video that you record with your webcam.
Many instructors find that holding online office hours is also incredibly useful for time management. Creating a dedicated time when students know you’re available to help invites them to bring their questions there. Just make sure that you’re holding office hours at a time that students will find convenient, like later in the evening or on a weekend morning.
Lastly, consider how establishing explicit expectations and providing specific feedback can lessen the chances that students will need to follow up. Make it clear how your suggestions will ultimately help them work toward their course objectives.
3. Students aren’t engaging as much as they need to
Distance education is inherently more independent than classroom-based learning. The onus is on students to access all their course materials, complete assignments and actively engage in discussions. But it’s easy for students to let their participation slide when they’re not in a physical classroom
To encourage student engagement, start the conversation yourself. Leave prompts for students on message boards. Ask questions that invite respectful disagreement. You can also consider incorporating real-time lectures and discussions using video conferencing. Many students learn best when they’re provided both synchronous and asynchronous methods. While research acknowledges these tactics require substantial instructor involvement, it also indicates they’re effective.
Don’t forget to think about how you can help students engage with one another as well. Just because you’re working with a virtual classroom doesn’t mean collaborative assignments are off the table. Research papers, case study analyses, presentations and even live debate sessions are all feasible group assignments in a virtual classroom.
4. Technology issues keep interrupting learning
There’s no denying that technology related problems will arise at some point. You can help work through frustrations related to online tools by making students aware of the resources that are available. Most every LMS features on-demand technical support. And you should also post contact information for your institution’s support staff in a highly visible place.
You can’t neglect your own education, either. Familiarizing yourself with all the learning technologies that both you and your students will need to use could make what first seems like a major problem into a minor hiccup.
5. Instructors can’t tell when students are struggling until way too late
It’s difficult to recognize that a student is struggling when you’re teaching an online course. And if a missed assignment four weeks into the term is your first indication that someone is having trouble, it can be hard to help them get back on track. Students may be too embarrassed to outright ask for help, so be as proactive as you can with communication.
It might feel like overkill, but posting regular announcements, reminders and tips is really necessary. Always provide updates after weekends or breaks to make sure students know what’s coming up. Also make use of the calendar function to clearly identify assignment deadlines and other important dates.
Once again, providing productive feedback is crucial. Don’t simply give a student a low grade. You should explain to them where they are in terms of mastering the subject matter and how they can improve. One study focused on graduate-level math shows students are most satisfied with their instruction when they receive clear guidelines and constructive feedback.
Find success with your online offerings
Distance education doesn’t have to be riddled with struggles. There are many actions you can take to prevent or address the common problems with online learning. Being thoughtful about how you approach distance education can benefit both you and your students.
As you continue to grow as an online instructor, you may be wondering about the best way to assess students who aren’t in a traditional classroom. There are actually a lot more options than you might realize. Many of them can even help you become a more effective instructor.
Learn more about what you can do to integrate insightful evaluations into your classes by reading our article, “How to Put Meaning Into Learning Assessment for Online Courses.”