Transitioning to the World of Online Learning: Preparing Higher Education Instructors and Students for Success

Linda Dale Bloomberg EdD

In the Spring of 2020, most institutions of Higher Education abruptly converted to online education. Suddenly, instructors were no longer in the same physical space as their students. Separated from their students and colleagues, they had to rapidly adjust their teaching approach. This ubiquitous incorporation of technology was an enormous shift from normal day-to-day operations; one that came with significant challenges including an overtaxed technological infrastructure, students’ disorientation and fear, and instructors’ own learning curve. Coping with these adaptive challenges continue to be a test of the capacity of stakeholders at all levels, including students, instructors, and educational systems. The emergency shift to remote instruction in the spring resulted in immediate technology needs for faculty teaching traditional face-to-face courses, which continued into a reimagined fall semester. Many months later, instructors are still being required to improvise quick solutions in less-than-ideal circumstances, and many understandably continue to find this process stressful.

While it is acknowledged that face-to-face teaching competencies such as knowledge of curricula and pedagogy do transfer to online contexts, it is also important to recognize some of the unique competencies required for online teaching success. Online learning systems employ a variety of online tools and software, which place new and often unfamiliar demands on the technical competence of teachers. Modes of communication differ, with a greater reliance on asynchronous communication methods which do not occur in “real time”. The ability to effectively communicate, manage technology, deliver and assess content, monitor student progress, and follow-up on issues or barriers encountered by students are critical to minimize the likelihood of student disengagement or withdrawal.

The recent and ongoing forced and abrupt move to online learning may provide institutions with an opportunity to innovate and pilot new approaches, thereby helping to create positive and enduring changes. Indeed, universities may find that they have a new remote-learning capability that can be integrated with on-campus instruction, and institutions of Higher Education will hopefully emerge with an opportunity to reflect on and evaluate how they were able to implement effective teaching practices to maintain continuity and quality of instruction. Right now, it is imperative to ensure that instructors are engaging and inclusive in their teaching approach, and that the needs of all students--including those who are most vulnerable--are being met. Although the recent widespread transition to online teaching is unfamiliar for many, some of the key skills and techniques can be learned and mastered to meet the current and urgent challenge. Since you are in the business of teaching and learning, you have an advantage.

Author and adult educator Dr. Linda Dale Bloomberg was commissioned to develop a series of reports for successful online teaching for SAGE Publications. In these reports she addresses multimodal strategies for synchronous and asynchronous delivery of content, shows how to engage students, and discusses how to adopt an accessible and equitable instructional approach to ensure student success in the online environment.

 

Being an Effective Online Instructor

While holding the promise of expanding the time and location boundaries of traditional education, online learning gives rise to new constraints, and raises questions about exclusion, isolation, and detachment that are potential barriers to learning. Your students want to see you and connect with you as a human being. Effective online instructors have a direct and important role in influencing the student experience, making sure to facilitate resilience and perseverance. A central aspect to promoting engagement, and in turn ongoing success, is the sense of presence. Instructor presence is established when your students feel that you are visible and available. Because you are no longer in the same physical space as your students, your communication skills become paramount. Instructor support online involves effective monitoring of student progress, anticipation and resolution of key learning queries, and establishment and maintenance of rapport. Collectively, these kinds of competencies will shape your effectiveness as an online instructor and, in turn, the student’s learning experience. What can you do to prepare yourself as an effective instructor and ensure that you are sustaining student engagement? Read more here:

https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/being-an-effective-online-instructor

 

Employing Multimodal Strategies in Online Teaching

Online education can take a wide variety of shapes and forms, including technology platforms (learning management systems, social media platforms), media modality (text, imagery, videos, audios, etc.), instructional approaches (direct instruction, inquiry-based, flipped classroom etc.), student arrangement (individual, small groups, larger groups), and temporal arrangements (asynchronous and synchronous tools). The challenge is how to craft the experience for your diverse students, thereby engaging them in authentic learning experiences within this often unfamiliar, virtual environment. Most learning management systems have a way to create and integrate teaching tools, both asynchronous and synchronous.  As an instructor you may choose to engage your learners either asynchronously or synchronously, or make use of a combination modes, depending on the course content or material that needs to be taught.  It is critically important to explore the use and application of available tools. Read more here:

https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/employing-multimodal-strategies-in-online-teaching

 

Identifying and Supporting Struggling Students

Without set hours and routines, online learners typically tend to feel isolated, and therefore somewhat unmotivated to meet course requirements. Additionally, increasing numbers of students struggle with language needs and disabilities, lack of access to technology, and unfamiliarity with technological requirements. In addition to concerns related to economic inequality, the “digital divide” (the uneven distribution regarding access to or use of technology) also includes a need to minimize barriers by providing appropriate accommodations for those with learning disabilities as these students will require additional attention and support. How can you be sure to identify, prepare, and support struggling students in an effort to set them up for success and provide an optimal learning experience? Read more here: https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/identifying-and-supporting-struggling-students-in-online-courses

 

Making Online Learning Accessible

Be cognizant of building in accessibility right from the start. Make sure that all content is accessible; that it supports all learners and ensures inclusion; and that it provides multiple opportunities for engagement, interaction, and challenge. As an instructor you have a responsibility to recognize which tools and formats (document and media) support accessibility and which do not. Remember, equal access to education is mandated by law, and is grounded in the hope that all students will have equal access to course content. This includes a need to address proper accommodations for those with learning disabilities. Many instructors may move traditional classes into the digital format without any redesign, failing to take into consideration students with disabilities or the unique opportunities available to implement inclusive teaching strategies. Each individual has a preferred mode of receiving and processing information or demonstrating their knowledge and abilities. Be aware of what ways you like since we may tend to over-use those techniques, and this relates to our own implicit bias regarding how people learn. Because one size does not fit all you will need to be very thoughtful in your approach so that you remain engaging and inclusive at all times. How can you ensure a focus on access and equity? Read more here:  https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/making-online-learning-accessible

and here too: https://www.methodspace.com/making-online-learning-accessible/

 

Finally, a Guide for College Students: Tips for Setting Up for Success in Online Classes

 Suddenly, students find themselves having to learn to manage the complex mixture of the learning management system (LMS), courseware and course materials. The fundamental nature of the learning experience shifts to a greater reliance on their own inner resources to keep going. Here are my top 10 tips you can share with your students to help them stay motivated, on-task, and successful. A downloadable PDF is also included here for your students’ use: https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/setting-yourself-up-for-success-in-your-online-class

Our higher education system depends not just upon your technical expertise as an instructor, but mostly upon your pedagogical insights and competency to maintain student engagement and ensure their ongoing success. Welcome the opportunity to keep learning and improving by keeping your commitment to excellence in teaching front and center! Be aware of the many free resources that are available, including SAGE's remote teaching solutions and Social Science Space's 16 Answers to Your Questions about Teaching Onlineboth of which include tools and resources to support students and instructors. You will come to realize that online teaching practices are skills to be developed, and that skill development comes with time, insight, and experience.

 

Author Biography

Dr. Linda Dale Bloomberg has served for over seven years as Professor and Associate Director of Faculty Support and Development and full professor of education at Northcentral University. Prior to this, she served as instructor for three online universities, working in the areas of curriculum design and assessment. In her current capacity she coaches, trains, and evaluates online faculty, develops curriculum for graduate research courses, and serves as dissertation Chair and subject matter expert for online doctoral candidates. She also serves in an advisory and leadership capacity for the University’s community engagement platform and was a founding member of University’s diversity committee.   Dr. Bloomberg was recently invited to serve on the Future Talent Council, Global Advisory Board for Faculty and Staff Development. In August 2020 she was invited to serve as mentor-in-residence for SAGE Research Methods, and participated in an interview on conducting dissertation research online. The interview can be accessed here: https://www.methodspace.com/dissertations-e-learning-interview-with-dr-linda-bloomberg/  Among numerous publications in the fields of distance education, adult education, and qualitative research, Dr. Bloomberg is the author of  the following:

Teaching in graduate distance education: Perspectives on evaluating faculty engagement strategies (2018). International Journal of Online Graduate Education. 1(2), 1-24. http://ijoge.org/index.php/IJOGE/article/view/18;

Completing Your Qualitative Dissertation: A Road Map From Beginning To End (4th ed, 2019; SAGE)  https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/completing-your-qualitative-dissertation/book259355#preview

Developing a learning community through an online university’s community engagement platform: An analysis of the experiences of students and faculty (2020). International Journal of Online Graduate Education. 3(1), 1-24. http://ijoge.org/index.php/IJOGE/article/view/40;

Transitioning Rapidly to Online Teaching: Ten Tips to Prepare Instructors for Success. International Journal of Online Graduate Education. 3(2), 1-12. http://ijoge.org/index.php/IJOGE/article/view/46

Coaching Faculty to Teach Online: A Single Qualitative Case Study at an Online University (2020). International Journal of Online Graduate Education 3(2), 1-22. http://ijoge.org/index.php/IJOGE/article/view/45

In her forthcoming book, Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners (Teachers College Press, Columbia University, Spring 2021), Dr. Bloomberg distills two decades of experience in teaching in a multitude of online contexts and coaching instructors to teach online. She has been researching best practices for online instruction since 2003 when she began her own doctoral dissertation, studying the development and facilitation of online learning communities. With the advent of the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020 she is even more committed to producing additional material that can be swiftly shared so it is immediately useful and usable in multiple online educational contexts. 

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