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Learning to Teach Online

What's the best way to keep students on track in an online course?

In 2013, 7.1 million higher education students took at least one online course — a 6.1 percent increase over the previous year, according to a report from the Online Learning Consortium (the recently renamed Sloan Consortium). That means more than 400,000 additional students took an online course last year. And, I'll venture to guess, thousands of faculty members added an online course to their workload, perhaps for the first time.

While many colleges and universities do a good job offering faculty development programs for online teaching, they can't possibly keep up with that kind of growth. The demand for tips and best practices for online instruction is seemingly insatiable. When we published online education specialist Paul Beaudoin's "6 Ways to Be a Better Online Teacher" a few months ago, it quickly became one of the top three most-read articles on our Web site this year.

Paul's academic background is in music; an accomplished composer, theorist, author and educator, he noticed early on that technology was changing the way he interacted with making music. It wasn't long before he brought technology into his own classrooms — and online courses — to engage his students. He is the recipient of several teaching awards, including the Exemplary Course Award from Blackboard, and a frequent international workshop and keynote speaker.

For this month's issue, we asked Paul to write a follow-up piece: "Motivate and Engage Online Learners All Semester Long." He offers a wealth of great ideas on how to keep students on track from beginning to end in an online course, from virtual "walls" for sharing course expectations to digital scavenger hunts and confidence-building games. Interestingly, he structures his recommendations by the timeline of a course:

  • Beginning: "The start of the semester is exciting and nearly everyone is motivated and ready to engage in the course content and its activities. But what is most important to the overall success of your course is to quickly establish a community of online learners."
  • Middle: "Once the enthusiasm of the first few weeks has waned the challenge begins. Learners are concerned about their grades, they worry about their progress or they feel that they 'are drowning' for myriad reasons…. This is the time to regain the momentum of your course through incentives and low- or no-risk activities."
  • End: "Much like the beginning of the semester, motivation and engagement seem to suddenly return just as the final exam approaches…. Ending a class in the online environment is an excellent opportunity to have your learners reflect on the course and to summarize their learning in a meaningful way."

Like most good advice, it's a simple concept that can often be overlooked: Online learners have different needs at different points in the cycle, and tuning into those feelings is a great way to keep students engaged.

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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