squareI was recently asked to write a “Philosophy of Online Education.” It goes without saying that no one enjoys answering this sort of open-ended question, but as they say, “it got me thinking.”

During my ten years as an educator and instructional designer, I’ve authored, taught, and taken a variety of online courses. I’ve experimented with learning models, gathered numerous points of data, built learning objects and made some spectacularly boneheaded mistakes. I’ve also seen institutions prioritize revenue over student success. In short, I have some hard earned, “boots on the ground“ experience. Despite this experience, I still find the concept of “quality” online education to be a bit of a “moving target.”

Nonetheless, I have though come to the following eight conclusions about successful online education:

1)   Courses need concrete, crystal clear and measurable learning objectives. These objectives should form the backbone of all instructional materials, discussions, and assignments produced for a course.

– Learning objectives are probably the most critical component of a “quality” online course. Having spent a ton of time as a music student and teacher, I instinctively felt like I knew what students needed to learn. As such, I didn’t fully appreciate the nature of the online classroom vs. the on-ground classroom. In a face-2-face class, it is easy to judge the mood of the room, clear-up individual issues and gauge each learners’ interest. In the online classroom, these cues are missing, for both the instructor and student. Setting out clear goals in advance helps faculty to focus lessons, assessments and activities on specific and measurable targets. Concrete learning objectives make-up for the lack of proximity between the faculty and student, and greatly reassures the learner, by giving them landmarks by which to judge their progress.

2)   Faculty needs to be encouraged to leverage their face-2-face teaching experience. Instructional teams can assist in helping faculty adjust to the realities of these new virtual classrooms, but ultimately faculty need to feel they are trusted to make their decisions. 

– I made a lot of mistakes when I started teaching online, and in retrospect, this was awesome. I learned lessons in the process of creating and refining materials that I would never have understood, had I not been allowed to take chances. For instance, in my first online course, I spent the vast majority of my development time creating lessons, leaving the assessments for last. However, when the student started taking the class, they spent the vast majority of their time in the evaluations. In short, their instincts were the opposite of mine, making for some unhappy students and a confused instructor (me). Instructional support staff is necessary, but should never be in the driver’s seat.

3)   Based on the instructional objectives, carry out evaluations during and after a course’s run. It is not acceptable to reuse a course over and over again without assessing whether or not learners are meeting the course’s learning goals.

– I remember a semester when I taught multiple sections of face-2-face American Popular Music. I always felt sorry for Tuesday’s section because, learning from my mistakes, I did much better on Thursday’s. A typical faculty worry is that online classes will make them expendable. This fear is not entirely unreasonable. The creation of materials for an online class can be extremely expensive, and changes can become cost prohibitive. There will always be a need to evaluate, rethink and refresh content. The constant and consistent influx of faculty energies are critical.
– The cost of digital materials is greatly reduced if the instructor is empowered, trusted and trained to make course changes and decisions.

4)   Courses need to employ active learning models. In an online environment, simple “lecture, quiz, repeat” will not lead learners to a mastery of the content. Instead, examine real-world problems through case studies, debates prompts, interview assignments, e-portfolios, etc.

– Keeping students from falling asleep in an on-ground course is always a struggle. In a virtual classroom, students have all the entertainment and avoidance options that the internet provides, without any of the on-ground supervision. To retain student attention, learners need to “get out of their seats” and do something active. Making them do jumping jacks is not an option, but having them debate topics in the forum (for instance) is.

5)   Courses should contain a strong social component. Faculty presence is a fundamental element in student retention. Students also need to be able to interact with their peers. In short, students need to feel like someone is watching out for them (instructor), and that they are not taking the class alone (other students).

– Student retention is a serious concern to all online educators and administrators. Studies have shown that one of the biggest reasons students fail to complete an online course is the feeling of isolation. Similarly, one of the greatest frustrations for online instructors is the perceived lack of connection with their students. One of the easiest ways to address both of these issues is to focus on faculty presence. Faculty presence can be enhanced through live video events, open office hours, video announcements, personalized communication and feedback.
– Without a sense of presence, students often see their instructors as service providers (think AT&T). As such, when frustrated they often communicate this confusion in an overly aggressive manner (think AT&T). Substantive faculty presence demonstrates your humanity to the online learner, removing the instructor from the ranks of anonymous call center drones.

6)   Clear course expectations are critical. Students need to know what the professor is expecting and how they will be evaluated. They also need to receive timely, thoughtful and personalized feedback.

– Students in an online classroom often feel unsure about instructor expectations. “Do I need to write two paragraphs or two pages?” As mentioned in point 5, insecurity is a major stumbling block for many online learners. For each assessment, it is important to make it very clear what the evaluation criteria will be. Carefully constructed rubrics work well in this regard. Also, high-quality examples from previous semesters can provide a source of inspiration for learners.
– It is also important to provide regular, timely and personalized feedback. Feedback keeps students on track, reduces confusion and supports a sense of faculty presence.

7)   Accessibility issues are also an important element. Increased emphasis from the Department of Education has brought this issue home to many institutions, but beyond the legal requirements, there is a moral responsibility to create content that can be viewed by all learners. Fortunately, many of the most important techniques in creating accessible digital content can be easily learned by instructors and staff.

– Accessibility is an issue that seems to be evolving daily. I will not cover all aspects of this issue here. However, there are quite a few simple steps that can be taken to make your digital files accessible. The “lowest hanging fruit” are .docx files, .pptx files, header tags in your HTML and image alt tags is a great source for accessibility standards.

8)   Proper institutional support is also critical for students who are unprepared for the particular demands associated with an online classroom. These include time management, study skills, writing remediation, and tech support.

– A lot of students who join online courses need institutional support. Students often do not anticipate the need for strong time-management skills, the importance of self-motivation and the necessity for excellent writing skills. As a result, study support centers, and writing tutors are often an institutional asset.

If anchored with clear and measurable objectives, regular evaluations, institutional support and taught by dedicated faculty, online education can provide increased access to learners with challenging work and home life responsibilities, and bring learning opportunities to a new and underserved audience.