When Elizabeth Bruch, PhD, came to Capella University 21 years ago, the concept of online higher education was foreign to most educators.
At that time, she was dean of education for St. Mary’s University. “My colleagues thought I was crazy to leave St. Mary’s for an online school,” she says with a laugh. “But I already knew that so much of education is about access. Furthermore, I could not effectively work with faculty to improve their online teaching if I had no experience actually teaching online. Online teaching struck me as where the future was.”
Having taught both face-to-face and online in her education career, Bruch has some thoughts and suggestions for educators considering moving to online teaching.
1. Be prepared to work harder to get to know students.
“Getting to know students is very important,” says Bruch. “It takes more effort and more intentionality to get to know your students in an online environment.” Among her tactics is making more of an effort to reach out to students and talk to them. She tries to remember details about her students —like favorite football teams, hobbies, etc. She says this helps her connect with students in a more meaningful way.
2. Focus on keeping people engaged.
“It’s so easy to disconnect online,” Bruch says. “It’s a delicate balance. If you’re teaching a course with 30 students, planning on doing individual calls every week is likely unrealistic.” Instead, she suggests, plan small group calls and use private communication areas to keep communication frequent. The more the instructor puts into it, the more engaged the instructor appears to be, which can motivate students.
3. Get a mentor.
Even if you’re a long-time teacher in the face-to-face world, transitioning to online teaching has a learning curve. “Find your go-to person,” says Bruch, who did that herself when she began teaching online. “You can read about techniques for teaching online, but in the end, experience is what counts. You need someone you can turn to for advice and wise counsel.”
4. Be wary of being overbearing.
“It can be extremely easy to ‘take over’ the course,” she says. “But when you do that, you stifle co-learning, where the students learn from each other. One of the beauties of the Capella model is that your course may be made up of students from all over the country, if not all over the world. Everyone brings unique perspectives and different learning.”
She advises having a heavy presence in the beginning, but gradually easing off while still remaining present in the course. “That way, you build community online, which helps with engagement,” she says. “Letting that wide range of backgrounds come into play will not only deepen education for the students, but you as the instructor will have some ‘aha’ moments as well.”
5. Remember the power of encouragement.
Given that online interactions often lack various social cues, including tone of voice or facial expression, Bruch cautions that critiques should build encouragement into the process. “All you have is your words,” she says. “They can’t see you smiling in an email or on a phone call. You don’t want them left feeling hopeless. They need to learn what to do to improve, but it’s especially important here to balance that with encouragement for what’s going better or going well.”
6. You may need to set boundaries.
Bruch feels that more is expected of online teachers than face-to-face. “Sometimes there are expectations that you will be available 24/7, and that you will always be present and ready to provide critiques of work, etc.,” she says. “And you do want the students to be comfortable with their access to you, but you should have boundaries.”
The flip side is that teaching online can also provide a level of flexibility nearly unheard of in the face-to-face world. “You can work from anywhere,” she says. “I’ve taught students in the U.S. while living in Hungary and Indonesia.”
Teaching face-to-face and teaching online are two paths to the same desired outcome. The two formats, however, require different approaches to student engagement. Once you master the nuances of online teaching, you could very well find it to be not only the way of the future, but the best way for you.
Learn more about Capella University’s online education degree and certificate programs.