A short take: online teaching

A short take: online teaching

Zappala, John

“Teaching an online, web-based course…can be a challenging, intellectually stimulating and exciting endeavor” (Frederickson, Clark and Hochner, 2002). Instructors and students can enjoy “24/7” access to the class, day or night, weekday or weekend. Based on eight years of teaching experience online, I believe the possibilities for enhancing the teaching/learning process are without boundaries in this nontraditional format. The big advantages include addressing different learning styles through the use of graphics, audio, and video to develop more active learning. Students who might have hesitated to ask questions in a face-to-face classroom are quite comfortable emailing a question or a request for clarification to the instructor. The anytime/anyplace class format attracts today’s adult learner who is juggling other life issues. The numerous positive factors can have a significant effect on student learning in spite of the sometimes frustrating, demanding, and even confusing elements of online teaching and learning.

Lessons learned

In Tech Trends, Betty Collis (2004, p. 10) states that “technology is used to extend good teaching and learning. It does not replace the good teacher.” The key is not to be misled by the word “distance” in distance education so as to believe that the relationship between the good teacher and learner is any less important than it would be in a traditional classroom. A web-based class should take on a constructivist approach that focuses on relevancy, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills. Liaw (2004) writes that the online class format should emphasize the learners’ abilities in solving real-life and practical problems.

The viewpoints expressed here, then, are directly related to (a) establishing relationships among the distance learning participants-including the teacher/instructor; and (b) cultivating strategies that lead to direct application and meaning for students. According to Hambrecht (2004), the relationship and teaching strategy goes beyond the content of instruction and “focuses on the less tangible, but perhaps, more fundamental character of teaching” (p.45). The primary responsibility for the development of these relationships and strategies rests with the instructor-the designer of content, deliverer of the material, and evaluator of outcomes. As an instructor of Internet-based courses, I am obligated to establish the same outcomes with a student learning online as with a student in the face-to-face classroom. While there is no set of formal rules, the following strategies seem to work well in relationship-building and teaching students in distance learning, whether they are around the world or around the corner.

Maxim #1

In distance education, the instructor sets the tone on the course web page for introducing those components he values. On the web page, I discuss classroom norms such as

* Be present in mind and body

* Have fun

* Be open-minded

* Respect the opinion of others, no matter how different

* Respect cultural differences

* Conduct one electronic conversation at a time.

An invitation is also extended on the web page that encourages involvement and participation. In my “Welcome to MSA 620” (Effective Administration and Organizational Behavior), I invite students to “think about this course as a process where we’re all learners involved in a collaborative experience. In this learning activity, constructing knowledge will NOT be a one-way transmission of information from the instructor to the learner. Rather, constructing knowledge involves the opportunity to critically analyze information, dialog with each other, reflect on knowledge and see how it fits within your personal belief and value systems, and arrive at meaningful understandings of what was learned. Think about how rich learning will be in this course when everyone is involved in shaping the experience, where everyone has something to offer. Being involved in an adult learning format is a place where the presence of enthusiasm and excitement is easily felt. I hope you’ll feel this same way.”

Maxim #2

Plan, plan, plan. A former professor, Dr. Chuck McKee of Michigan State University, used to say, “Prior program planning prevents poor performance.” His statement hits the bull’s-eye in online teaching, which requires significant upfront planning and organization (Coyner and McCann, 2004). Usually, someone from the University’s Distance Learning program suggests all course information, syllabi, and other materials be submitted and posted-long before the start of the semester. Planning cannot take place one unit ahead of the learners. In most cases, the learners have already reviewed the syllabus in its entirety before registering for the course. Expect that grading, learner communication, downloads and other course components will all take longer than expected.

Maxim #3

During the eight week class format, I email a weekly greeting to each student. Typically, it contains information about what to look for in the next week’s readings or perhaps a tip or two on completing the next assignment. It tends to keep the instructor in contact with the student, even the student who is the reluctant-to-email type. The greeting should also serve to keep the student on track with the class. Here is an excerpt from my “Greetings and Week One Message”: “I’m delighted that you can be here. If this is your first MSA class [Master of Science Administration], a special welcome to each of you. Also, if this is your first internet class, you are in for a treat. I’m here to help you succeed. Remember, life is about getting A’s, right? And when in doubt, please ask. The first chat will be scheduled for Wednesday. (We will discuss chat netiquette and leading with soul. Big tip: one person chats at a time).”

Maxim #4

Schedule a weekly chat room for the class. To encourage student attendance in a chat, I award points for “being there.” Each weekly chat is an hour long, usually from 7:30-8:30 p.m. While the chat day changes each week (listed in the electronic course calendar), the flexible schedule accommodates students who have other commitments on certain days. Each student can attend at least some of the chats. In addition, students who are not able to attend can review the chat transcript, respond to it, and still get credit for participation. There’s one other important piece to the chat experience: the story. Psychiatrist Dan Field believes that a highly effective teaching technique incorporates the use of stories. Hence, I end every chat session with a story that brings home a point about the topic being discussed. Here’s an illustration of a story used in discussing motivation, rewards and recognition.

A boat docked in a tiny Mexican village. An American student of administration and organizational behavior complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. “Not very long,” answered the fisherman.

“But then, why don’t you stay out longer and catch more?”

The fisherman explained that his small catch was sufficient to meet the needs of his family.

The American asked, “Then what do you do with the rest of your time?”

“I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and take a siesta with my wife. In the evenings, I go to the village and see my friends. I have a few drinks, play the guitar, and sing a few songs. I have a full life.”

The American interrupted: “I have an MSA degree, and I can help you. You should start fishing longer every day. You can sell the extra fish you catch, and you can buy a bigger boat with your income. Then,” said the American, “you can buy a second and third boat until you have an entire fleet. Instead of selling your fish to a middleman, you can negotiate directly with the processing plants and maybe open your own plant. You can leave this little village and move to LA or New York or Mexico City! From there, you can direct a whole enterprise. “

“And after that?” asked the fisherman.

“Afterwards? That’s when it gets interesting,” answered the American. “When your business gets really big, you can sell stocks and make millions.”

The fisherman thought a moment. “Millions? Really? And after that?”

“After that, you can retire, live in a tiny village near the coast, sleep late, play with your children, catch a few fish, take a siesta, and spend evenings with your friends.”

I think it is worth noting what a student wrote in the class assessment: “Don’t think I’ll ever forget the story about the student convincing the fisherman to work for what he already had.”

Maxim #5

Establish a netiquette for chat rooms. I post information about net etiquette (netiquette) on the web site and review that information during the first chat session. We discuss some guidelines to help keep the chat focused and still allow everyone the opportunity to participate. The most successful point here is the use of a code to inform other students when a person has finished “chatting.” Specifically, writing a “3” at the end of a sentence tells the rest of the group that “I am not finished yet.” A “4” at the end of a sentence signals “I have finished saying what I want to say,” and allows the next chatter to add his or her comments.

Maxim #6

Distance learning requires a certain amount of housekeeping. In the Blackboard format we use, students can access their grades on the egrade book. All assignments, tests, participation and other course requirements can be posted there so that students can have immediate information about how well they are doing in class. It is a big responsibility for the instructor to keep current, but worth every effort. To facilitate the process, here are a few useful techniques that work.

* Respond to student questions as soon as possible. That helps them in getting their work in on time.

* Encourage students to keep a back-up copy of their work, just in case it gets lost in cyberspace.

* Provide swift feedback to students upon receipt of their assignments (“I received your paper”). Also make every effort to return the reviewed assignment as soon as possible.

* Some elements of technology may not be accessible to the learners due to technology limitations or firewalls. So, provide other means for students to reach you: phone, fax, and mail.

Maxim #7

Organizational behavior means partnerships and teams. To that end, two of the assignments given in this administration class require a partner; one final project requires a team of three to five persons. Since learning is based on active participation, being active relates to participation, collaboration, construction and contribution. (Collis, 2004, p. 10) Further, an important source of learning is the contribution of the learner. These contributions come from the students’ own experiences or are created by outside of class. The instructor still retains a key role; but as “moderator” of the learning activity, supporting the activity remains critical. A collaborative learning environment is not only consistent with a learning organization philosophy but should be as realistic as possible in offering opportunities to develop working relationships as well.

Maxim #8

Make the course fun. Whenever I plan another teaching/learning opportunity, I look for what Dr. Al McLeod terms a “deep learning state.” That is, what is useful and what can be integrated into long-term memory that will make a difference for the learner? Again, the key seems to be having each assignment or chat or interaction meaningful, relevant and challenging. One student wrote, “I learned more in doing the group project about organizational behavior than I thought possible. And I had fun doing it.”

Developing an online class does not mean that we take the course syllabi, lecture notes, or PowerPoint presentations and paste them on a webpage. An effective online class uses a variety of teaching strategies that enhance the same kinds of behaviors we would expect to cultivate in a face-to-face classroom. Offering a distance education class involves making conscious decisions about a virtual learning environment where students develop a sense of belonging, a spirit for working collaboratively, and skills that can be used tomorrow.


Collis, B. (2004) An interview with Dr. Betty Collis. Tech Trends, 48 (5), 10-12.

Coyner, S.C. and McCann, P.L. (2004). Advantages and challenges of teaching in an electronic environment. International Journal of Instructional Media, 31 (3), 223-28.

Frederickson, S., Clark, B and Hochner, P. (2002). A primer for the online instructor. Learning and Leading with Technology, 29 (6), 48-9.

Hambrecht, G. (2004). Teacher-learner relationship in distance education delivery. The Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, 70 (40), 45-6).

Johnson, R. and Hegarty, J. (2003) Websites as education motivators for adults with learning disability. British Journal of Educational Technology, 334 (4), 479-86.

Huang, H.M and Liaw, S.S. (2004). Guiding distance educators in building web-based instruction. International Journal of Instructional Media, 31 (2), 125-37.

Liaw, S.S (2004). Considerations for developing constructivist web-based learning. International Journal of Instructional Media, 31, (30, 309-21).

Nichols, J. Shaffer, B. and Shockey, K. (2003). Changing the face of instruction: is online or in class more effective? College and Research Libraries, 64, (5), 378-88.

Yu, C. and Tsao, C. (2003). Web teaching design, security and legal issues. Delta Pi Epsilon Journal, 45 (3), 191-203.

John Zappala

Dr. Zappala is the director of Okemos Community Education in Okemos, Michigan, and is a past president of the Michigan Community College Community Service Association.

Copyright Schoolcraft College Spring 2005

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved