Depending on where I am teaching, I have varying levels of input and control over online course design. In a face-to-face classroom, I have complete control over material and the setting of learning. I am confident about information the students receive and the structure they receive it in. Essentially, I know what they should know because I know what I’ve emphasized. But the online classroom structure challenges that.

With online learning, I know the material they know, but I am always a bit unsure if they know the emphasis of it. Online learning removes my ability to frame conversations, to reinforce important ideas; it takes away my stamp on the classroom.

At times, I am simultaneously a learner and instructor within a course. This gives me some sensitivity to student discombobulation in the online classroom and allowed the article “5 Techniques To Help You Step Inside The Shoes Of Your Online Learners” by Nipun Sharma to ring true with me.

Student Individualization; Inward Reflection

Sharma addresses interaction with students online in 2 broad ways.

The general theme of his work focuses on seeing students as unique individuals and tailoring your work in response.

As institutions create one-size classroom models, instructors must conversely seek to personalize it to the student. Sharma recommends knowing your students on a personal level. By seeking to understand the motives, backstories, and opinions of the students in your course, instructors can intentionally break down the inherent walls of the online format. Things you would glean from meeting students face-to-face and interacting with them are important; the online instructor must make an effort to learn this information.

After addressing instructors’ external actions, Sharma challenges individuals to some inward reflection. He discusses the idea that online instructors must acknowledge their assumptions and start each student with a clean slate.

Sharma states that you may not know you hold assumptions, but they can critically change your practice. His focus is on how your assumptions impact students understanding content, but his words struck a chord with me in my dealings with student issues. What assumptions do I bring about student behavior in the online classroom? What do I think a good online student looks like, and how does that viewpoint impact my evaluation of them?

Is this the biggest challenge for online learning profs?

In multiple classes, I have had struggling students divulge personal situations that have prevented them from succeeding in the class. Often times, these are 2-3 weeks after they have ceased participating. During that time, I have usually assumed they have simply quit the class.  Without a face or identity to associate with them, they exist as a name to me.

Once I hear their stories, I am always jolted to the reality that they are people.

The Greatest Challenge

This is one of the greatest difficulties of online coursework: depersonalization. I must constantly resist the notion of seeing my students as just a name. I need to work to give them traits and identities that build them as true individuals to me. That prompts me to work harder for them as people rather than simply dismissing them as statistics.

This lesson can also translate the face-to-face classroom. I often silo face-to-face classroom work from online coursework. They feel so different to me that I have trouble building bridges between them.

But, I must seek to take the best part of both and bring it into both settings. I certainly tailor the class to my goals, but perhaps not the students. Maybe my course is only personalized to me.

At his/her core, a student is someone who has made a conscious choice to better themselves. Building my practice from that identity in all learning settings will make me a better teacher.

About the Author:

Jeremy Cunningham

Jeremy Cunningham is a part-time instructor at Washtenaw Community College and Cleary University where he teaches composition and communication coursework. He also teaches English at Mason High School. He holds degrees in literature and education from Miami University, Eastern Michigan University, and Michigan State University. Outside of work, Jeremy dedicates his time to his wife, Darcie, and daughter, Ruby.


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