Instructing online instructors

Responding to student questions can become a fulltime job.

Tammy Hall encourages first-time online instructors to ready themselves for any and all student questions on the first day of class, knowing that no amount of prep can fend off queries that might, temporarily, stump the new teacher.

Hall, who is director of academic services for the Louisiana Community & Technical College System (LCTCS)—which includes 16 colleges throughout the state—has overseen a program aiming to hone online instructors’ teaching skills as more students gravitate toward web-based classes.

The seven-week pilot program that launched in October helps educators make the shift from the traditional classroom to an online forum and teaches them how to use social media and other tools to communicate with students.

Even instructors who prefer face-to-face classes need to have basic training as online instructors, Hall said, and recent research supports her case: Enrollment in online college courses climbed by 21 percent last year, compared to a 2-percent overall increase in higher-education enrollment, according to an annual survey of online programs published by the Sloan Consortium.

About 75 percent of colleges and universities have seen increased demand for online college courses during the economic downturn, according to the report. More than 5 million students were enrolled in at least one online class in fall 2009.

And three in 10 students now take at least one web-based class, marking a new high, according to the survey.

“The way education is going in, technology is here to stay,” Hall said. “And I think [educators] have recognized that fact.”

The LCTCS program, Professional Online Educator, was released by education publisher Pearson Learning Solutions earlier this year, when colleges across the country began piloting the curriculum.

The Professional Online Educator program shows online instructors how to customize class activities and assignments—a critical function for new online teachers looking to make their class distinctive in its first year—and includes suggested course syllabi for an online educator who has to make one from scratch.

Four out of the 14 online instructors and faculty members in the LCTCS pilot program have never taught an online course, Hall said.

“Lots and lots of front-end work,” she said, would be the only way for newbies to online instruction to grab students’ attention on the first day of class, just as they would in a brick-and-mortar classroom or lecture hall.

“[Online instructors] can be a little dismayed with the amount of work they need to do in preparation for their first class,” said Hall, who taught her first online course in 2003 at Harrison College in Indianapolis. But after three or four years, “you can pretty much teach it with your eyes closed.”

After a few years of teaching online college courses, instructors will be able to compile frequently asked question sheets stockpiled with the most common student questions.

The queries still will come in the form of constant eMail, she said, but online instructors should know when to leave their laptops and mobile devices and save their answers for predetermined online office hours, where students can sign on and chat with their instructor about upcoming assignments and exams.

“I am a workaholic, but at some point you have to turn it off and stick with office hours,” she said. “There’s a lot of burnout [in online education] because you want to be there for every student, but you have to make time for your life. If you don’t, you will be tied to your phone or tied to your computer all day every day … And we’re not trying to create a super online faculty member here.”

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