12 Things You Should Never Do When You Teach Online

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You are never alone when teaching online. As a writer and teacher, I’m here to share my experiences and insights so that you will not hit the ground.

We all know there are a lot of great articles out there on the web that talk about what you should do when you teach online. But sometimes what a new online teacher really needs is a list of what NOT to do when teaching online.

Here are 12 things I recommend that online teachers do not do:

1. Do NOT Design Your Online Classroom like an Obstacle Course

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There are a number of things folks need to know when they log-in to your online course for the first time. Students need to be able to see immediately what the course entails: what it covers, how long it takes, how much it costs, and of course, what they need to do to get a good grade or the certificate of completion you’re offering.

Sometimes getting this information out of an online classroom is like running an obstacle course. Students shouldn’t have to leap hurdles to find out how to succeed in a course. Nor should they have to scroll around for a half hour and emerge totally confused. Make your course easy to navigate. If you’ve never put an online course together before, sign up friends and family to check it out before you start teaching. Tell them you’re counting on them to be honest. Then take their comments seriously and rework the course. Remember, student satisfaction—for good or ill—starts in moment one!

2. Do NOT Design Assessments That Are Guaranteed to Fail

Learning assessments, however they are put together, need to be relevant to the material at hand, and they need to move the learning process forward.

About 100 years ago when I was doing my masters in higher education, I took a course from the test construction Prof in my department. It was a required course or I probably would not have taken it. To my surprise I learned a lot from him. He taught us how to construct test items, how to set up checklists for essay grading, and lots of other necessary things. But mostly importantly,  he also taught us how to think of assessment as an important part of the ladder towards end-of-course student success.

Ladder of Success

To illustrate how easy it was to get seriously off track, he told us a story about a physics Prof who routinely tested his class on the next lesson and not on the one they had just finished. This physics Prof thought he had designed a great test because only the three folks who read ahead got As and everybody else flunked. My test construction Prof tried gently and then firmly to get this physics Prof to see that he hadn’t designed a great test, he had designed an unfair test. And, to add insult to injury, the physics Prof was guaranteeing that he would never know whether his lectures and activities had been effective on a week-by-week basis.

3. Do NOT Minimize Student Choice or Punish Student Interaction

There are two things that most online teachers know about providing students with the opportunity for productive online learning:

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  1. Feeling as if you have some choice in how you learn, and how you express your learning gives a student a sense of ownership over the process.
  2. Feeling as if you are not alone in the classroom framework, but the teacher and all the other students are part of a community to which you also belong helps a student commit to a shared journey towards a learning goal.

But some teachers build classrooms that are so rule-bound, so rigid that learning styles are not accommodated, creativity is not allowed, and collaboration is not encouraged or, even worse, is strictly forbidden.

But you don’t have to go to extremes to kill enthusiasm for your online course. Minimizing student choice can be as simple as refusing to let folks who hate to write film video or record audio responses instead. Punishing student interaction can be as simple as admonishing students every time they stray from course materials to personal experience in a discussion forum.

4. Do NOT Refuse to Answer Students’ Questions

Okay, so you’ve designed your course, and the students have signed up, and you think you have all the elements in place that the students need to get through your class, and then you get an email asking about something you think is clearly visible in the syllabi you uploaded to your classroom! It makes you want to gnash your teeth. I know: It’s frustrating. But should you growl at them and send them back to your classroom to figure it out for themselves? Well, no.

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The best thing to do is just take a deep breath and help the student out. Imagine what a bond can be formed between you and your students by pointing them patiently to the link where the information is hiding. Imagine how much better your classroom relationships would be if you just tell them what they need to know and then point them to the link so they can explore further the info you embedded there.

Infinite patience not only breeds well-being in your classroom community, it can also make you feel better in the long run. Instead of giving into your frustration, you helped them when they needed you. That’s a pretty great.

5.  Do NOT Make Your Students Feel Unwelcome in Your Classroom

This seems like a no-brainer. You’re glad they’ve signed up. You’re excited to meet them, and then you do something that makes them wish they’d never gotten involved in your course. Giving in to Pitfall #4 is probably the number one way you can make a student feel unwelcome, but if you do some of the following, well, they’re going to get that same message, maybe even louder.

So, here are some more things you shouldn’t do if you want everybody to feel welcome:

Rules

  1. Do NOT develop long lists of rules for the classroom that restrict the ways in which your students can interact with you and the other folks in the class unnecessarily.
  2. Do NOT turn off the chat box in the live class.
  3. Do NOT forget to set up a sharing forum or introduction discussion on the Coursefeed or in a forum on your Moodle or elsewhere on a social media site.
  4. Do NOT forget to include a slide welcoming them in the Virtual Classroom or the class will launch and all they’ll see is a blank screen.
  5. Do NOT be late to your own virtual class if you can possibly avoid it and especially if you do not have a welcoming slide.
  6. Do NOT forget to say hello to the latecomers even if the speed at which your chat box flies by requires that you issue a periodic generic “hello” to the late arrivals.
  7. Do NOT answer the folks who can’t hear you in the Virtual Classroom by talking instead of typing into the chat box because if you’re trying to tell them how to fix their problem verbally, well, uh, they can’t hear you.
  8. Do NOT grump at your students in public.
  9. And finally, as a wise Dean of Faculty once told me, when you have to criticize your students, do NOT fail to construct your criticism like a kind-hearted “sandwich” of feedback, that is, by preceding the correction or criticism with authentic praise and following it up with encouragement.

6. Do NOT Be Absent from Your Online Classroom

I once knew a very new online teacher who, when he was starting out, was just so busy that he forgot when his online class was supposed to start. Unfortunately half the students withdrew before one of the remaining students alerted the office that he was a “no show” in his own class. When the office got in touch with him and reminded him that his class had already started, he was mortified. Nonetheless, later on in the same semester, he lost track of time again. More than two weeks passed by the time the students alerted the office that he had disappeared again. Sheepishly he got into his classroom at once and did his best to make up for lost time for the rest of the semester. These days he’s not such an absent-minded professor.

Of course there are times when life intervenes unexpectedly and that can’t be helped—an “emergency” plan in place is a good idea to cover those times—but there are actually some online teachers who think it’s okay to set up an online course and then disappear for days, even weeks at a time. In reality, though, if an online teacher forgets that their first duty is to be there, the students start feeling very alone in the process. Most of them will pick up and leave, if they can, and that’s not a good thing for their learning, for the faculty member or for the school.

7. Do NOT Monopolize the Conversation

Other online teachers have the opposite problem; they seem to be in the online classroom 24/7, responding to every comment made by every student.

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Even the Virtual Classroom version of this hovering behavior can be very problematic. For example, if you have set up a live class for 60 minutes, you have a series of points that you need to get through so that students can complete their assignments. If, instead, you spend the entire hour starting and stopping your presentation so you can respond to absolutely everything in the chat, your students are likely to come out of the experience feeling like they’ve been watching a never-ending pretty-much-pointless tennis match. If they got up at 4am for the class, they’re going to be really unhappy.

In a course management system, on the other hand, whether you’re on the WizIQ Coursefeed page or in a Moodle discussion forum, not only will you wear yourself out trying to provide a substantive answer to every single question, you will, more than likely, scare your students away. They will feel the pressure to contribute as much as you do to the classroom, and become overwhelmed with the amount of communicating they think you expect them to do. Or, worse yet, they will wonder why they’re bothering to respond at all, when you’re going to be there seven seconds later correcting them and elaborating on their points ad infinitum.

A community is a community. It’s not a single voice with an audience who grows increasingly afraid to speak.

8. Do NOT Ignore the Stragglers

Life happens. Some of your students are going to get behind. In a really large course, it’s hard to tell who they are, but in a smaller course or in a course that includes a Moodle classroom or another CMS with reporting functions, it’s really important to keep track of how frequently your students are getting into the mix. Having regular assessments or assignments can help with this too.

Don’t write the stragglers though and say “well, where in the world have you been?” Ask if you can help. See what’s up. It could be that life has gotten complicated for them, and all they need is a welcoming word to get back on track. In a really big class, you can issue periodic encouragement to those who haven’t yet participated in one way or another. You can put up a poll in your next live class, and see what’s up. Is something too difficult? Is something not clear? Is there some way you can help?

The stragglers will feel grateful that you’re as worried about them personally as you are about their progress. If it’s a really big course with very little built-in reporting and you have to issue those periodic, generic encouragements, the students who are keeping up will the course will see that you really care about all the students in the classroom. If they know some of the stragglers, they may be inspired to help get them back on track. It’s a good thing all around.

9. Do NOT Drop Your Guest Speakers or Your Student Presenters Off the Deep End

“Dropping someone off the deep end” is an English-language metaphor for pushing someone into a task that you are pretty sure they are not ready to do. It comes from the description of what happens when you force somebody who doesn’t know how to swim into water that is much deeper than the person is tall.

In a live class this can be a real time-waster. I’ve seen this happen when some otherwise amazing online teachers fail to take the time to familiarize their guest speakers or their student presenters with the WizIQ Virtual Classroom.

In the case of guest speakers, what usually happens is that the first 10 minutes—or more—of the live class is totally taken up with the teacher training the guest speaker to use the system. Sometimes the difficulties in completing this training are so problematic that the class is terminated early and rescheduled, or worse yet, continues on while students are complaining mightily in the chat box about all the lost time. Some guest speakers just can’t find the time to do a practice session before their lecture, but it’s worth trying to keep the training out of the live class whenever possible.

For student presenters there’s really no excuse. You’re in the online classroom with them on a regular basis. It’s easier to schedule a training session if they feel they need one. If they have do something other than run their slideshow and give a talk in the live class—like make an audio or a video file and upload it to the classroom—make sure you provide them with the tutorials and the links to get them what they need to accomplish the task.

Teaching folks to swim instead of dropping them off the deep end really pays off. Not only are your guest speakers and student presenters happier about their experience, but you also let all your students know that you’re thinking ahead about what people need to be successful. That kind of attention to detail on your part can strengthen the learning community you’re trying to build.

The Final Three Pitfalls

Once your class is over there are three things you must not do or your next online course will not be better than the one you’ve just completed. They are:

Aaron

10. Do NOT Ignore Feedback on Your Performance

11. Do NOT Assume Your Content Knowledge Needs No Refreshing

12. Do NOT Assume You Have Nothing to Learn from Some More Online Teacher Training

The first one can be a killer. Getting a course evaluation from your students is key to improvement. Make sure your students are asked specific questions about the structure and design of the course, your attention to detail, your teaching techniques, the depth and breadth of the content you provided, the assessments you built in, what they liked and what they did not like. If you’re teaching a series of live classes on WizIQ encourage your students to give feedback anonymously as the last live class ends. Not getting feedback on your course will seriously hamper your ability to improve the course the next time you teach it.

Similarly make sure you’re plugged into the subject matter area that you’re teaching and get out there and see what’s new. Sometimes that’s as easy as taking somebody else’s course on the subject, or spending a couple of days reading around in your favorite journals or watching YouTube videos from colleagues and experts to make sure you’ve got a handle on how things changed while you were teaching.

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As for making sure that you are also honing your craft as a teacher: Taking professional development courses is a wonderful way to maintain your own enthusiasm for what you are doing. Not only are you exposed to new technologies and techniques, or perhaps to new learning theory, but finding yourself in a learning community of your peers can help renew your commitment to what you’re doing. You can learn so much by just talking to folks even if what they’re doing is not quite the same as what you’re doing. There’s a lot of creativity out there.

And if you work to renew your commitment to your topic and your method after every class, you will find that your mastery of online teaching best practices will increase. Similarly, the likelihood that you will do any of the things on my list of things not to do will also decrease.

And Now You’re Ready for Best Practices …

For good advice on best practices, here are four sets of links to great discussions of how best to craft an online classroom. The first is put together in the form of a rubric for good teaching. The second one comes from the University of Maryland-University College, an institution that has been in the distance education industry for a very long time. The third one comes from an e-learning course design site. And finally, the last one comes from a website called “Faculty Focus.”

I know you’ve got all those best practices in you! Happy teaching!

Dr. Nancy Zingrone has a PhD in psychology from the University of Edinburgh and an MSEd in Higher Education from Northern Illinois University. She is passionate about online education, having learned a significant amount of what she knows about teaching online from the incomparable Dr. Nellie Deutsch and the wonderful folks at WizIQ. Her work background includes more than twenty years in personal and individual differences research, publishing, higher education administration, and adult education.

20 Comments

  • Reply August 26, 2013

    Sylvia Guinan

    Very sound advice – thanks for the care and detail that went into this article :))

    • Reply September 2, 2013

      Nan Zingrone

      Thanks Sylvia. There’s a lot to learn when you’re teaching online; you just have to be open to it. And my Mom always used to say I like to learn the hard way — :-) — so a lot of this is from my own experience. It also helps that there are so many great teachers on WizIQ to learn from!

  • Reply August 27, 2013

    Sanjeev Sharma

    Excellent article. The first point is quite crucial, something that helps to build your reputation as an online teacher. I love the way the “don’ts” are followed by really practical workarounds.

  • Reply August 29, 2013

    tanirt

    thank you for all these advices,i like your ideas

  • Reply August 30, 2013

    Schlegsofminne

    Great post! I don’t teach online, but I do teach in an alternative setting within a mainstream secondary school. This list could be shared with ALL educators. Even items 6 & 9 apply. Many of us lapse into a degree of absenteeism even though we are physically there. Learners need the instructor to be present, completely invested in the process. And, when it comes to outside resources (item 9), they need to be “tested,” vetted, and ready to incorporate in a meaningful way. Glad this made my Diigo e-mail today as I go in to set up my Moodle and initial plans!

    • Reply August 31, 2013

      Brette Lockyer

      Yes, Schleggsofminne, i agree that this could be shared with all educators. Nancy has written a great list applicable to my teaching situation – Grade Three. I am reminded that even during an assessment, I might just have another opportunity to help a student up the next rung of the ladder. I have been ignoring my student bloggers of late. This post will get me back on track, as I am reminded not be be absent from that learning space, and to pay attention to my stragglers.
      Nancy, I’m keen on the idea of avoiding the obstacle course and making the learning path clear from the outset. In the Early Years classroom, teaching is pretty responsive. The learning path may be adapted each day to accommodate needs of the learners. Do you think it’s possible to set up a clear – but responsive – online learning space for my young students?
      Cheers
      Brette Lockyer
      @brettelockyer

      • Reply September 2, 2013

        Nan Zingrone

        I’ve never taught the little ones, but I’ll bet you could put something together that would help bring them along. All the skills you’ve learned to decorate your classroom and make them enthusiastic and excited to be in the online space could be used, and if your learning management system has lots of easy ways to spruce up the classroom, the students could get involved in creating materials for the space. (I use Moodle and I think it would lend itself really well to this). There are a lot of classroom system/safe social media types of tech that can help you involve the little kids as co-creators of the learning space too.

    • Reply September 2, 2013

      Nan Zingrone

      Thanks so much! Please feel free to share!

  • Reply September 10, 2013

    David

    This is so informative. Thanks for the well written and phrased thought. I wish all those who are undertaking online teaching and learning we could have the ladder of success.

    • Reply October 15, 2013

      Nan Zingrone

      Good luck with your teaching efforts and thanks so much for your kind words.

  • Reply September 12, 2013

    Michelle

    Loved the list. I’m just about to launch my Moodle course, what perfect timing!

    • Reply October 15, 2013

      Nan Zingrone

      Great! Good luck with your Moodle course! Teaching in Moodle is one of my favorite things!

  • Reply September 17, 2013

    Joseph

    Your comment are very helpful and inspire me to create a blog for my students.

    • Reply October 15, 2013

      Nan Zingrone

      I think you’ll find it’s a great idea, blogging. And feel free to send me the link, I’d love to read it. If you’re a WizIQ member just IM in WizIQ or you can email me at nancy at theazire dot org.

  • Reply September 19, 2013

    MikeInAlabama

    In response to a student who wanted to post every day about reality TV shows, I created an “anything goes” forum. She was incensed that she was being “restricted” to that forum and complained bitterly that I was stifling her creativity. The coordinator, in front of the students, stated that I would no longer interact with the class. Gee, thanks.

    • Reply October 15, 2013

      Nan Zingrone

      Sorry that didn’t work out for you; it’s something that has always worked for me, but I have had the permission of the folks for whom I was teaching, or else it was my class. But so sorry that didn’t work out!

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