Instructional Methods for Online Learning

The differences between online and classroom instruction go beyond medium alone. How instructors deliver information, interact with students, and assess learning is much different in a virtual learning environment. Online education demands more independence, so students must be able to learn at least some of the material when professors are unavailable. Because online degree programs attract a larger share of out-of-region and nontraditional students, including working students, parents, and military personnel, professors must also learn to engage a more diverse group of learners.

Increasingly sophisticated online courseware addresses many of these differences, but only when teachers use the right tools in the right circumstances. This section identifies some of the most common instructional and content delivery methods used in online degree programs.

How Technology Impacts Online Instruction

Professors new to online teaching occasionally adopt a technology-first approach to instructional planning. This perspective may complicate the teaching process and result in poorer learning outcomes. Jared Stein, Vice President of Research and Development at Canvas by Instructure, advises online professors to prioritize learning objectives before technology.

“Begin with the end in mind: What do you want learners to have accomplished at the end of the course? How will they have changed?” Mr. Stein said during an interview with OnlineEducation.com. “You will want to choose the tools that provide the best opportunities to learn, practice, and socialize with the least amount of technical overhead.”

Once online instructors identify what they want to teach, and through what methods, they can review the online learning technologies available to them and identify those that complement their goals best. However, not all online courses are structured the same way: where some allow a great deal of scheduling flexibility, others strive to recreate a more traditional campus-based course environment online. Professors must consider these factors when choosing instructional tools and methods.

The Logistics of Content Delivery

One of the features that makes online degree programs unique from campus-based programs is that students do not necessarily have to report to class during scheduled sessions, but some learners still prefer live, interactive courses that are simply more accessible. Technology allows colleges and universities to deliver courses in either format—something that impacts how professors teach online courses. Dr. Susan Aldridge, president of Drexel University Online, suggested virtual tools can also help online schools recreate the campus based learning experience online.

“In many ways, online learning at Drexel is similar to on-ground learning. Our virtual students follow the same curriculum, study with the same faculty, and turn in the same assignments as their on-campus peers,” Dr. Aldridge told OnlineEducation.com. “They are simply earning their degrees from a distance in a virtual classroom rather than a physical one, and communicating with their professors and fellow students through the wonders of technology.”

Synchronous Instruction

Synchronous instruction replicates live, traditional coursework as closely as an online class can. Professors adopt tools and online instructional methods that support real-time learning and discussion. Dr. James Groves, an associate professor of Engineering and the University of Virginia, discussed some of the benefits of synchronous instruction in an interview with OnlineEducation.com.

“We believe that a key element of education is intellectual engagement by students with others – faculty instructors, teaching assistants, and fellow students,” said Dr. Groves. “The live sessions offer the opportunity for student mixing, and we believe that the additional perspectives of the larger, more diverse student body benefit all of our students.”

When it comes to teaching online courses, technology matters. Instructional methods both depend on and inform how, and when, content is delivered Professors teaching large classes may find tools that allow student audio to interrupt lectures disruptive, and those that integrate live, two-way video at-will impractical. Technologies that allow instructors to maintain audio and video control while giving students a chance to ask questions and engage in discussion using a live chat might offer a common ground. Asynchronous discussion boards are another, perhaps more structured means of addressing questions and discussions. Small classes, however, can often accommodate live, two-way audio and video, which provides an even more personal, classroom-like learning experience.

Professors teaching synchronous courses are not limited to just content delivery method: they can combine them with additional technologies to accommodate a wider range of learners. The following tools are just some of those that support real-time communication:

  • Streaming video platforms
  • Live chats, individually or course-wide
  • Web conferencing tools
  • Telephone availability
  • Virtual office hours

Each of these tools encourages live participation and interaction, though some online professors also capture and upload lecture videos and chat transcripts for students who occasionally miss class. Purely asynchronous courses, however, rely heavily on such materials.

Asynchronous Instruction

Online courses that allow students to view lectures, access materials, and collaborate with teachers and peers on their own schedule are called asynchronous courses. Lectures might be pre-recorded or presented on a program like Microsoft PowerPoint, perhaps with instructor voice-over. These delivery methods allow students to review and re-review lessons as necessary. These options could be quite helpful to students who cannot attend scheduled sessions, hope to minimize live group projects or discussions, or want to work through lessons at their own pace.

Programs that use asynchronous content delivery methods require a different approach to teaching—one that depends heavily upon the technologies used. As with synchronous instruction, characteristics like class size and instructor preferences can influence which tools are used in an asynchronous online classes. Many employ more than one technology, which could include the following:

  • Downloadable pre-recorded lectures
  • Microsoft PowerPoint presentations with or without voice-over
  • Forums and discussion boards
  • Email communication
  • Google Drive and similar collaborative tools
  • Tools for off-hour support, like virtual tutoring centers and virtual resource centers

Each of these delivery formats allows instructors to overcome teaching challenges, but few programs adopt just one approach to teaching. Professors pull from a much larger instructional toolbox. Teachers and students both benefit from knowing how various teaching methods work online, and in what circumstances.

Instructional Strategies for Online Courses

Online degree programs are designed to convey the same knowledge and skills as campus-based programs, so professors often adapt the same instructional methods to the online teaching environment. In some cases, delivery is virtually the only notable difference; in others, the technology fundamentally changes or enriches the learning experience. Dr. Aldridge discussed the relationship between online teaching methods and student learning experiences during an interview with OnlineEducation.com.

“Instructors who teach in this space are also very much aware of the need for establishing a teaching presence that facilitates and directs the learning process in ways that engage students in active and authentic, measurable, and customized learning experiences,” Dr. Aldridge said. “In some programs we are implementing virtual reality through sophisticated simulations and games that provide a risk-free, but challenging environment for engaging students in authentic problem-based activities and role-playing exercises aimed at developing the skills they need to become successful practitioners. Consequently, these high-tech experiential teaching tools empower them to learn by doing, as they master expert knowledge and complex skills.”

The instructional strategies described below are widely used in online courses, as outlined by Carnegie Melon, the College of Southern Nevada (CSN), and the Illinois Online Network (ION).

Lecture

Lecture is perhaps the most prevalent instructional strategy used in higher education—on campus and online. Just as they would in a classroom, many online professors use lectures to transmit information, promote comprehension, and spark students’ interests. Learning management systems (LMSes) typically allow instructors to record lectures, deliver them live, or both. However, it is helpful to keep in mind that lectures place students in a passive role, which could negatively impact student engagement in the online learning environment. Both CSN and the ION suggest online lectures are most beneficial when used in conjunction with more active instructional strategies.

Discussion

Whether used in conjunction with lectures or as a separate learning exercise, class discussion supports learning and actively engages online students in the learning process. Learners have an opportunity to ask questions and communicate their ideas while practicing analytical and cognitive skills. According to Kenneth Chapman, Vice President of Market Strategy at Distance2Learn, many students feel more comfortable participating in discussions online than in the classroom.

“The ability to participate in a ‘safe’ environment is also one of the hallmarks of online learning,” said Mr. Chapman. “Not all students have the confidence (or language skills) to freely express themselves in a traditional course setting.”

In synchronous courses, professors pose questions and discuss course material using real-time chats and web-conferencing tools. Students enrolled in asynchronous classes tend to communicate with peers and instructors using discussion boards, Web forums, and social media tools.

Demonstrations

Teaching by showing is just as prevalent in online courses as traditional ones. Demonstrations are a mainstay when it comes to conveying certain concepts and processes. They are also among the instructional methods enhanced by the virtual learning environment. Online instructors frequently upload recorded video demonstrations to the LMS regardless of whether they delivered them synchronously or asynchronously. Students can review these clips as often as necessary to master the lesson.

Simulations

Simulations delivered in a realistic digital environment allow online students to test practical skills and knowledge remotely. Major colleges and universities sometimes use simulations to prepare online students for fieldwork traditionally carried out in a face-to-face setting. These virtual experiences are applicable in several fields and disciplines. Online biology students can use simulations for dissection while the University of Southern California uses managerial simulations that let students make decisions and experience their outcomes. According to Harvard Business Publishing, simulations reinforce key concepts and let students explore them in a real-world context.

Preparing simulations was once a lengthy, tedious process, but leading LMS platforms can streamline the process by allowing instructors to choose from a variety of scenarios that complement course content. Professors can also search open source educational resources (OERs) like Merlot for compatible simulations made freely available by their creators.

Games

Like simulations, games let online students gain practical experience in an accessible digital environment. They can also increase student participation as learners may find them more engaging and less stressful than simulations. Educational technology developers like Distance2Learn integrate game-building applications directly in the LMS to simplify the design process.

“It is important to design alternative and flexible ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge,” Mr. Chapman told OnlineEducation.com. “We launched our Game Based Activity Builder for instructors to easily create visual games … from the content [they] already have in their course.”

Online instructors can use leaderboards and other motivating tools to introduce friendly competition and, in turn, motivate students to master whatever skills and concepts the game is meant to convey.

Case Studies

Case studies are another instructional method that places students in an active learning role while promoting research, problem-solving, and high-level cognitive skills. When used in a collaborative way, these exercises present another opportunity for online students to connect and learn from one another. It can be helpful for instructors to suggest reputable online resources students can consult for information.

According to CSN, case studies work well in online courses and do not require much preparation. Instructors can search OER sites and databases to find case studies prepared by other online professors.

Problem-Based Learning Projects

Problem-based learning (PBL) encourages students to practice many of the same skills as case studies while actively solving problems. Projects are usually collaborative in nature: teams of online students can use collaborative document programs like Google Drive to manage their work and share information. Small group chats and forums can also become a sounding board for theories and discussion.

According to the ION, this work places instructors in an advisory rather than an authoritative position. An online resource called WebQuest lets instructors find, create, and share the type of inquiry-based assignments used in PBL projects.

Guided Design

Guided design is an inquiry-based instructional method that encourages online students to familiarize themselves with resources available in their local communities. In guided design, learners are tasked with solving open-ended problems. Unlike most PBL projects, this technique requires students to complete some work outside of class. Guided design emphasizes independent research making it ideal for teaching students in self-directed online degree programs.

Tomorrow’s Online Teaching Methods

While online professors frequently use the instructional methods outlined here, LMS developers add features often. Some new tools support new methods of instruction. Professors can visit LMS developers’ official websites to track and preview emerging capabilities, then assess their impact on student learning. This evaluation is another task simplified by online courseware.

Assessing the Effectiveness of Online Instruction

Teaching online courses for the first time requires a period of adjustment; professors must be able to assess how well an instructional method is working and adapt accordingly. Professors teaching classroom-based courses can evaluate instructional success through testing, students’ questions, and visual feedback during lectures. Online instructors can also evaluate various teaching methods through assessments and student communications, but the data-driven nature of online technology offers a less subjective measurement of success.

Learning management systems can monitor progress and behaviors for each individual student, and then compile them for instructor review. The data, called learning analytics, tells professor how often students are logging in, how much time they spend on each task, and how well they master the material. Such tracking can be valuable. Learning analytics help instructors quickly identify areas of concern at any point so that they can adjust teaching methods, course materials, or objectives accordingly. Teachers new to online instruction who would benefit from more guidance in this area—or online instruction in general—should not hesitate to find the support they need.

Teaching Support for Online Instructors

Professors transitioning from classroom to online teaching have several support resources available to them. They can confer with online teaching veterans on campus or through online groups, or attend regional and national conferences centered on best online teaching practices and learning management platforms. Professors can also refer to digital publications like the Online Learning Journal to review relevant studies, trends, and case studies.

While these resources can be tremendously beneficial to instructors throughout the course of their online teaching careers, those offered on campus can provide targeted training and support using the same LMS and institutional practices professors will use. Online instructors can look to formal university training programs, technical support services, and other departments focused on online learning or instructional design for help.

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