Expectations when teaching online

Studying online can be rich, interactive and highly satisfying. There are many courses at Monash which have been offering fully online and flexible options for students with great success.

Monash University’s move to online education carries with it every expectation of a world class quality student experience and learning outcomes.

One of the expectations of students, and of Monash as a whole, is that educators and students regularly engage with each other in rich ways. In the rapid transition to online this can be a challenge for many educators and students who may not have worked in this way before.

It is important to recognise:

  • teaching teams may be working in new ways and they need assurance, support, clear guidance, and setting of expectations - especially around availability and interaction with students.
  • most students will be working in new ways at a time when they are anxious not only about their studies but also their income, families and other issues. Students need assurance, empathy, clear guidance. Ambiguity and isolation are two very real issues which can drastically impact student experience and success.

In order to meet these needs, every week students should have:

  • clear guidance about what they should be doing,
  • carefully selected effective learning materials
  • thoughtfully designed learning activities that help students achieve the learning goals
  • opportunities to engage in rich ways with their teaching team

Providing a reading and Q&A forum to allow students to engage are effective steps, but they are insufficient as a sole strategy. Educators must engage students so that they are actively working with content or ideas and preferably demonstrating their learning (e.g. through interactions, posts, quizzes, collaborative tasks, etc.).

Rich engagement means:

Students are able to learn from and interact with their educators and with each other on a regular basis.

Every week this will usually include a mixture of:

  1. Synchronous ‘live’ communication (e.g. video conference via Zoom, Echo360 or other technologies)
  2. Asynchronous communication (e.g., forums, chats, email, feedback on work)

Each of these modes of engagement can have a powerful impact on student experience and outcomes.

Synchronous communication

Research and experience tells us that real time connection plays an essential role in helping students and educators interrogate ideas, clarify expectations, collaborate on tasks, and engage in fast feedback loops in activities. Synchronous communication also helps to break down isolation, increase social presence, reduce ambiguity, and increase likelihood of students feeling comfortable in engaging with the teacher and others in asynchronous ways (e.g. reduces concerns over forum participation).

While there are a range of strengths it may be useful to consider three particularly powerful uses of synchronous technologies

  1. fast feedback loops - a powerful affordance of any synchronous communication whether it is in class or online is that students can engage in tasks (e.g. answering a question, explaining an idea, solving a problem) and receive instant feedback about their knowledge and skills from educators and other students. The implication here is that when you engage in synchronous events you should plan for activities that support fast feedback loops. You can use groups and you can model these yourself. If you ask students to perform tasks in front of the rest of the class, consider breaking open what you observe in such a way that it will help all of the students reflect on their own understanding.
  2. reducing ambiguity - in any students tasks, especially high stakes tasks such as assessments, students can experience a great deal of anxiety if they are unsure about exactly what is being asked of them or how they are supposed to achieve that task. Even when we provide fantastic task descriptions and rubrics, students will inevitably have many questions. Asynchronous forums should always be used in Moodle sites as a way for students to ask questions. However, synchronous communication has a very important role to play in helping clarify details and setting the tone. You convery so much more this way, plus students can ask clarifying questions (which would otherwise take you ages to respond to in forums).
  3. improving participation across the unit - it is an interesting phenomena that some students are less likely to participate in class for a variety of reasons. The same is true for online synchronous and asynchronous contexts. However, online participation can be increased by establishing a sense of who the other people are - so that it is less like talking to a crowd of strangers but more to a group of known co-workers. Synchronous communication can be effectively used to set a welcoming and encouraging tone which has knock on effects for increasing students participation including in forums.

Evaluating how you use synchronous moments

We recommend that you review the content of the session you are planning to conduct.

If you are using the time to simply talk at the students, it may be better to pre-record that content, and instead use the synchronous time to facilitate interaction with and between students.

As an example - If you are running a 1 hour session which is mostly taken up by simply presenting content to students then you could instead:

  • pre-record this information for students to watch
  • then use Zoom or another tool (at the normal scheduled time) to meet with your students, in which a key activity would be to engage with the content of the video. For example, they could break into groups and interrogate ideas in the video you recorded and as a group produce a list of issues, questions, problems, solutions, highlights, applications to other contexts, etc. They can then bring these lists back to the main room at a designated time and you can then work through them as a way of unpacking misconceptions and pushing their thinking further.

Equity - no student should be disadvantaged 

Not all students may be able to participate in synchronous events due to time zones or other issues. No student should be disadvantaged for this reason. This means that these students should be provided with equitable access to information and learning tasks. In its simplest form this may be a recording of the event. However, it could also be accomplished in other ways.

Asynchronous communication

This includes email, forums, text chats over time, feedback comments, shared collaborative documents and more.

Asynchronous interaction has several strengths. First it allows students to engage at times that are most appropriate for them. This is particularly relevant for online education when students may be in other timezones. Another strength is that asynchronous interaction allows students to engage with an idea deeply before responding. This means that you can ask your students to engage in meaningful tasks and expect higher quality output.

Asynchronous interaction can elicit deep thinking

When engaging your students asynchronously, try to avoid simple questions or ask for simple answers. Challenge them to solve problems, justify a point, apply an idea, draw a response, or any other thoughtful engagement that requires them to synthesise your curriculum and find new ways to make meaning of it.

Engaging regularly is important

Educators should be available and engage regularly with students. However, the majority of asynchronous interaction is likely to be between students as they engage with the tasks you set, ask questions of each other, and share their insights/solutions/reasoning.

It is important for the teaching team to regularly participate in the forums or other communication platforms. Even if students are engaging the way you want, it is useful to make encouraging posts to help them realise that you are engaged and that they are on the right path. This kind of online presence helps motivate, reinforces that this kind of asynchronous communication is important, and most importantly allows educators to shape the conversations - correcting and extending their students’ thinking. It is also a very useful way to gather insight into the misunderstandings and learning needs of your students.

Experience suggests that the communication platforms such as forums should be engaged with every second day by a teaching team member, if not more regularly.

Tip: if you ask students a question then you are likely to set yourself as the centre of the conversation (which makes a lot of work for yourself). Instead, try framing your question into a challenge that the students have to resolve. This way the students have to engage with each other, and you can gently offer prompts, links, and suggestions along the way.