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Teaching online is leading online: some success strategies

With the COVID-19 crisis, universities across the world have turned to distance delivery. If you are an academic habituated with face-to-face delivery, this shift may have been a challenge.

Teaching for student satisfaction and success in a distance learning environment requires more than a translation of face-to-face approaches and materials to online mode.

Such is my experience from leading and teaching finance subjects in both distance and face-to-face modes at CQUniversity for over eight years. In my role, I have practised a set of strategies, motivated by reflection and research, that have attained positive student feedback, learning enjoyments and success, and multiple institutional teaching awards and commendations.

Here, I share those practices that you may also consider for your online teaching context.

Change the mindset: online teaching is a form of virtual leadership

Imagine working in a business setting where you are the leader, and all your team members are in different locations. You are unlikely to meet most of them face-to-face. Yet, as research notes, your success as a leader in such a virtual setting will depend on how well you communicate with your members and how well you develop an environment of inclusiveness.

Teaching online is no different from leading online. As a professor or a unit coordinator, you are the leader, and your students and associated teaching team are your followers.

For our university teaching roles, we train to consider various adult learning theories. Besides that, online teaching requires consideration of effective virtual leadership strategies.

Thus, go beyond viewing yourself only as an educator and embrace your role as a virtual leader, which leads to the next set of strategies.

Know your student and customise your approach and resources

What is the attribute of a good leader? Among many attributes, a good leader understands the sentiment of his or her followers while keeping an open mind.

As a leader within a virtual context, similarly try to know and understand your students – what they are good at, what factors cause them to struggle, what diversities exist among them, and how to shape delivery to meet their needs.

At CQUniversity for my taught finance subjects, students come from various academic majors. They have different background skills, and they take my subject either as a core or an optional part of their study. Thus, finance subjects, involving both advanced mathematics and theories, can appear challenging to them if they have not studied such technical subjects or the relevant mathematical concepts before.

Further, some students are long-time professionals, while others lack professional experience, and they come from various geographic contexts. Thus, their learning needs and style differ.

This high diversity among students may be a situation familiar to you as well. There is no one size fits all approach to cater for this diversity. But, just using textbooks and typical resources, which often target a particular audience, may not lead to the best learning outcomes.

For my teaching context, I use customised slides – slides that cover not only finance materials but also background that typical discipline textbooks assume as prerequisite knowledge. Finance textbooks, for example, show equations involving logarithms and Euler’s constant. In my slides, I explain in easily understandable terms what these are and how to determine them before covering the related concepts. From experience, I find similar extensions of discipline resources with background knowledge beneficial to cater for student diversity.

Textbooks are also often technical. We educators discuss hard concepts with examples and metaphors in our lecture. But, when providing written resources, we often follow the same technical nature as in textbooks. I find it is useful to also incorporate layman style explanations in written resources. This customisation appeals to students who may not be math savvy or for whom a vivid picture of what is going on can cause more effective understanding than that possible from reviewing abstract technical materials only.

Some online students are self-motivated, while others require regular interventions. Thus, just uploading materials and remaining passive may not lead to good learning outcomes. I find creating self-assessment quizzes with customised feedback, hosting discussion sessions separate from regular lectures, and arranging one-to-one sessions on-demand as effective interventions for my online class.

Assessment design in an online setting also needs some thought. The questions should not only test the students’ skills and knowledge but also engage them with learning resources. As learning theory acknowledges, some students learn from experience – questions connecting to real-world complexities will appeal to them. Other students learn from abstracts and concepts. From experience, there should be a balance between assessment questions focused on real-life settings and those testing discipline knowledge. Overemphasising or lacking sufficient focus on either can lead to dissatisfaction and incomplete learning.

In feedback, using rubrics and constructive commenting are customary, but going beyond that can result in positive outcomes. For example, I set open-ended theory questions that encourage students to reflect outside textbook contents. During feedback, I develop and provide solutions researching the same way as my students would have done. This practice, additional to typical feedback practices, guides them on how they could have answered, keeps them abreast of the latest developments in the field, and establishes example-based learning even through feedback.

Overall, I have tried some customisations considering my student diversity and subject-specific context, and which have regularly received positive feedback. Perhaps you will find these or other strategies useful for your teaching area.

The point of note is customisation, and breaking tradition can go a long way in forming interests, enjoyments, and satisfactions for your students, especially when they study online.

Communicate and adapt

Last but not least, leadership is mostly about communication, and this applies also for online teaching. However, such communication is not about just responding to emails and queries.

Research notes that students respond best when they feel connected to their teacher. I believe this connection can be both direct and indirect. Emails and posts are direct connection mediums. But the influence of indirect connections cannot be ignored.

Recorded video lectures are typical resources in online teaching. These can also be a means of communication. Reusing third-party lectures is also not uncommon. However, from experience, instructor-prepared videos can form a much closer attachment with online students.

Students trust and believe who they see and with whom they can interact with an open attitude. Keeping recorded videos interactive and engaging can go a long way to reduce not only subject-specific learning load (aka cognitive load) but also create an environment of inclusiveness.

Therefore, for success in online teaching, treat recorded video lectures as more than replacements of on-campus lectures. Instead, consider the lectures as a medium of indirect connections with online students, and adjust presentation and content accordingly.

Indirect communication does not stop with videos. The aesthetic nature of the subject website can itself communicate to students the attitude and expectation of their instructor as a virtual leader. A subject website with good content but inadequate organisation may lead to dissatisfaction; whereas, as is my experience, a site with structures customised to the need of student cohorts rather than blindly following a standard can result in positive outcomes.

Direct connections can also be proactive rather than reactive. In my experience, regularly seeking student feedback on resources and delivery style, rather than waiting for their term-ending evaluation, often reduces their cognitive load and enhances their feeling of inclusiveness.

Overall, teaching online is leading online with flexibility, communicativeness, adaptiveness and awareness.

Dr Tasadduq Imam is from the School of Business & Law at CQUniversity (Melbourne Campus). [email protected]

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