Five lessons about teaching an online course

A person is using a computer
William Woolrich
William Woolrich

Fourteen years ago, I was invited by York University to develop a social work course on mental health. It was a milestone for the School of Social Work, because they’d never offered a course online before. Now, as a veteran of online instruction, I asked myself what I’ve learned about teaching online. Here are five lessons, Buzzfeed style.

One: Students have busy, complicated lives

Students squeeze material into unbelievable schedules that include classes, homework, jobs and family responsibilities and are often forced to choose between them. With online courses, students needn’t make that choice. There’s an implied understanding that “you can do it all,” since your classroom is available 24/7.

The students in our classrooms are busy, but the online cohort seems to attract a whole new breed of busy. If you decide to teach an online course, being mindful of the many demands our students are under will make you a more compassionate teacher — and students do sense that.

Two: Students don’t read course outlines so you need to repeat key instructional material

“It’s all there in the course outline,” you say. Well that’s a bit like saying that the terms of your cellphone agreement are clearly outlined, and in Section A; Subsection 2.3, it clearly states you’ve agreed to pay a pound of flesh for roaming.

No one reads those agreements and no one reads every word of your course outline. The difference is that in a physical classroom, you can read it aloud to your students on the first day of class, whereas, with an online course, your recourse is to highlight key points and send them in emailed reminders. I suppose you could post a video showing you reading your course outline aloud. Let me know when someone watches it.

Three: Group work is painful but worthwhile (maybe)

Small groups facilitate active learning by encouraging students to articulate and mentally manipulate ideas relevant to the course. Moreover, groups are an essential part of social work as a discipline. The vast majority of social workers work in teams of one kind or another. In recognition of that fact, part of social work training isn’t just enhancing content expertise but developing so-called soft skills — whether that’s teamwork, appropriate time management, or project planning.

However, knowing that group work is important is one thing and implementing it is quite another. In-class group work is a bit of a pain. You assign groups, but not everyone’s there on the first class. You provide time to work on group projects in class but rarely are all group members present. Groups have fights and you, the instructor, must mediate. Students drop the course but don’t tell their group, whose remaining members are frantically trying to include everyone and distribute work fairly. Peer evaluation helps keep everyone accountable, but it’s not a panacea.

These problems are only compounded in online environments. No one sees each other and there’s something to be said for the accountability that develops with rapport. Furthermore, students have to find a virtual space in which to collaborate, which has its own challenges. And there’s always the “I don’t check that email address” problem that seems minor, yet is somehow insurmountable.

However, group work still meets many pedagogical goals that are difficult to meet with individual assignments. Groups also give students opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge in a medium other than the standard academic essay, which may not be their strong suit. Finally, to be honest, for faculty, marking a fifth of the assignments is a welcome reprieve from the full complement of essays.

Four: You don’t get to know the students as well as you’d like

You don’t see them. You don’t get to know their names. Avatars help, but many students won’t upload one. Moreover, online classes tend to be large. Large classes mean it’s extremely difficult to build relationships, and relationships are key to learning success. I feel as if this is the greatest weakness to online-only classes.

If you have discussion topics, it helps to break everyone into groups so that students only see the posts for people in their group, making their relationships manageable. However, you then experience problems inherent in group work.

When you don’t know your students and they don’t know you, it’s incredibly difficult to identify where the learning gaps are. In class, when you lecture and hear silence, you can check in. There’s a dynamism that’s possible in person, but challenging to create in cyberspace. In class, you can also be sensitive to the nuances of tone and facial expression in ways that aren’t possible through a computer screen.

Yes, issues about email and miscommunication are old news. When you multiply them times 100, however, it’s a different experience, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Five: Teaching online has its rewards

All frustrations aside, I’d recommend trying it. Besides the obvious, “Hey, I don’t have to go to class today!” perk, teaching online allows you to connect with students you wouldn’t have ordinarily had the opportunity to teach. While it’s true that you don’t get to know them very well, you do see a huge diversity of thought — some of it quite enriching — in papers and on discussion boards.

The accessibility of online education is responsible for the vigour that comes with including people who are often marginalized. Shift workers, single parents, consumer-survivors, students in rural areas, all of whom would struggle with the expectations of a traditional classroom for various reasons, are provided with an opportunity to participate. That alone makes it all worthwhile.

By William Woolrich, a part-time professor of Social Work in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. Currently, he is teaching the online course, Current Issues in Mental Health.