CDLT Research to Practice Blog
Wednesday, October 18, 2017
Lessons from the Past: Reflections on Online Teaching
Karen Milheim, Ed.D., Core Faculty, Walden University
After finishing my master's degree, I published my first academic article titled "Strategies for Designing Online Courseware" (see Milheim, 2004). Since then, online classrooms have evolved tremendously, impacted by factors such as improvements in technology, expansion of programs, and increased enrollment. All of these things influence how we interact with students, and how students interact with each other, in virtual learning environments. To continue to support students effectively, it is important for faculty to be attuned to these changes.
Over ten years later, I thought it would be fun to revisit the Strategies article to get a sense for how things have changed with respect to communication in the classroom. In Strategies (2004, p. 269), I wrote: "successfully delivering web-based courses involves more than merely developing the technical skills of the instructor" and went on to highlight topics related to humanizing the classroom. What was missing from that article was the fact that not all interactions are going to be cordial, smooth, and pleasant. I went on to write that online classrooms will be "interactive, friendly, and supportive" if the lack of human interaction is addressed (p. 270). Clearly, the younger me hadn't taught online much and didn't realize it is more complex than that.
Culture and communication
Students enrolled in distance learning programs continues to rise; couple that with the appeal of earning a degree from a U.S.-based institution without the cost involved with travel (Milheim, 2014), and the number of international students seeking an online degree will most likely continue in this trajectory. This increase makes it imperative for faculty to, at minimum, understand the impact a student's cultural background could have on their experiences in the classroom.
In a study I conducted several years ago focused on this topic, I was surprised to learn that several faculty indicated they ignored cultural difference, equating it to an attempt to "treat all students alike". Another noted that, as long as learning objectives were met, culture essentially didn't matter (Milheim 2014). Yet, research shows that culture does, in fact, matter. It affects areas such as learning styles, views towards the faculty and student relationship, and behavior in the classroom, among other areas (Jung, 2014). When you compound the discussion with other demographics - gender and socio-economic status, for example - it can be quite a complex conversation.
Most of the recommendations from Strategies with respect to the instructor's role in the classroom focused on general tactics (e.g. posting an introduction; encouraging group activities) to "promote an effective partnership between the instructor and his or her students" (Milheim, 2004, p. 268). While much of this holds true today, instructors need to move beyond these standard techniques in order to fully foster a classroom environment that is appreciative of different viewpoints to help deepen and support learning. It is important to consider how faculty can foster dynamic, effective discussion in light of cultural differences among students in a classroom.
The first step towards this is being mindful. If a student seems disengaged, don't assume it is for lack of trying. It might be because, in their culture, faculty are viewed as leaders - the experts - and their role as a student is to learn. Or, if a student is overly formal and seems harsh in their postings, it may be because their writing is never informal and they are more direct in their approach. Before responding, consider these potential influences and continue to learn ways to effectively engage in a diverse classroom environment.
Misinterpretation of the written word
In Strategies, there wasn't much written about misinterpretation in online classrooms, other than "if students interpret written statements...they may not perceive feedback or course content in the appropriate context" (p. 270). Misinterpretation of the written word, whether it be in feedback or in discussion forums, remains an issue in online learning. While written discussion forums, in particular, hold value in building a community of learners, there is a learning curve with respect to how to thoughtfully guide students in them.
For students who are unfamiliar with expectations in a discussion forum, in particular, it is very easy for behaviors that might be acceptable for social media posts to creep into the classroom. Casual language, poor grammar, and abbreviations can become issues, and distract from the intention of the forum and the learning goals. Unlike a face-to-face environment where there is a flow to the conversation, online forums take away most of the spontaneity and naturalness from classroom interactions.
Before completely tossing aside the idea that casual language has no place in online forums, though, consider the research conducted by Phirangee and Hewitt (2015). They conclude that cues such as emoticons and punctuation help students express their perspectives online and might be effective. Ultimately, it is important to find a balance between academic writing and casual writing -- and to determine what is acceptable, comfortable, and expected.
Along these lines, it is important to set specific guidelines for written discussion forums and rubrics must be aligned with expectations. Also, students should be reminded, on a continual basis, of the role of the instructor in an online forum. On more than one occasion, I've had students become upset with me for questioning them in a forum, when my intent was to help further the discussion. Setting expectations up front with students regarding your role in the discussion can alleviate any misunderstandings.
In addition to the areas highlighted here, Strategies goes on to explore topics related to course design and evaluation. More important, though, is that to develop teaching practice, we need to look beyond the basics. As with teaching in a face-to-face classroom, activities such as introducing yourself to your students are the norm at this point. This may or may not have been the case over a decade ago when I wrote that article. After revisiting Strategies (2004), I've learned that much of what I wrote still holds true but warrants a deeper exploration of these, and other topics, to progress online teaching further and to stay ahead of the rapid changes in the field.
Jung, I. (2014). Cultural influences on online learning. In I. Jung & C.N. Gunawardena (Eds.), Culture and online learning: Global perspectives and research (pp. 15-24). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Milheim, K.L. (2004) Strategies for designing on-line courseware. International Journal of Instructional Media, 31(3), 267-272.
Milheim, K. L. (2014). Facilitation across cultures in the online classroom. International Journal of Learning, Teaching, and Educational Research, 5(1), 1-11.
Phirangee, K., & Hewitt, J. (2015). Loving this dialogue!!!!☺: Expressing emotion through the strategic manipulation of limited non-verbal cues in online learning environments. Emotions, technology, and learning, 69.