“We need an education system that sits at the same pH level as the world around it.”
This observation by Paul McDonagh-Smith during an online MIT Sloan School of Management presentation underscores the need for digital learning strategies in a post-industrial society.
Indeed, now is the time to help faculty refine those digital teaching skills acquired through trial and error during the abrupt shift to remote learning: As the world gets more networked and distributed, the demand for digital learning will only grow.
Until recently, the number of students enrolled in online programs was typically concentrated at the largest institutions. But digital degree programs are no longer just for the bigger players: A small institution called Hilbert College, for example, recently made its debut in the online degree scene with 11 programs (most colleges start by piloting two or three programs).
This willingness to embrace digital learning is a sign of things to come. From a higher learning leader’s perspective, online degree programs offer another revenue stream by enabling the institution to reach a broader student population and possibly take the programs globally. Courses shared in asynchronous mode make it possible to design courses for students learning in different time zones–an important consideration for schools in towns where the youth demographic is declining.
Online learning is also about engaging new learners. Automation and advanced technologies require employees to learn new skills long after entering the working world. Older people with full-time jobs seek learning opportunities that fit their busy schedules. And with advances in tech like AR and VR, digital learning is set to become even more immersive, flexible, and engaging, increasing the range of hands-on virtual learning experiences.
There are benefits for instructors. The shift to digital might mean not having to relocate to teach a course and possibly having the capacity to serve multiple institutions from the same home office. Digital teaching isn’t everyone’s game. Still, by flexing those digital teaching muscles, higher learning instructors can position themselves to pursue opportunities in the future.
The shift to digital is not a fad: higher learning leaders must prepare their institutions and staff soon and at least start piloting some programs–or risk falling behind.
Many higher learning leaders gained important insight during the recent wide-scale emergency shift to digital learning: pre-recorded PowerPoint representations and 100% asynchronous Zoom lessons just don’t cut it when it comes to student engagement.
Savvy institutions – particularly smaller ones – launch sleekly designed digital programs with the help of an online program manager (OPM). OPMs provide course design, marketing, and student support, among other services–but often require a share of the school’s revenue, so not all institutions will use one. Some institutions ask instructors to do their own course design; others hire instructional system designers (ISDs) who can provide technical support and assist with the user experience.
But even with professional help, it’s still up to the instructor to develop new habits and ways of working. According to one study, the physical distance in online education makes it difficult for the students to “get a sense of who the teacher is.” But it’s this very sense of who a teacher is that can help students succeed.
Consider this Psychology Today article, written by professor Mitchel M. Handelsman, in which he reflects on the positive attributes of his most beloved university-level teacher. Here, he demonstrates how his former professor displayed authenticity, curiosity, humility, and playfulness–virtues that are common to great teachers.
“He did not have a ‘teaching persona’; he expressed himself as the human being he was in his interactions with his students,” he says.
As the above example shows, helping instructors bring their whole human selves to digital learning environments is crucial. It can boost engagement in the short term and continue positively influencing students in the longer term.
Fostering instructor-student relationships isn’t easy in digital environments. These courses often have high student enrollment numbers, and teaching assistants are likely the students’ first point of contact.
But problems creating human connections in digital environments aren’t necessarily an inevitable outcome of leveraging technology. It’s possible to help staff develop a bond with students by using new techniques that might take time to master.
Here are five tips for developing a digital teaching strategy that will help your instructors keep the human element in digital learning:
Course clarity has always been an essential element of the learning experience. In online environments, however, instructors have to put in even more effort to ensure the course structure is as straightforward as possible, particularly when the program emphasizes self-paced learning. As this UBC blog post advises, remind staff to revise the course syllabus and make it as detailed as possible. Emphasize key dates (such as the deadline for major assignments) to reduce student anxiety and manage their expectations. The course syllabus will also be one of the first touchpoints the student has with instructors, so they can use it as an opportunity to include a little message about what they hope the students will get out of the experience.
Well-designed online learning content often features asynchronous presentations that are not read by the instructor but rather by a voice professional. The content can also feature embedded links to relevant YouTube videos, news articles, and short documentaries on the web, contributing to a rich learning experience.
This can help the institution deliver course content in a clear, engaging way–but where is the instructor in all of this? Consider using pre-recorded videos to help students put a face to the name. The goal here is not to generate hours and hours of video lectures but rather to make strategic use of videos featuring the instructor speaking directly to the camera. For example, at the beginning of each unit, include a pre-recorded video introduction with the instructor outlining key learning objectives for the upcoming lecture.
The delivery can be more formal than an in-person one-on-one discussion, but staff shouldn’t be afraid to let their personality show: If they tend to use gestures when they talk, they can use gestures in the video. If they have a sense of humor, they can use that too.
Instructors might worry about how a lack of physical presence will impact the learning experience. But believe it or not, instructor responsiveness is more critical than in-person, face-to-face interaction. According to one study conducted by researchers at National-Louis University, while “students generally placed a high value on communication and instructor’s responsiveness, they did not place as much importance on synchronous or face-to-face communication.”
Show staff how they can set expectations around TA and faculty response times at the beginning of the course. Encourage instructors to conduct virtual drop-in hours before a major assignment is due or before an upcoming exam.
Of course, instructors will want to make the best use of their time, reserving their energy for more difficult academic questions. Provide instructors with advice on directing students to messaging boards for the more repetitive administrative queries and technical support staff for IT issues.
Digital media has created more opportunities for short, text-based conversations, extending beyond email, messaging boards, and chat software. Robust learning enablement platforms also enable instructors to send messages that can be displayed right in an e-textbook. Teachers can use the text to ask probing questions about how a given concept maps back to a current event or idea covered in the lecture.
Communicating in short bursts might be an adjustment for some academics accustomed to explaining ideas using long paragraphs. It can also be difficult to convey an emotion, like enthusiasm, quickly. This explains why the exclamation point is used so often. It’s not uncommon to see two or three exclamation points in a row in everyday social interactions online. (What’s warmer in tone? “So great to see you!!” or “So great to see you.”) Social media is changing how we use language. Seek out learning content that teaches your teachers how to communicate effectively through social media interactions.
Digital tech provides new ways of interpreting the world around us. If your institution uses a learning enablement platform, you can data-fy the student experience and use that as insight to inform how instructors teach and communicate.
For example, e-textbook usage statistics enable instructors to see whether students struggle to complete an assigned reading. The instructor can then reach out with a general message offering help and encouraging students to get in touch with their TAs. Avoid making students feel like they are being singled out and focus on aggregate data with a message like: “The overall completion score for this reading is sitting at 50%--looks like this was a tough one! How can we help?” Also, be transparent about using this information at the beginning of the course, showing how it will benefit the learning experience.
Digital technology is helping higher learning leaders, students, and teachers break free from the confines of time and space. The goal here is not to replicate the in-person learning experience but rather to explore new avenues for learning when a wider variety of people are seeking to acquire new knowledge and skills. This can be an exciting yet uncertain time for instructors and administrators alike as they learn how to forge connections with students in different ways. By employing digital teaching strategies, instructors can be present with their students and communicate in a way that builds a strong rapport, strengthening the connection between the student and the institution.
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