MarilynHerieThis is a guest post by Dr. Marilyn Herie, Academic Chair, Department of Community Services at Centennial College. It was originally posted on June 24, 2014 on educateria.

How can we create online learning environments that are as dynamic, collaborative and successful as the best face-to-face classrooms? Is it even possible? My own experience in online graduate teaching over the past 12 years suggests an emphatic “yes”. Or, should I say, an emphatic “yes, but…”.

Just as there are many diverse classroom-based teaching approaches (some more successful than others in engaging learners and mobilizing knowledge transfer), there are a wide-range of online instructional approaches. All students, regardless of the learning platform, can engage best when they experience high instructional immediacy. That is, a sense of warmth, caring, support and positive regard in the learning environment.

A recent book entitled Teaching Health Professionals Online:Frameworks and Strategies, by Sherri Melrose, Caroline Park, and Beth Perry, offers tips on creating and maintaining instructional immediacy in online settings, and reflects many of my own approaches and strategies.

Here are 10 tips for how online instructors can project warmth and likeability (instructional immediacy):

1.  Post a positive and supportive welcome message to greet students the first time they login to the course and each week thereafter

2.  Students and instructors should share online bios (pictures are a bonus)

3.  Create smaller sub-groups for online discussion and reflection on course materials and assignments (8-10 students is optimal in my experience)

4.  Include short (< 5 minutes) videos introducing course topics and offering tips and key learning ideas to personalize each week’s focus

5.  Assign “learning buddies” among students in the course to structure collaboration and collegiality

6.  Have early and ongoing online conversations about process (versus course content). Discussion points can include:

–   What is it like to be in this course?

–   What are you looking forward to, and what is one thing you are concerned about?

–   How can we challenge each other in ways that foster debate and dialogue but still feel respectful and affirming?

–   How can I (instructor) help maximize your learning and value gained from this course?

7.   Set clear expectations in the Course Syllabus about online participation (my expectation of students is at least one original post per week, and at least two replies to other students’ posts per week)

8.  Offer targeted encouragement at points in the course where motivation may be flagging (e.g., right after reading week, and towards the final weeks of the course)

9.  Use intentional word choices in online communication with students. For example, say

“Our course will focus on…” rather than “The focus of this course is…”

“We’ll be working together to accomplish…” rather than “You will be required to…”

“The conversation in our group this week has highlighted…” rather thanStudents’ feedback has indicated…”

10.  End the course with an explicit call to action – Explain to them how does the learning in this course fits into the bigger picture of students’ learning trajectories and career goals.

Student course evaluations attest to the possibility of online learning as a fun, rigorous and enriching alternative to face-to-face contact. Here are some representative student comments from the course evaluations for the 2014 online course I taught, both positive and negative (but comments overwhelmingly slanted toward the positive):

The instruction was very clear and very intellectually stimulating. The video clips were very well presented and made the instruction not seem virtual at all.

I enjoyed the online format of the course. I feel the online discussion helped my learning and I benefited more from these discussions than in-class ones.

I really didn’t like the fact this course is online. I feel that I could have learned a lot more by having a classroom environment and participating through talking instead of though writing weekly reflections just because I had to.

Excellent, the most involved and interactive online course I have ever taken. I felt very engaged and connected to the instructor, students and material.

As students increasingly orient themselves to rich digital communication and sharing, this teaching/learning platform is aligned with what our students are already doing in their day-to-day lives. Not every student, but lots of our students.