I came across an article in the Journal of Interactive Online Learning this weekend that discussed the characteristics of online instructors. The author, John Savery from the University of Akron, examined the types of interactions that engaged students and promoted their learning. To contribute to a successful learning environment for students and instructors, Savery argues that instructors need to be “VOCAL” – Visible, Organized, Compassionate, Analytical and a Leader-by-example. While the acronym itself might be easy to follow, I thought some explanation may be needed to connect the descriptors to online instruction.
1. Visible. Students need to interact with their instructors, especially in online learning environments. While it can be difficult to have a “teaching presence” in a digitally mediated space, it’s not impossible. Instructors can start by participating in online discussions and by providing opportunities for students to engage in synchronous chats. I spoke with a colleague recently who is taking an online class through a major university with a renowned online college. She rarely interacts with the instructor and often feels isolated. By being more visible, instructors communicate that the students’ work and participation is valued.
2. Organized. Learning management systems offer opportunities for organizing content and communication easily. While an instructor doesn’t necessarily have to use all of the organization structures available, it’s critical that s/he communicates the organization clearly to students. Making the organizational structure transparent for students will help them find materials and will promote more participation in class.
3. Compassionate. I worry that many people confuse “compassion” with lowering expectations. In Savery’s work, being compassionate means providing opportunities for student-instructor and student-student interaction. A compassionate instructor recognizes that all classes, even online ones, have a social component that needs to be fostered.
4. Analytical. If I were to rewrite Savery’s framework, I would replace analytical with assessment, since this is really the critical activity that’s needed in online course. Analytical instructors provide clear expectations and guidelines for planned assessments and offer timely feedback on student work.
5. Leader-by-example. Online instructors model good behavior and participate fully in the online class. While there is some overlap with being visible, being a leader-by-example extends the instructor’s role a little further. For instance, if you provide discussion board expectations, don’t violate those expectations yourself. Returning to my colleague who feels isolated in her online class, the instructor rarely posts the types of in-depth of responses she expects from the students in the class. When instructors ask for thoughtful critical reflections but only communicate “Agreed” or “I concur,” they’re not being leaders-by-example.
While some could argue that much of the VOCAL framework is simply a rehash of the Community of Inquiry concept, I like how efficiently it promotes good online instruction. The acronym is easy to remember and focuses on some of the most widely violated aspects of online instruction.