Helping the online student succeed

I’m currently co-teaching a graduate course in online instruction for K-12 teachers in local districts.  In the class, we’re examining different technologies that can support online instruction.  Rather than just focusing on tools, my co-instructor and I wanted to bring a human element to online teaching.  Online learning may be mediated via technology but the process still involves real human beings engaged in the processes of teaching and learning.  To better humanize the online teaching/learning experience, we wanted our class to explore the lives of online teachers and the students with whom they work.  Our students watched interviews with online teachers and saw video diaries of online students.  The processes were eye-opening for our class.

As the group discussed the videos they watched, one member of the class offered a list of “vital components” that students need to be successful in online classes.  As more of the class offered items for the list, the discussion started to grow and evolve.  At the start of the conversation, most of the components focused on the qualities that online students should possess (self-motivation, independence, supportive learning environment, etc).  Students select online instruction for various reasons.  Some have encountered bullying in brick and mortar environments.  Others have illnesses that may impede their ability to succeed in face-to-face classrooms.  Others choose online instruction because of their involvement in sports, the arts or in some career-related field.

As we discussed the video diaries, however, some of the class recognized that while we were seeing the backgrounds of some online students, ALL online students were not being represented.  For instance, there are students who choose online schools because they haven’t been successful in the regular classroom environments  Maybe their learning disabilities aren’t being supported or maybe their local school is having academic troubles.  As we started widening the scope and role of online instruction, the class started to recognize the importance of the online teacher.  The “vital components” started to include items like “caring, dedicated instructors” and “scaffolded instruction” and “avenues for collaboration and interaction with the teacher.”  As the list continued to grow, a few members of the class recognized that the list we were creating wasn’t THAT different from the vital components any student would need for any learning environment, regardless of whether the classroom was online or face-to-face.  The process was instructive.  I worry that we get so caught up in the medium of instruction that we lose the essence of teaching.  At it’s most basic form, teaching is about helping students learn.  Sure, there are processes and pedagogies unique to online teaching, but the goal is the same.

As my class wondered about the “vital components” that were necessary for online students to be successful, the discussion evolved into a larger analysis of our roles as teachers and the educational needs for our learners.  Regardless of the medium of instruction, we teach the students we have.  Ultimately, the most vital component for a students’ success may be us as teachers.

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