from a (former) online student…

First, an introduction:  I received my Masters of Science in Music Technology entirely online with almost entirely synchronous coursework.  My primary focus in music technology is to empower musicians with technology. While most of my focus is on enabling the use of technology that makes music, there is certainly a lot of other technology musicians use.

Second, this post is less about specific solutions for teaching online and more about the impressions and pitfalls I recognized in my experiences.

I’m sure every online learning experience is unique, but most of my classes were hybrid: Classes were taught in a classroom with some students physically present and others attending via a few different platforms.  More on those particular challenges later.

The first piece of advice I offer to anyone teaching online is to be a student online — in the same platform on which you are teaching if possible.  We have all been students in a classroom. From preschool to graduate school, the format is similar and familiar enough that we can understand the student perspective.  When it comes to online instruction, however, there are many different types of possible interactions and many people teaching online have done little to translate their in-person classes to take advantage of online resources.

For those new to the online arena, there are a few terms floating around that tend to define a particular online experience.  The first and probably most impactful terms tend to define the overall format for the interaction: Synchronous Learning vs. Asynchronous Learning.  Simply put, synchronous learning is when the interaction between teacher and student happens in real time (think conference calling). Asynchronous learning, on the other hand, is when an instructor posts material the student is expected to review and then interaction is generally handled in a forum.  Of course, the two may be also combined: Courses that are primarily synchronous may have asynchronous interaction in a forum or for assignment submission and assessment while primarily asynchronous instruction may have occasional live conferencing sessions. Flipped classrooms are generally asynchronous when it comes to the online portion.

The second piece of advice I offer, particularly with synchronous models, is to remember there are students present.  We’ve all had that professor that simply drones on and on without interaction. It’s a trap even easier to fall into online.  There was very little more frustrating to me than wanting to ask a question and being unable to get the instructor’s attention. There will ALWAYS be latency (including how long it takes a conversation to happen in asynchronous settings).  Understanding what latency is and how it impacts conversations is important and different platforms have different reaction times. This falls in line with my first piece of advice: Understand not only how you will interact with a student, but also how he or she will interact with you. 

In an effort to keep this post short, I’ll offer one more piece of advice – similar to the other two points:  Know your platform. You may be locked into a particular platform, or you may have choices. Spend some time getting to know the features.  If you have a choice, try to understand the advantages and disadvantages of each. It may be worthwhile expecting to burn a class just getting everyone used to the software and format. If you use presentations, make some effort to display them correctly – and you may need more than one monitor or device. (I have used one screen for my presentation, one for my notes, and another for the actual online session.). If you want to show a video, understand how it will play and how the students will see it.  Don’t be afraid to use text-based chat. It’s possible to keep multiple conversations going at once and multiple people in each conversation (remember chat rooms?). Text-based chats also allow for later review.

In our own education, we are taught various pedagogical methods and classroom management skills.  They don’t always translate easily to an online setting but the differences can be overcome if we pay attention to both ends of the teacher-student relationship.

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