As with face-to-face teaching within a campus-based classroom, teaching online through Learning Management Systems is an active process that involves planning and skill to create a productive environment for learning. The tools available to teach online have now been available for quite a few years, but in recent times have become far more intuitive, integrated, and understood within the learning and teaching process. Plus the expertise developed by students to work online; to complete tasks, to act convivially and productively in groups, and to communicate over distance, is increasing desirable as many more work environments become virtualised.
There are numerous tasks that instructors can perform to promote the productiveness in Learning Management Systems. However, the integrated suite of tools in which they are made-up aren’t necessarily productive in themselves and there is a lot that instructors can do to promote their effectiveness to address teaching and learning goals. This partly involves the ability to recognise in the first instance what may work better in a face-to-face setting, and what may work better online. Then instructors must devise coherent, engaging, and convivial activities to sustain the group of students over time, both on and off-line, to work towards these goals.
What works online?
A suggested way to integrate the Learner Management System into a course; it is to first do an ‘audit’ of the curriculum. Tasks such as group writing tasks, discussions and debates, assessment tasks, and the active and critical engagement with content—such as academic articles—can be done either on or offline. It is up to the instructor to decide what mode works best for their particular content coupled with the assessment tasks and learning outcomes. There are of course, tasks that Learner Management Systems do particularly well, such as delivering of core teaching materials such as unit outlines and pre-recorded lectures. However other tasks, such as formative assessment (the informal assessment during tasks), Learner Management Systems also do well and there are an array of communication tools available in them to communicate directly to students, either individually or in a group, to aid this.
Once a decision is made to integrate certain tools, such as forums or virtual classrooms, into the curriculum, it is important to consider how they will be moderated to ensure that the desired learning outcomes are met. The instructor must take a proactive role to make sure that the interaction with content, the interaction between groups of students, and the interaction with the instructor are constructive and meaningful (see: Salmon; 2012). The tone and calibre of the conversations ensure students may contribute constrictive critique confidently, without the fear of derision or personal reproach.
Instructors should intervene in forums, to moderate and guide, to reward good ideas and drive conversations. This is fairly similar to what takes place in face-to-face tutorials, however there are new opportunities in online forums, such as, to summarise the debate, to reinforce common goals, to place links to content to reinforce or refute an argument, and to reiterate at intervals the benefits of contributing to the forum. Plus forum are in written form meaning they provide a reference point for pursuing ideas for subsequent written assessments.
But as with face-to-face teaching, it is also important to push, to a certain degree, the responsibility for course related material and discovering new information—and thus the responsibility for learning— back onto the student. There is a danger that the instructor becomes little more than a ‘search engine’ offering quick answers to question in an uncritical, encyclopaedic way. Scaffolding, linking, and delivering information in an interesting and challenging way will promote information sharing between students thus assist in the building of knowledge through dialogue.
Building strong foundations
Online sessions may be framed as an ‘online seminar’ or ‘online tutorial’ and may be synchronous or asynchronous, again depending on the content and activities. As with face-to-face teaching, it is important to make the topic of study interesting, to ground the objects of the study in anecdotes, stories, and in real-life experience. Also, couching the object of study in discursive dialogue between students will assist them in learning from each other. This may take the form of a group of students coming together in a forum to provide feedback on an article; to summarise and critique it, and then develop a set of questions to bring to class to further explore in a face-to-face meeting.
In general, ideas should be presented to students in such a way that they make sense in the overall course and the substantive conversations directed towards the goal of the course. Activities may be collaborative or practice based, but always with a set of clear and coherent goals. In summary, building a strong foundation from the start, the planning of activities and the introduction and explanation of online tools in their context will sustain students in the longer term. Both instructor and student are working towards common goals, with shared responsibilities.
For more discussion on moderating successful online forums see: Gilly Salmon, “eModeration: the Key to Online Teaching and Learning, Taylor and Francis, 2012