It was around 9 pm, two hours into a three-hour class, in the third week of my live instructor-led Physical Therapy Technician course. I looked up and realized that one of my students was fast asleep. No snoring, just her eyes closed and no movement in a dimly lit room. When I called on the student “hello, are you out there”, there was no gesture, no startle, just continued rest. I thought to myself, am I that boring that I managed to lull one of my more vibrant students to a state of slumber? Furthermore, were any of the other students focusing on the information that I was presenting?
I’m quite sure we have all faced a similar scenario as online instructors. Whether it’s when the subject matter is a bit dry or it’s that last part of the class that everyone wants to get through, both students and instructors can lose focus.
As educators, we have researched the best ways to connect with our students, attended workshops, and implemented all types of strategies short of performing jumping jacks and the latest dance moves to keep our students engaged and focused.
Some of these techniques have been more effective than others, and some work better for specific students. After teaching online classes with a wide range of students (pre and post-millennial, undergraduate and graduate), I have boiled it down to two important points that I believe should be considered when working with students in the “virtual world”. These include:
- Understanding the benefits and challenges of online education.
- Understanding students and instructors have different learning styles, and how some of these styles favor the use of online teaching over others.
I would like to review what I found in the literature and make some suggestions on how we as online instructors could be more successful in our roles.
Benefits and Challenges of Online Education
Many sources have noted the benefits of online learning, but few have evidence to prove its effectiveness. In the article entitled “Expected Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Learning: Perceptions from College Students Who Have Not Taken Online Courses”1, the authors present advantages of online learning. Not surprisingly, the top three were: convenience (e.g., dress and travel); flexibility (time and pace); and not having to sit through classroom lectures.
What was surprising were some of the disadvantages of online education cited in the article. The top three were: students were more likely to procrastinate with assignments and studying; it was harder to understand the content when not face to face with an instructor, and online learning requires more self-discipline for reading and learning.
As educators, we can learn from these findings. The research reinforces that our students require firm deadlines, repetition of the central and key points, and those students who are self-motivated have the best chance for success using online education.
Understanding Our Students Learning Types
The second factor (and what I believe is the most important), is to consider the type of learners we are educating. The University of Illinois, a leader in studying online learning, has developed staff and faculty workshops to help educators and students better understand, connect, and advance the use of online educational resources.
In the articles “Learning Styles and the Online Environment”2, the author’s highlight four different learning styles:
- Visual/Verbal learners: these are students who learn best when information is presented in written and visual form. They comprehend best when information is presented using the different learning platforms (e.g., Blackboard, Moodle, PowerPoint presentations, etc.). They enjoy using textbooks and class notes as information sources. For these students, the online environment is easy to navigate.
- Visual/Non-Verbal learners: these students learn best when information is presented visually in a picture or design format. They enjoy watching videos and using maps and diagrams during class. They also enjoy using textbooks but are drawn to the figures and pictures rather than the words. They tend to work alone and to be more artistic. These learners can also benefit from the online platforms however, focus less on outlines and more on drawings and diagrams to understand the information.
- Auditory/Verbal learners: these students learn best by hearing. They benefit by listening to lectures and participating in group discussions. Collaborative work for these learners is their strength. They can also benefit from online learning in synchronous (live) and asynchronous (recorded) formats.
- Tactile/Kinesthetic learners: these are learners who comprehend best through tactile and “hands-on activity”. Classroom demonstrations and teach-back methodology are used with this type of student. Although these students also benefit from online education, they tend the struggle the most since opportunities to fit their learning style are limited and require creativity from the instructor.
It turns out no matter what type of learner(s) we have in our classroom, all can benefit from online instruction. We need to provide a variety of opportunities for them to connect to the information. From notes to demonstration, diagrams to storytelling; our students need us to structure the learning environment for them to be successful.
It is also important to note that we as educators have our own learning style and can be biased towards them when creating activities for our students. To ensure that our presentations are balanced, we should ask others who know our style to review our presentations to make sure we include elements that highlight all the learning types discussed above.
Instructing and learning online is an exciting, yet challenging endeavor. It requires innovation, creativity, and flexibility regarding how best to connect with students. It also requires that instructors have self-awareness of their teaching strengths and areas that require development.
So back to my Rip Van-Winkle student. Perhaps if I implemented what I know now, I could have provided a more interesting and interactive experience and would have heard a response to my question of “are you out there?” “Yes, Professor I’m here!”
ProTrain’s newest instructor, Neville C. Crick, is currently the Director of Physical Therapy at New York City Health and Hospitals/Bellevue, as well as an Adjunct Assistant Professor for the Department of Biological and Medical Sciences at Bronx Community College, and the Adjunct Assistant Professor for the Department of Physical Therapy at Hunter College. He holds a Bachelor/Master of Science, Doctor of Physical Therapy, and Master of Public Administration degrees and has over 5 years of experience as an online lead instructor using the Blackboard platform.
- EXPECTED ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF ONLINE LEARNING: PERCEPTIONS FROM COLLEGE STUDENTS WHO HAVE NOT TAKEN ONLINE COURSES. (2012). Issues In Information Systems, 193–200. https://doi.org/10.48009/2_iis_2012_193-200
- Learning Styles and the Online Environment – ION Professional eLearning Programs – UIS. (2018). ION PROFESSIONAL ELEARNING PROGRAMS. https://www.uis.edu/ion/resources/tutorials/instructional-design/learning-styles-and-the-online-environment/