How Many Challenges Does An Online Teacher Have to Face?
The challenges involved in online teaching sometimes seem too numerous to count.
It’s not surprising.
Every online teacher faces many obstacles – and often several on the same day…
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed.
And if you’re new to teaching online, some of these obstacles can be rather problematic.
So this collection of the A-Z of online teaching challenges is designed to do 3 things:
1. Provide some perspective.
Yes, online teaching involves numerous challenges.
But these are finite: After all, there are only 24 letters in the alphabet.
2. Offer an overview of the most common challenges of teaching online.
This is an at-a-glance summary of the obstacles every online teacher will regularly face.
It works as a useful heads-up for new teachers who may not know quite what to expect.
3. Suggest some practical ways of handling each challenge.
Sometimes all you need is a fresh perspective, and a practical approach to a problem.
Let’s start at the beginning…
A – Assignment Questions
Assessment is one of the top causes of student stress.
So every time an assignment deadline approaches, you’ll face a tsunami of student questions.
Try this: Check the clarity of your instructions, and create a FAQ page that answers the most common student questions.
B – Blackboard “Upgrades”
How often have you returned to work after a break to find that Blackboard has been “upgraded”?
That could mean anything from minor tweaks to major, disorienting changes.
Try this: Before the first tidal wave of work breaks, do a quick run-through of your most common Blackboard processes.
One of the key challenges in online teaching is communicating without the help of body language.
Misunderstandings, and student alienation can result.
Try this: Use language students will understand, and use a friendly tone to establish rapport.
D – Deadlines
Students miss deadlines for a wide range of reasons.
This almost always makes more work for an online teacher.
Try this: Set up assignment reminders as Announcements in your Learning Management System.
Send them out to all students in the course a week before the assignment is due.
E – Excuses
Student excuses for not making their deadlines can be surprisingly creative.
They range from a genuine problem, to a simple lack of self-discipline.
Try this: Follow your organization’s policy on extensions.
Offer flexibility where appropriate.
F – Feedback
It’s hard to be criticized.
It’s even harder for students who are new to eLearning, or have had negative educational experiences.
Some students will be offended or discouraged by even constructive feedback.
Try this: Be as positive as possible, and offer practical, specific feedback students can act on.
G – Google As A Reference List entry
Google will sometimes be presented as a research resource in Reference Lists. Before you tear your hair out…
Try this: Point students to the referencing guide in your Learning Management System or organization’s Library.
A one-page referencing “cheat sheet” is an accessible document for beginners.
H – Habits
Many of your students will have studied before.
They may have less-than-effective study habits firmly established.
Try this: Explain how much time commitment is needed for your course.
Ensure assessment criteria are clear, and remind students of impending deadlines.
I – Invisibility
Teaching online automatically makes you less visible than you’d be in a traditional teaching role.
This can impact your authority, and make students feel less connected with you.
Try this: Emphasize that you’re a real live online teacher who’s willing and able to help your students succeed.
J – Justifying Grades
Students who are used to achieving high grades can often demand you justify giving them less than an ‘A’.
Try this: Build the justification into their grades with quality feedback and a marking schedule which quantifies their grade.
We know that most students respond better to encouragement than harsh criticism.
But kindness can be a lofty goal at the end of a long online teaching day!
Try this: When your stores of kindness are running dangerously low, work on tasks that don’t involve student interaction.
L – Learning Management Systems
LMSs vary widely in their user-friendliness.
Some have more features than the console of the Starship Enterprise.
Try this: Make navigation of your LMS as simple as possible.
Use the features you need, and worry about the rest later.
M – Multi-Tasking
Online teaching demands sophisticated juggling skills.
This is necessary, but exhausting.
Try this: Organize your workload into ‘chunks’ of similar tasks.
Focus on one chunk at a time, rather than putting out new fires every 5 minutes.
N – New Students
Try this: Welcome them to reality early on.
Make it clear from the start of the semester that e-learning may be flexible, but still involves deadlines and self-discipline.
O – Overlapping Semesters
Many e-learning institutions enrol students in overlapping intakes, rather than clear-cut 2 semesters per year.
You may be teaching different sections of the same course all at once.
Try this: Keep well-organized class lists, and deal with one intake at a time.
P – Procrastination
Try this: Downsize your To Do list so it’s not so overwhelming.
Work through it one item at a time.
Q – Quality Of Teaching Resources
Online teaching often involves stepping in to teach a class that’s already set up.
You may find the existing course materials could do with an upgrade – but you don’t have the time or authority to do it.
Try this: Meet with your line manager about the need for materials redevelopment.
Can s/he outsource it, or even hire your expertise in the near future?
R – Referencing
Students continue to struggle with the concept of referencing and its stylistic requirements.
They may submit wrongly formatted Reference Lists – or none at all.
Try this: Create a page about referencing on your Learning Management System.
Explain why it matters, and add a link to a user-friendly style guide.
S – Student Rudeness
Rude student emails are sometimes caused by anxiety, and sometimes by plain bad manners.
It’s important to be able to tell the difference, so you can react appropriately.
Try this: Role model well-mannered and professional communication.
Where necessary, remind students that civil behavior is expected.
T – Time Management
Time management skills are an ongoing problem for online learners with career, study, and family commitments.
Try this: Tell students what the time investment is for the course.
Pre-load assignment reminders as Announcements in your Learning Management System.
U – “Urgency”
Although it often feels that way, most of your daily tasks are not all “urgent”.
It’s an illusion that creates feelings of panic and overwhelm.
Try this: By prioritizing your workload, you can attack it methodically rather than desperately.
Online teaching often involves a larger workload than traditional teaching.
The volume of papers to mark and emails to answer can take you by surprise.
Try this: Organize tasks according to deadlines, and stop and take a break at each progress milestone.
You actually are getting somewhere!
W – Working From Home
A home-based office can leave you feeling isolated, and cut off from your colleagues.
Try this: It’s essential to set up your own support network of like-minded workmates for mutual support.
Phone calls, Skype meetings or just regular emails can connect you up with a professional network, and remind you that you’re not The Lone Online Teacher.
X – Xviii, And Other Unnecessarily Complicated Numbering Systems
Some students structure assignments with eccentric numbering systems. They’ll call a section a chapter. They’ll skip from 5(a) to XX(ii).
Try this: Provide firm, clear feedback that brings the assignment back into line with mainstream formatting conventions.
Y – Generation Y
Each student demographic brings its own challenges, from short attention spans to disdain for traditionally published books.
Try this: Use a range of learning materials to maximize engagement, and connect lessons with students’ own experience.
Z – Zombie Syndrome
Pushing yourself to meet demanding deadlines can lead to uninterrupted hours in front of the computer.
Suddenly your shoulders are frozen in place, and you forgot to eat lunch.
Try this: Take a break after each section of work – say, after grading every 5th assignment, or clearing the morning’s student email. Check in with the land of the living often.
So there you have it: The A-Z of common online teaching challenges – and a few quick solutions.
How many of these issues have you encountered yourself?
[This article first appeared on eLearning Industry.]