What It Means to Create an Online Learning Environment

Online education has been well-established and continues to sustain progress. In addition, online classes have been popular, even among traditional colleges, and there is still ongoing growth. While there is a focus on technology the basics of adult education do not change. The question then becomes of matter of whether or not learning conditions can be created by or enhanced through the use of technology. For someone new to this environment they may also wonder if learning can take place. The fundamental process of learning and knowledge acquisition doesn’t change but the conditions have and this can either enhance or detract from students’ development. Creating a course online and adding students does not guarantee they will learn. This occurs through conditions the instructor creates and interactions they have with their students.

Technology Enabled Environment

Over time the use of technology in education has become prevalent, with phrases such as hybrid classes and a flipped classroom indicating how traditional education has evolved. It is not a matter of just using technology to create a course; it depends upon how well students interact with and utilize the technology. The number of schools offering online classes and degree programs has created a large base for students. This means that for-profit universities no longer hold a significant market advantage. What educators find in a standard online classroom is a place for resources, a gradebook, a place for discussions, and other features such as course announcements. The classroom interface has also evolved over time and many LMS providers offer easier navigation tools and resources to create a better user experience.

Challenges for Instructors

One of the first challenges concerns who is responsible for ensuring that learning takes place. For example, can a curriculum developer set up a course and create the atmosphere necessary? Of course the answer is no because it requires a human element. Another challenge is that the instructor needs to be an active participant – from the first post to materials selected to their interactions with students. If an instructor maintains an active presence this helps to set the stage for learning to occur. If the instructor is not active or not mindful of class conditions, it will lessen the effectiveness of the ability for students to learn.

Even if conditions are optimal, students must also be involved in and receptive to the learning process. Students must learn how to utilize the tools and resources that have been made available to them. In addition, instructors and students must learn to work together. Throughout my work as an online educator one of the most common complaints I hear is that the online class can feel mechanical in nature and new students who are not academically prepared can get overwhelmed and disengage from the class. This poses another challenge for educators as not all students are suited for this type of environment.

Creating Optimal Conditions

For an online class, technology creates the environment and technological tools will be added based upon the course design. An instructor is assigned, students are added, and class begins. What transforms this environment so that it becomes productive? Instructors are given a checklist of facilitation duties and meeting those requirements will ensure the class runs according to plan. The test for instructors is in the specifics of those assigned duties. For example, with class discussions there are a specific number of posts that are often required of the instructor and the purpose is to engage them in a dialogue with students. Those posts need to stimulate students’ thought processes and curiosity, while connecting course concepts to real life. In addition, feedback is not just about a grade – although it is an indicator of progress being made. The purpose of feedback is to engage students in the content, add corrective comments to address developmental needs, and provide an itemization of the points earned.

Engaging Students in the Process

Classroom conditions involve what an instructor is actively doing. Engagement is about the content and effectiveness of interactions. For discussion question posts, consider how you address the student, invite the class to join in the conversation, acknowledge and validate their perspectives, add your expertise or experience, and then build a meaningful dialogue. For the feedback provided, provide comments for both the content of what was written and the mechanics. This is a teaching moment and if you provide feedback that matters, students are likely to start reading it week after week.

For communication with students, consider if you are viewed as approachable and responsive. This includes the tone that you take, which can be short and curt or warm, friendly, and helpful. In addition, be sure to respond to students in a timely manner so that you can alleviate their concerns. Never tell a student to “see the syllabus” as it is not very helpful and may deter them from further communication. Teach students where to look for information and encourage them so that you boost their confidence and engagement in the class.

Facilitation Strategies

An effective strategy for an online instructor is to develop an action plan and then conduct weekly self-reflection and self-assessment. An educator always has room to grow and improve. For new instructors it is helpful to develop a checklist of the basic course requirements. A seasoned instructor can break down tasks into specific days or time periods – as they know it takes time and effort to nurture a class full of students. Learning is not housed in an online classroom shell; it resides in the required activities and interactions between instructors and students. The basic rules of education apply – acquire information and knowledge, and then demonstrate what was learned and the progress made towards course outcomes.

What has made online classes a better choice for many students is that they do more than memorize the material for a test. There are authentic tasks such as written projects and required class participation that promotes learning. A course shell establishes a place for students to meet and resources to be acquired; however, it is purposeful, effective, and meaningful teaching that creates the conditions for learning to take place. Students who become motivated to participate in the process and immerse themselves in the discussions and required activities will find that they can learn and grow, even with the use of technology.