Characteristics and difficulties of teaching a distance learning course
Even for a fairly unmotivated student, the human, one-on-one interactive nature of the classroom environment can prove to be profoundly motivating. This is one reason why, for ‘at risk’ students ensuring their continued attendance in class is such an important aspect of the educational process. If the students ‘show up’ a teacher can then energize their interest in learning through his or her charismatic presence. Although a distance learning teacher may not like to admit it, for many students, learning at a distance can feel like not being in class at all. Motivating students is a critical concern of the online pedagogical process online from day one. While some online students, because of their greater maturity and desire to complete a degree in a timely fashion may be intrinsically psychologically motivated, a teacher cannot assume this is the profile of all of his or her students. At every juncture of the online instructional process, sustaining student motivation must be the primary concern, as well as conveying the course content.
Motivation is enhanced by ensuring students receive timely feedback, positive and negative. Distance learning teachers and students often lack the ability to convey and receive immediate feedback, depending on the technology used in the course. It is important that the teacher is mindful of keeping a watchful eye on students’ difficulties and strengths when reviewing assignments, noting when assignments are turned in late and targeting deficits in basic skills. All courses teaching instructors how to conduct classes online stress the importance of giving strong and detailed feedback. Consistent feedback creates a sense of presence for the instructor, and depending on the student’s needs, class size, and course content, can even be more individualized than a ‘real world’ course (Faculty Development 101, 2008, Lesson 9). The expectations for students must be particularly clear at the beginning of the course, to minimize resentment of critical feedback in the detached format of email, where criticism cannot always be softened by physical and vocal cues.
If a student’s internal sense of motivation flags during the course, having a sense of responsibility to the teacher and the online classroom environment can boost motivation. Creating a peer community online, such as requiring students to post on a blackboard discussion forum, can foster a motivational sense of responsibility for others and interest in the class. Instructors must monitor such boards, however, to ensure content is appropriate and on-topic. Discussion should be free, bur respectful. Teachers can post comments on various threads, as well as engage in personal email with students. A course webpage where teachers and students can post daily comments and references to issues pertinent to the course seen in the news and on the web can also foster a sense of community. This can also provide a warehouse and wealth of additional, data and information about the course, which will boost student performance and interest in the subject matter.
Of course, to some extent, the instructor has less control and flexibility over motivational strategies he or she may use online. The instantaneous give and take of a chat room or email is not the same as seeing a student’s glance, yawn, or a wide-eyed expression of interest. Also, it is almost impossible to assess the classes’ collective level of interest from email, papers, and responses, for a particular lesson. Interactive technology, even video conferencing, lacks the cohesive nature of one-on-one interaction in the real world as a class. Even though a video conference, a teacher cannot monitor students as closely, assign in-class team assignments, or have as much flexibility over tailoring his or her lesson plan to suit the immediate dynamics of the room.
Depending on the number of students in the class, the online format can also seem impersonal. Students may subconsciously hold this against the teacher and either feel excessively dependent on or resentful of the instructor, either bombarding the teacher with email on one hand, or turning in assignments late on the other. Peer interaction can provide some support, and ideally may even be more sustaining than in a real world, large lecture hall, although expecting online learning to mimic an intimate seminar may be unrealistic (Moore & Kearsley 2008). Also, communicating with the instructor in a method students are more accustomed to use when communicating with their friends such as email can reduce the level of seriousness they bring to the class, even subconsciously, although it does have the advantage of perhaps encouraging more faculty and student interaction than might be the case in the intimidating setting of a professor’s office at a major research university. The distance learning teacher must strive to stay professional in his or her vocabulary and demeanor, even in informal interactions like email.
The type of material being disseminated will also influence the instructor’s effectiveness. For dedicated learners in fairly standardized subjects such as the sciences, the online format may even have some strengths: “High density content may be better delivered via recorded media such as printed text, video tape or on a Web site — all of which can be revisited by the learner at his/her convenience and individual pace” (Berge 1999). But for less motivated students who are not as disciplined, the lack of a physically present teacher, and a class that they can ‘visit’ in a relaxed setting they associate more with leisure than work can mean motivation may flag. This is particularly true for subjects that are less clearly defined and more dependent upon discussion to generate interest, like literature and history.
Learning exists on several levels in an online format, according to Moore & Kearsley (2008). Learners interact with the content of the class, but also with the instructor and other learners, even if they may not meet these individuals in the real world. Although online instruction has great potential to enhance the intimacy and informality of learning, it is vital that the instruction use every learning relationship in this triad to ensure that student motivation is sustained, and ideally piqued, throughout the course.
Berge, Z.L. (1995). Facilitating computer conferencing: Recommendations from the field.
Educational Technology. 35(1) 22-30. Retrieved Oct 19, 2008 at http://www.emoderators.com/moderators/teach_online.html
Faculty Development 101. (2008). Lesson 9: Introduction to the Instructing Lessons.
Retrieved Oct 19, 2008 at https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/facdev101/student/index.shtml
Moore, Michael & Greg Kearsley. (2004). Distance education: A systems view. 2nd edition. New York: Wadsworth.
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