Online instructors have more options in their arsenal than ever to help deliver and explain academic content to students—blogs and wiki pages, social networks, and videoconferencing software, to name a few. But even the most experienced online instructors can struggle with which tool to use, when, and how.
The days of online classes delivered exclusively through discussion forums and e-mail are long gone, experts point out, and the formats of online-learning environments themselves are more diverse. In “virtual classrooms,” teachers have to facilitate collaborative learning online, while in “virtual courses,” much of the student learning is self-paced and independent.
So just which technology tools are best for which situations?
In the pioneering days of online learning, e-mail was the main means for delivering online courses. Now that e-mail has worked its way into almost all teaching, online students are dismissing its use as a relic of the past.
“Our students today think e-mail is pretty archaic,” said Pam Birtolo, the chief learning officer of the Orlando-based Florida Virtual School, or FLVS.
Teachers should still correspond by e-mail in many cases, but Ms. Birtolo recommends that e-mail correspondence with students now be used largely as one-way communication, similar to a regular school’s morning announcements or hallway bulletin boards.
Teresa Scavulli, the senior director of Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc.'s teacher-effectiveness division, said the for-profit online education company instructs teachers that “dependency on e-mail as an intervention or a way to engage a student who is disengaged is not the appropriate use of it.”
E-mail may be passé, but instant messaging remains a current and effective way of helping individual online students through a difficult portion of a course.
“I think IM is the lifeline,” Ms. Birtolo said. “If I were fortunate enough to be taking an algebra course online back when I was in high school, IM would’ve been a big help.”
In a virtual setting, teachers can hold IM “office hours” to be available to students at set times so they are not being bombarded with constant IM requests, said Ms. Scavulli. Teachers’ availability by IM can also have comforting psychological benefits, said Susan Lowes, director of research and evaluation at the Institute for Learning Technologies at New York’s Columbia University.
“Even waiting 24 hours seems like a lifetime to a kid who is trying to get an assignment done,” Ms. Lowes said. “The feeling that you can get quicker access to the teachers seems to make a big difference for the kids.”
The growth of Skype and other videoconferencing software has led to a recent explosion of classroom use. But online and hybrid teachers suggest that Skype collaboration also should have a project-based goal.
Teachers can also hold office hours via videoconferencing if students are equipped for it, said Dyane Smokorowski, an 8th grade English teacher and instructional technology specialist for the 5,000-student Andover public school system near Wichita, Kan.
Ms. Smokorowski sets no specific office hours with her students, but lets them know that she is less likely to be available for videoconferencing on the weekends.
Ms. Scavulli added that videoconferencing is one way an online instructor can foster a more personal connection with students.
Commercial webconferencing programs such as Elluminate can enable two-way videoconferencing while tying in instant messenging and discussion forums. But Ms. Scavulli suggests that the other features of webconferencing programs are so dynamic that video chatting can actually detract from the real focus of a webconference.
Some teachers may consider creating video or audio podcasts to demonstrate certain lessons that are harder to conceive in written text. While they may not be as interactive as live videoconferencing, their reusability makes them a great tool to utilize for lesson points that are consistently tricky.
Facebook, Ning, Twitter, and other social-networking websites provide platforms for some of the same kinds of collaborations that blogs or wikis do. But for online instructors, their biggest value may be in communicating beyond the course material.
While recent measures in some districts have restricted teachers’ social-networking interaction with students on public sites such as Facebook and Twitter, Ms. Scavulli insists good virtual instructors should pursue such relationships. Such an instructor, she said, is someone “who can create a video and show the students that he or she ... is very real.”
“It’s about making sure you are connecting” to the students, she said.
Teachers can also reach out to parents on social networks to provide a portal to class activities and discussions. Ms. Smokorowski’s class, for example, often tweets short messages about class visitors or other activities.
“Parents are busy, too,” Ms. Smokorowski said. “They want it short and sweet. ‘Tell me what’s up, and let’s move on.’”
The ability to call or text a student via cellphone may be the single most important communication tool in online instruction, experts in the field say. Because the demands of online learning are often very different from those in a traditional classroom, students can struggle to gain a connection to an instructor and lose interest. And the easiest way to rectify that isn’t online.
“Nine times out of ten,” Ms. Scavulli said, “a situation can be quickly remedied if the teacher just picks up the phone.”
Teachers can also send group text messages to inform students that a question has been posted online, or to individuals who are more comfortable with receiving advice that allows them to respond at their own pace.
Calling and texting can startle brick-and-mortar teachers, who often think of phone calls as a last resort and virtual learning as something that only happens online. But to be successful in an online environment, it’s something teachers should get used to, experts say.
“The phone is all about delivering the message that I care about you [the student], and let’s learn together, and let me facilitate learning your way,” said Ms. Birtolo of the FLVS. “The phone is getting to know you.”
Blogs and Wikis
Collaborative websites like blogs and open-source wiki documents can enhance collaborative learning in the “virtual classroom” model. But, while often grouped together, the two aren’t the same, and both are often more about student communication than teacher communication.
Wikis are sometimes more research-oriented than blogs, according to research stemming from observations of 30 teachers across the nation, published in June by the Education Development Center’s Center for Children and Technology, based in New York City. Blog entries are published chronologically and thus may be more aligned with teacher-led instruction, while wikis that can be edited by anyone at any time could be better suited for collaborative projects. And wikis that record who is adding what content help online teachers know which students are engaged.
“In a wiki environment, if [students] don’t join in, it’s as plain as the nose on your face,” said Victoria Davis, a middle school teacher at the 400-student private, pre-K-12 Westwood Schools in Camilla, Ga., and a co-founder of the Flat Classroom Project.
Flat Classroom Project students, who take part in the collaborative initiative from around the world, are asked to outsource different jobs in a project to different people using wikis only for communication. To create a video, one student might do the storyboarding, one the scriptwriting, and one the directing, all without ever maintaining live communication. The process is the most advanced form of online collaboration, Ms. Davis said, and helps students prepare for life in the 21st-century global economy.
On the other hand, the Center for Children and Technology’s research found blogs were used mostly to foster discussion and elicit prior knowledge, with a teacher posting questions or prompting discussions for students to leave comments about. They were also occasionally used for writing submissions.
Daniel Light, a senior research scientist for the center, cautions that any use of blogs or wikis must begin early during a virtual or blended class, and it must be consistent. He points to one English teacher in the study who created a writing blog in the middle of the term. Previously, students had submitted assignments in private.
“It silenced [students’] voice,” Mr. Light said. The teacher “worked so hard to create an environment where students trusted her with their work. She realized the blog was not going to work. ... You have to develop the norms to support it.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2010 edition of Education Week as The E-Teacher’s Toolbox