Staying on course

28th August 2015 at 01:00

Why do some teachers of online courses retain most of their students while others end up with abysmally low numbers by the final exam? I first added such a class to my schedule in 2011. Recently my dean, noting that my enrolment at the end of the term generally matched the original number, said to me: "You obviously have the secret elixir."

The truth is, there's no secret to making an online course as appealing and meaningful as face-to-face learning. I just apply what I've learned from effective teachers and carry those principles from the conventional classroom to the virtual one. As always, I treat my students as I would want to be treated if I were sitting in their place.

This means that I work hard to establish a personal connection with each of them; stay on top of the work; answer their questions and reply to their submissions immediately. I commit myself to this process seven days a week. The only difference is that I pursue these goals via electronic channels. And, when necessary, I make myself available to meet students in person.

I don't archive materials from previous sessions so my input is always fresh; every group is different and every online discussion leads in an original direction. I want to stay alert and keep learning, not hide behind a keyboard to shortcut my workload. Students can sense immediately if what they are fed is regurgitated from past semesters.

Sometimes I will post an article from a published source to encourage students in their studies, or I may send a link to a relevant video. But for the most part they are stuck with me and my input - just as if they were sitting in a classroom with nothing but a text, blackboard and instructor before them.

Whether in person or online, enthusiasm is contagious. As St Augustine said, "One loving spirit sets another on fire." I don't hide my love for the subjects I teach nor do I hold back on the affection I feel for my students and the interest I have in their success. Wordsworth's lines from The Prelude are my mantra: "What we have lovedOthers will love, and we will teach them how."

I also emphasise how important it is that students participate actively in the course. I make it clear that it's their obligation to read and reply to their peers' discussion posts and takes notes on what is written. This material, along with their readings and my own guidance, will help them with exams or essays.

Finally, and perhaps most important, my high expectations yield high results. To dumb down any class because it's packaged differently would be unethical. I let students know right away about the importance of committing to and staying with the coursework. "Don't disappoint me," I say. "Show me how smart you are." Anything less, I add, is a betrayal of their obligation to pursue excellence.

My experience has taught me that success comes down to one staggeringly simple truism: students want and expect a personal connection with teachers who care about their work. That fundamental need for respect and inspiration remains constant, regardless of the educational format.

Dale Salwak teaches English at Citrus College in California, US

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