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Distance Learning: Tips for Successful Educators

Nikki Dettmar is the Education and Assessment Coordinator. She earned a distance learning MSIS from the University of North Texas while living in Seattle and currently teaches via online distance education modalities. This is the third and final of a series of Technology Tuesday posts about the types of  distance continuing education available, the technology involved, usage tips for both students and instructors, and the opportunities & challenges of distance learning.

Winnipeg Maze of Lifelong Learning, photo by Stephen Downes

In the first post of this series different types of distance learning formats were covered, and in the second post tips for successful professional (continuing education) student experiences were shared. What helps contribute to an enjoyable and productive online education experience as an educator? Here are some tips from the Distance Education Clearinghouse, the 2008 MLA CE Institute, and my own experience with both teaching and taking CEs in other formats besides face-to-face.

Learn the format – Notice how this is the same first topic as the tips for students. For educators, having an in-depth understanding of the distance education modality for a class is a top priority. This is not only to make the most of  the resources available within it but to also assist your students,  who may have many questions if your class is their first experience with distance education. Seek out colleagues who are engaged in distance education, asking what modalities they are using and if they know of support resources for them. The Technology Selection information from Distance Education Clearinghouse may be helpful since your technical staff can do system maintenance and updates for a modality hosted at your institution but they may not necessarily be knowledgeable about how all the resources within it are used for teaching. Make liberal use of help links and tutorials from vendors and browse user community forums for additional tips and tricks.

Chunk your class – You may be experienced with teaching face-to-face classes for a few hours at a time. However, distance education is usually conducted via modalities which do not allow for much (if any) non-verbal feedback from your students nor do most students study online for hours at a time. How can you design your distance education curriculum to avoid information overload without the cues from your students that they need a break? One way is to ‘chunk’, or repackage class material into themes, and offer one chunk per webinar or course management system (CMS) section in a sequential order. Go beyond text/print resources and try integrating a related online video, podcast or other multimedia content in each chunk. There is a wealth of high quality educational information available for use! A good rule of thumb is to include the amount of content a student can read and view in one hour per webinar or CMS section.

Build intentional conversation – In face-to-face continuing education classes, casual group projects and conversation are naturally part of the educational experience. How can you replicate this experience via distance learning? For webinars, encourage discussion questions via text or audio but understand that students are often hesitant to ‘speak up’ if this is a new experience for them.  Do not ask yes/no questions during a webinar (this is more challenging to avoid than you may think!) as you would in a face-to-face setting since you cannot see the students’ nodding heads or confused looks as a response. For CMS sections, include discussion forums that allow for thoughtful reflection and not merely one-paragraph reports on the class resources.  Be responsive to student discussion posts, welcoming and encouraging conversation among students especially at the beginning of class to set a respectful and friendly tone.

This series is a general introduction and overview about distance education. There are many additional resources on effective distance learning, including the right sidebar of the Distance Education Clearinghouse.  Distance learning classes are often offered by the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NN/LM link) and the Medical Library Association (MLA link). What are some of your favorite distance learning tips and tricks?

One Response to “Distance Learning: Tips for Successful Educators”

  1. Alison Aldrich Says:

    Thanks so much for writing this series, Nikki. I’m sure to refer to it frequently.

    Here’s an article from one of my favorite new-ish blogs, In the Library with The Lead Pipe. The post is titled Sense of Self: Embracing Your Teacher Identity.

    http://inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2009/sense-of-self-embracing-your-teacher-identity/

    Good food for thought in here about how to be authentic, engaging, and human as a teacher. It’s a challenge in face-to-face settings and an even bigger challenge in distance learning.