Reaching Students Through the Web
Ease of use, convenience, unconstrained accessibility and increased opportunities to connect with students have made online learning environments more popular than ever before. But IT trainers, many of whom also teach in a more traditional classroom setting, have had to rethink their training methods to accommodate the Web platform. Two tips emerged as standout methods to help you get the most out of your students online.
Learn to Use the Equipment
Teaching online versus training in a traditional classroom requires a considerable interaction with technology. That interaction is critical because without it there can be no communication between instructor and student. Online tools like emoticons take the place of a raised hand with a question. They become a mouth to frown with when students are confused, or they take the place of a smile to let the instructor know when the information has sunk in and made the right impact. Online trainers must first teach their students how to manipulate the emoticons and other equipment before they can begin the lesson.
“When you enter a classroom as an instructor, you look at glazed eyes and you see people shaking their heads so you know that somebody is not following,” said Clement Dupuis, president and chief learning officer, CCCure Enterprise Security & Training Inc. “But you can train them right at the beginning of the course how to interact with the instructor. Usually there is something called emoticons, which are small graphics they can use to indicate to the instructor that something is wrong—the instructor is going too slow, too fast, the sound is not high enough. You’ve got to make them use this right off the bat. Usually when I start my course, I’ll introduce them to the interface and work them through it. It’s a completely different way of interacting.”
Once students are adept at using the technology, Dupuis said that the online training environment is effective because it removes many of the social barriers that exist in a regular classroom. Online, he’s found that people are not as shy about asking questions, because there’s no face-to-face contact and they don’t risk looking stupid. Online interaction also preserves a students’ anonymity. “I get more questions from online training. More people send me questions one-on-one, and I can pass the answers along on the fly without mentioning who it came from.”
Not only do the students have to use emoticons, microphones and other equipment, the trainer has to be clever with them as well. “You have to know how to use the tools,” said Ann Beheler, dean of engineering and emerging technology, Collin County Community College District. “It’s not something where you’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah. I’m going to teach on this tool right now.’ You have to go through some training to know how to use it effectively. It’s kind of like being a one-armed paper hanger. You’re manipulating the tool, lecturing and managing the class simultaneously. It’s not totally intuitive, and it takes some practice until you’re comfortable doing it. It’s not that hard, but you do need to practice.”
Engage, Engage, Engage
Once you and your students can work the equipment like pros, the next item on the IT trainer agenda is engagement. Engaging your students is a given no matter what environment you’re teaching in. But online, engagement means something a little different. On the Web, engagement means encouraging a higher level of interactivity and using a more conversational tone.
Teaching in a regular classroom allows a trainer to use hands, gestures, voice inflections, even the body to help engage students. New Horizons Computer Learning Centers Inc. teaches its trainers how to use online tools to be effective without seeing or being seen because online, the IT trainer must probe a little deeper for the responses you see naturally in a classroom, or in the labs that frequently accompany traditional and online lectures.
David Sundstrom, vice president of business development at New Horizons, said that making their Online LIVE virtual classrooms sizzle means training instructors to not only know the material, but to have applications of that material on hand to use—either from their own personal experiences or from those of people they’ve worked with. “Some of that involves what they talk about. They have to be much more conversational about certain subjects,” Sundstrom said. “We have a train-the-trainer session that every trainer needs to go through, where we teach them the new way to talk, to have a subliminal conversation with their students and get their students to learn that well enough that their students can have the conversation back to them.”
Further, in the online lab environment, which typically occurs directly after the lecture, it’s important to virtually engage or “walk” around the classroom and figure out what students are doing. “That’s actually more difficult to do in a classroom environment than an online environment because in the online environment, we get the opportunity to see what the student is doing,” Sundstrom said. “Our instructors can actually track the progress of each student as they’re working through the labs. They can also take what the students are doing in a lab and show it to other students in the class. It’s easier to see where they’ve run into problems, so when you step in to engage directly with the students, you’re not trying to figure out how they got to where they are. You can already see the history of everything they’ve done prior to picking up with them wherever they are now.”
“The key differentiator is the instructor,” Dupuis said. “The instructor can make a whole world of difference. You need somebody that knows the material well, who can answer a bit outside the scope of the class. Students don’t want someone who reads slides. They can read the slides themselves. They want somebody who will add to the slides and bring real-life experience. That’s what they want to hear about. They want to hear a person who has 15 years of experience tell them how this relates to what they are about to learn.”
As an IT trainer in an online environment, it’s essential that you make yourself available to your students. Labs and lessons often are available as recorded archives so students can review material they missed or weren’t 100 percent sure about. However, trainer participation outside the lecture and the lab can be the turning point for students who have an OK handle on the material rather than a thorough understanding.
“You have to engage your students,” Beheler said. “That’s why the synchronous online is advantageous compared to asynchronous instruction. It’s much more difficult to engage students and let them know that you’re there and that you’re really interested and there to help asynchronously. It can be done, but it’s lots and lots of work. I’ve had classes where I can immediately tell whether the instructor is going to be responsive and interested from the get-go. They respond to their e-mails quickly, they participate in the discussion boards. In other classes I’ve had instructors who take four or five days to respond to e-mail, and they’re never there in the discussion boards. People do better when they think the instructor cares—that’s basic learning theory.”
Kellye Whitney, firstname.lastname@example.org