The Challenges of Being an Online Professor
With the growing number of students seeking an alternative to traditional college, the future of higher education is likely to continue integrating more and more technological and post-traditional elements to the teaching experience. If you are pursuing your education online, you could be seeing education methods change before your very eyes. And if you plan on pursuing a career in education, it’s beneficial to take note of how educators are navigating these new teaching trends and finding solutions for challenges in the new digital classroom.
Challenges and Solutions of Online Learning
Professors who teach online courses or teach in flipped classrooms are confronted with challenges dissimilar to those that traditional professors have faced for decades. Student progress, attentiveness, learning retention, and even attendance used to be front-and-center in an actual classroom. Now, an online educator is charged with the task of coming up with innovative ways to create a remote atmosphere of understanding and at times, a communal sense of learning. Class discussion boards are a way to promote intelligent debate among students, while also assessing participation and grasp of the material. Take a look at some challenges facing online professors who are teaching around the country.
If you’re already an e-learner, you know that time management is crucial for staying on top of your coursework. E-professors also need to expertly manage their time in order to find ways in which to deliver the material to students in the absence of traditional class time. "My greatest challenge in teaching online really comes into play before anyone has enrolled in the class," says Michael Scott Sheerin, an online professor at Florida International University's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “I've noticed that the course build is the most important thing to get right if you want your students to have a successful learning experience.”
For Sheerin, this means not simply taking a traditional course build and implanting it into the online template, but crafting the course by implementing tools such as “the Quality Matters (QM) rubric, which basically goes step by step, from setting measurable objectives, to meeting ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] requirements, to making it crystal clear on how to start the course from a student's perspective.”
An online classroom never sleeps, and just as students can complete their coursework at 2 o’clock in the morning, so too can you manage your virtual classroom on your time. As long as you can be within Internet access range for your students’ questions and for your responsibilities, you can be grading papers on a train or an airplane going cross-country.
The reason many students choose a hybrid or fully online course is the flexibility of when, where, and how they learn. “Students are in the driver’s seat in an online classroom,” said Benjamin Jankens, a Central Michigan University online educational leadership faculty member. “Access to content, lectures, assignments and other supportive materials must be available when it’s convenient for the student, which leads to better learning.”
The time at which learning takes place has also been shaken up. Contrary to traditional class time or deadlines, students and teachers are learning and teaching on a 24/7 schedule, with professors anticipating questions and coursework coming in at all hours. Susan Luck—a twelve-year veteran online professor in the Masters of Business Administration program at Pfeiffer University—says, “I teach primarily working adults, which means that they—and I—work on weekends and late at night. I have taken to holding my office hours online from 5 am until 6 am since I can then catch the overnight email questions and catch questions via text or email before the students begin their working day.”
The New “Classroom”
Just as students enrolled in online courses need to create an efficient learning space for themselves, the educators facilitating those courses need to create a physical teaching space. Having a place or office dedicated to teaching and coursework is crucial—whether you’re outlining a curriculum, filming video lectures, or researching material. Online educators must connect to students by being readily available and full of helpful resources in an online “office space” of sorts.
In an online classroom, students can’t simply raise their hands and ask for help, and not all students are forthcoming with their struggles and questions. The key is to be a helpful resource to students in feedback and discussions. Professor Luck finds difficulty in “being able to get the students to share where they are having difficulties. I have to work very, very hard in the discussion boards to come across as reasonable, fair, and real—which translates into approachable. Otherwise the student who is lost or struggling will just fade away.”
There needs to be open and effective communication from professor to student, as well as between students in class discussion boards or project teams. Joanne Deck, an academic and career coach and online business instructor at Rio Salado College, opens communication lines by beginning "each course with a personalized email to each student, giving them tips to succeed and pointing out all the tools available to them. I emphasize that following the techniques I suggest will save them time and work. I also let them know that I want them to be successful... Instructors love students who are engaged enough to ask a question. Finally, I give them detailed feedback on what they did well and how they can improve.” In the absence of traditional real time feedback and face-to-face encounters, this kind of communication can be crucial to a student’s success and positive morale.
Engaging a group of students through digital means can be a challenging task. “My classes involve frequent and in-depth interaction with my online learners,” said Jeremy Bond, an online professor of educational technology at Central Michigan University. “The best interaction happens when I empower my students to engage with each other.” This also involves monitoring these class discussions, maintaining a level of respect and decorum amongst students, and leading the discussion in a way that promotes learning and intelligent discovery.
Professors also engage students with the various modes of technology and resources that are now available, like CMU’s Jankens whose “use of discussion boards, blogs, wikis and other collaborative applications allows for continuous dialogue in the online environment, resulting in an enriched learning experience.”
Online professors also need to facilitate online discussions in a different way than in-person class discussion. Online students have more time to give a thoughtful, researched answer, so more can be asked of them. Montgomery Beyer, an associate faculty member at the University of Phoenix, says, “My postings are not just simple questions, they do require some additional reading and application of course materials from prior classes. Because I am a business course instructor, many of my postings ask the student learning to apply ethical and moral considerations to current events/trends/discussions . . . Giving honest, simple, and sincere feedback that is relevant and timely also allows student learners to become more engaged.”
It’s Not Personal
A discouraging reality for both traditional and e-professors is that some students will fail. If you have a passion to educate others, you may have a hard time when a student doesn’t grasp a concept or fails a course, despite your best efforts to provide guidance and relevant resources. Professor Beyer handles student failure by reasoning that “if a student drops my class my standards for teaching excellence must be high. The students that complete my class may not always get the grade they want—but they get the grade they earn… I know that my teaching style is unique… I apply the same rules to everyone. I know that when students do begin to drop from my class, I take that in stride.”
But as you know, being an online student yourself, that while a professor is in charge of the classroom and assignments, a student’s success or failure is ultimately up to her or him. Professors provide the tools and students make the progress. Self-sufficient students who want to earn their degree find the time to do their online coursework.
How to Pursue a Career as an Online Professor
Each college varies, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, many universities require professors (or “postsecondary teachers”) to have earned a doctoral degree. For some schools, educators must have at least a masters degree in their field of study. The variance on degree level aside, postsecondary teachers in 2012 earned a median salary of $68,970 and have a projected 19% job growth through the year 2022—a faster growth outlook than the average career.[i] After earning your degree, you can research colleges that specialize in online learning and find out how to pursue a career as an online professor.
Because of the responsibility to be available for students and to review dozens of students’ work, being an educator takes passion and dedication —whether at the K-12 or collegiate level. If you’re already on track to pursue a career as an educator or have just been inspired to start, see what degrees you can earn in education.