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The 3 most valuable skills for online teaching, according to long-term instructors

Photo of the Weatherford Hall building on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis, Oregon

By Mary Ellen Dello Stritto
Director of Research
Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit
June 1, 2020

The teaching and learning field is busy tackling the unprecedented challenges of emergency remote teaching, and planning for many possibilities of hybrid, blended, remote and online teaching and learning in the upcoming summer and fall terms. Many are looking to their colleagues who have been teaching online for guidance, support and advice.

At Oregon State University, we are fortunate to have a large population of faculty who have taught online for 10 years or more. There are few universities that have such a substantial population of faculty who are long-term online instructors, and surprisingly little research exists on their experiences. We designed an interview-based research study to explore the experiences of this population of long-term instructors to learn about their origins of online teaching, professional development, teaching and course development practices, and attitudes and beliefs about online learning. In the 2018-2019 academic year, we conducted interviews with 33 of these faculty who have taught online at Oregon State for 10 years or more. Each instructor completed three one-hour virtual interviews. This group of instructors had an average of 14 years of experience teaching online at OSU.

In this post, we will discuss the results from one of the interview questions in this study. Instructors were asked: What skills do you think are most valuable for online instructors to have? A qualitative analysis of this question revealed some useful and timely information for instructors who may be teaching or planning to teach online. Their insights are also relevant to faculty who are planning for blended modalities (see Kahn, 2020 part 1 and part 2).

The top three valuable skills discussed by these long-term instructors were communication, organization and time management (see table below).

Top three valuable skills for online instructors

Code Number of instances Instructors*
Communication 43 28 (85%)
Organization 21 15 (45%)
Time management 18 15 (45%)

*Instructors = count (%) of instructors with the code (at least once)

Communication

Long-term instructors overwhelmingly discussed valuable skills related to communication. These communication skills were further organized into three categories: effective written communication, responsiveness, and tone or voice.

Written communication was the most common communication skill discussed by the instructors. These instructors emphasized how important effective written communication was for online teaching. They described this set of skills as being clear, coherent, detailed, careful and thoughtful in written communication with students. Written communication is especially important when there is little in-person interaction. One instructor stated:

A person's hands are seen typing on a laptop computer“Well, I think one skill is to be able to write succinctly and coherently. You’re giving a lot of instructions. They’re in writing, and if people are in different places and different times and whatever, really need to have those written so that they’re understandable.”

The second most frequently mentioned communication skill was responsiveness. Instructors emphasized the importance of being highly responsive to students, responding in a timely manner, and having frequent communication with students.

Finally, the instructors emphasized the importance of how they communicated. Several of the instructors mentioned that the tone or the voice of their communication with students was important. Some emphasized the importance of personal and conversational communication.

“You have to strike a tone right where you are sort of an expert and you’re providing an extra layer of content through your lectures, but they’re also there has to be some sort of a little bit less of a formality. So, it’s almost conversational is what I figured out works best….. and not sounding so much as an academic writer, but someone that’s in conversation with them about these things.”

Organization

After communication, organizational skills were the second most frequently discussed by the long-term instructors. Most of these responses emphasized the importance of organization within the structure of online courses. Other instructors discussed the importance of organization, as well as the strategies or techniques used to maintain organization, in their daily work as online instructors.

Of the instructors who discussed organization as a skill, most were focused on the importance of course organization: organizing material in the online course so it was self-explanatory, clear and understandable. Many of the instructors talked about the importance of organization as a skill when designing online courses as well as teaching them. One instructor stated the following:

Week 1 module“So, I’d say you have to be really organized. You have to think about your material in terms of nuggets, or modules, or packages of material. I think that’s just a general kind of skill, you need to be very organized, which I think is easier for some than others. So that’s a skill.”

A smaller group of instructors talked about organizational skills from the perspective of their own work process (instructor organization). One instructor discussed using organizational strategies such as to-do lists and reminders set to certain weeks of the course. Another instructor emphasized the importance of personal organization:

“It’s both about keeping yourself organized in such a way that assignments are released on time that you’re doing your grading or feedback giving on time that even if you set things up to happen automatically by a Canvas or whatever delivery system you’re using that you’re still on top of it.”

Time management

The third most frequent valuable skills discussed by the long-term instructors were time management skills. Instructors discussed the importance of time management in online teaching as well as the importance of managing their time interacting with and responding to their online students. Time management, as these instructors described it was related to communication skills in that they discussed managing time spent responding to student emails and online discussion boards. Similar to the communication sub-theme of responsiveness, several of the instructors indicated the importance of responding to students in a timely manner, which some alluded to being more challenging in online teaching. For example, one instructor stated:

“Being responsive in a timely manner. And I will admit that sometimes I still struggle with that, because the students aren’t in front of me, so there’s less accountability. And so being able to make sure that I am responding in a timely way is, has really become more of a priority for me. It might not have been as much before, but I think it really matters. And I didn’t put as much emphasis in carving out that time, to make sure that every day I’d have a little bit of time to just, to devote to any kind of communication means for the online students.”

Several of the instructors discussed time management and timely responses in relationship to boundaries around their availability to online students. For example, the following are quotes from two instructors who commented about 24-hour cycles:

“I just think time management is something that’s really, really important. You could easily get sucked into checking in on your course and doing stuff 24 hours a day. That’s just not healthy.”

“You know, just kind of, you’ve got to be ready to be accessible nearly 24/7. That’s a little – maybe not quite that much, but you know, I work a lot of nights because that’s when questions come up and when you have 50 students and there’s a weekly assignment – each one wants to post something, you know, two or three posts – that’s a 150 posts to go through. That’s a lot.”

A few instructors discussed strategies they use to manage their time interacting with and responding to online students while maintaining presence.

“I think one of the skills is being present. Different people get there in different ways, maybe they organized themselves whilst they are in the class many times, and they structure their time so they are, but just being present. So, if it’s in the discussion board or creating a weekly, or biweekly announcement so it looks like you are there often. That’s a skill.”

The long-term instructors’ responses to this question illustrated a strong consensus. Remarkably, when asked about valuable skills for online teaching, 28 out of the 33 instructors talked about the importance of communication skills, underscoring the importance of these skills in an online context. Further, organizational skills and time management skills were discussed by 45%, or nearly half of these instructors. While these instructors have highlighted how these skills are best leveraged in an online context, it is worth noting that all three of these skills areas are of significant importance in all modalities of teaching. Thus, instructors teaching online for the first time may find these insights useful as they adapt their pre-existing teaching skills. Whether you are an instructor who is teaching an online, blended, remote or a face-to-face course, effective communication, organization, and time management are valuable skills to perfect. As lifelong learners, we all have the opportunity to grow and improve these skills in various context.


About the Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit: The Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit responds to and forecasts the needs and challenges of the online education field through conducting original research; fostering strategic collaborations; and creating evidence-based resources and tools that contribute to effective online teaching, learning and program administration. The OSU Ecampus Research Unit is part of Oregon State Ecampus, the university’s top-ranked online education provider. Learn more at ecampus.oregonstate.edu/research.

Editor’s note: This blog post was originally published online by Oregon State University’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

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