Teaching Online: Using the Right Tools to Meet Students Where They Are Right Now



Anyone who’s taught (online, onsite or both) or taken any type of class in the last decade is familiar with the VARK profiles of various learning styles.  (If you haven’t taken the quick evaluation to determine your own learning style, you can do so at http://www.vark-learn.com/english/page.asp?p=questionnaire)

Of course, the VARK breakdown of learning styles is just one of multiple theories of how we learn.  There are plenty of other articles online that explore other perspectives on learning; this post isn’t going to explore them.

I want to discuss how online students learn NOW, in the second decade of the 21st century.

Let’s follow a hypothetical online college student through a day. When she wakes up, she might use her smartphone to check the online course materials to see what’s due and when.   While finishing her coffee, she’s using a tablet to read her e-textbook.    While driving, she gets the chapter finished while using the electronic voice feature to read it to her via her smartphone.  At work, this student takes a break and logs into her course on her laptop (or desktop) to post to that week’s discussion topics.  Just before leaving work, she emails a question to the instructor.  Once she’s home, she uses her tablet to log into a real-time Skype session with her project group; their group presentation is due next week.


Results, as the disclaimers in ads state, may not be typical.  However, this one hypothetical student’s use of tools IS typical of the students I’ve taught over the last six years.  In 2008, few people had smartphones; now nearly everyone does.  2010 saw the birth of the iPad; the tablet market exploded.  In classrooms,I usually observe anywhere from 40-70% of the class have their tablets open, to follow the lecture (among other things).

The fact is that while VARK is useful explore how a person learns best, few students only use one method of taking an online course–not when multiple means are available.


Let’s start with the textbook.  When I’ve taught blended courses (online/in-classroom), there’s usually a fairly even split between students buying the hard copy and those who purchase (or rent) the e-text.  This seems to have nothing to do with age; I’ve had students 40+ who love their electronic texts and 19-year olds who stuff their textbooks with Post-It® notes.


I personally love the e-books, since I can have a whole term’s worth of books on my tablet, and not taking up desk space; I also read quickly and love the ability to fly through the pages.  But I completely understand why other students–particularly those having English as a second language–are more comfortable with a physical textbook.

My approach to teaching both online and blended courses is to provide multiple methods–or as VARK puts it, “modalities”–so that students can access materials and complete assignments in the ways that work best for them.

And as our hypothetical student shows, those ways vary by where they are at any point in a given day and what tools are available to them at those times.


I’ve always believed that it’s critical to meet students where they actually are in their individual learning journeys.  So I now take advantage of as many multimedia (I really dislike the term “multimodal”) tools as possible to make my course materials as accessible as possible.




These podcasts (which I create using free online tools such as Audacity) are short–20-25 minutes.  They cover the highlights of the reading assignments and the key learning objectives.  I particularly emphasize the key terms.  I introduce the terms at the beginning of the podcast; cover them thoroughly in the body; then restate them at the conclusion.

Students can download and listen to these while driving, exercising, walking or waiting to pick up their kids at school.  I  try to make clear that these MP3 files are NOT a substitute for doing the reading and reviewing the PowerPoints.  They are a way to get students familiar with the material in times and places they probably can’t log into the online course.




I invite students to email or text me questions each week with the subject line: “Office Hours.”  Once I week, I use Adobe Presenter to record me reading and answering the questions.  I can then use the sessions to expand on the course assignments, past and future.  The MP4 files are available online for students to review at their leisure.  (Full credit to Dr. Dan Ariely of Duke University and his staff, who used this method very successfully in his Coursera online class.)



Texting is the fastest way for students to ask questions and for me to respond.   While I still use email, I find that younger students, particularly, do not.  (As one told me, “I only have an email address to I can use Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram.  I never check it.”)  


I can generally respond to student texts almost instantly.

Similarly, I welcome student phone calls, as long as they’re before 10PM in my time zone.  I know some instructors do not provide their cell numbers and restrict student contact to email only; that is certainly the instructor’s prerogative.

I can only state that I know students don’t email (or even check their email) frequently.

I can also state–categorically–that in over five years and nearly 1,000 students, I’ve never had anyone abuse that phone access.  



My students have a choice–they can review the PowerPoints at their own speed, or download a presentation that I narrate with a lecture.  It only takes a few minutes to prepare these narrated presentations and students can watch them while they’re otherwise occupied–trying to get a baby back to sleep, for example (they would use earbuds, of course).  It’s literally plug and play–for some students, it’s easier.  Considering how everyone uses YouTube and GIFs, it makes sense to try to create short presentations that will help students learn visually.  Again, I use Adobe Presenter to prepare these.


Student feedback has told me these tools work.  Assessment scores have gone up.  Student posts to discussion topics show greater understanding of the material.


Image  Classes are more engaged and more interested.


While your mileage may vary, I really like having and using these tools to enrich my teaching and the student learning experience.  Students are no longer locked into classroom seats once or twice a week to be talked at by the instructor.  Neither are they  sitting stationary in front of a computer screen for one hour a day.  They have a computer/smartphone, and therefore, online access with them 24/7.   The teaching tools described above help me take advantage of this access and make learning more successful.








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