What are the qualities that help instructors succeed when teaching online? That was the focus of a lively discussion at the 14th annual Sloan-C International Conference on Online Learning Nov. 6.

Presenter Bill Phillips of the University of Central Florida discussed findings from his research on the topic. Not surprisingly, he said, successful online instructors share many of the same characteristics that successful teachers in traditional classrooms exhibit–but they also spend a lot of time establishing a persona of approachability and ensuring students’ comfort in the course.

Online instructors face a number of challenges that traditional, face-to-face teachers don’t have, Phillips noted. For one thing, students and their instructors can’t see the visual clues that often help us understand the meaning behind another person’s words. Humor is hard to pull off online, he added, lest it be mistaken or misunderstood. Also, communicating primarily through writing takes more time, and the technology itself can create a barrier to learning.

Phillips studied four undergraduate faculty members who were considered successful online instructors, based on factors such as their students’ grades and course evaluations. He interviewed them extensively and also observed their online teaching.

He said all four demonstrated the “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” (Chickering & Gamson, 1987), which are:

– Encouraging student-faculty contact;
– Encouraging cooperation among students;
– Encouraging active learning;
– Giving prompt feedback;
– Emphasizing time on task;
– Setting high expectations; and
– Respecting diverse talents and ways of learning.

But the successful online instructors also exhibited what Phillips called “swift trust,” a term taken from the military. “You have to exude authority … and gain students’ trust from Day One or before,” he explained, noting that all four instructors he observed shared this characteristic.

One way online instructors can establish this trust right away is to send a note to students individually before the course starts, introducing themselves and setting clear goals and expectations. The note can be warm and informal, but it must be clearly written.