10/21/2013 03:16 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Humbling (at First) Experience of Teaching Online

At the dawn of the Internet Age, we could not have imagined that in two short decades, one-third of all students enrolled in higher education would take at least one course online. In 2011, that was six million students, and a 10 percent increase over the year before.

For instructors like us, there was not much written about how to teach online. Let's be honest, in 2009 when we launched our online Master of Arts in Teaching program at the USC Rossier School of Education -- a robust platform blending live synchronous classes with customized asynchronous resources -- there was nothing written about how to teach that way. We had to hit the ground running, test our assumptions, and make changes quickly as we learned.

We now know that great instruction is possible online. Our classrooms have changed, but the elements of good teaching have not: understand the content, know your students, use data, and adapt. We learned five key lessons as we adjusted to teaching online.

Time changes online. In the virtual classroom, time moves differently than in a traditional classroom. At first, we admit it, class sessions dragged. We couldn't seem to get students engaged. We'd ask a question and could hear the virtual crickets chirping over the silence in the room. We restructured, tried more direct instruction, and suddenly there wasn't enough time! Nor were we convinced that students were truly engaged. After all, a student staring intently at her monitor could just as easily be scanning her Facebook page. Finally, we talked less and involved more -- using discussion, break out groups, and multimedia tools like interactive polls and back channeling. Students began participating -- practically inhaling the content -- and the time flew.

Instructors need to build confidence with the technology and the new classroom. To increase instructor skills, we borrowed a technique from airline pilot training -- simulators. Teaching in a virtual classroom requires knowing the basics of the technology and being ready to adjust if a server blows, an upgrade to one tool shuts down another tool, or the wireless fades. We created virtual practice classrooms in which our tech experts purposefully broke tools or planted disruptions. We learned how to create workarounds in real time. We watched each other teach and practiced new approaches, testing what captured student interest. This open, collaborative process swiftly built confidence and improved our instruction.

Engaging Students Requires Far More Structure Than We Expected. (See #1!) How instructors engage students and the type of engagement strategies they use must be more tightly structured than in the typical classroom. Through trial and error we found that a person online has about a 7- to 20-minute attention span per activity. To keep students connected to the learning, we needed to "mix it up" more frequently. Just as we couldn't lecture the entire class, nor could it be only a free form discussion. We developed a rhythm of moving from discussion, to demonstrations, to practicing skills, to small group analysis -- much like we do in a brick and mortar class, but faster.

Out-of-class time is valuable learning space. Once we realized how to bestmanage in-class (synchronous) time, we completely rethoughthow to use the out-of-class time. The asynchronous world became a jewel of a resource. We front-loaded much of the fact-based learning through the use of digital tools and customized video/lectures. We asked students to provide commentary on the pre-reading and on each other's work through Voicethread, and to demonstrate a particular skill through Screenr or short videos they filmed with their smart phones. All of this material was experienced before each live session. We went further with our discussions because students were so well prepared prior to the "live" class time.

It's possible to build great relationships with students online. You might think that moving to an online platform would make relationship-building even more of a challenge for a teacher. But we discovered just the opposite. In our online classrooms, which we cap at 15 students, there is no "back row." Every student is front and center (picture "The Brady Bunch") and their engagement is apparent. The social networking features of the platform allow us to learn about our students' personal interests long before a course begins. We shared our own interests as well. And the more we shared, the more students responded. Students formed surprisingly close friendships, though they often lived 3,000 miles apart. They created student affinity groups online. Now, 80 percent of our online students come to campus for commencement, meeting face-to-face for the first time, but interacting just as they would if we had spent the entire course in a brick-and-mortar classroom.

Robust, interactive online classrooms led by excellent and well-prepared teachers can provide an optimal environment for students to learn.

That's right. Online learning can be more effective than traditional on-campus learning. We say can. Not all programs are created equal. We have also learned that the biggest mistake an institution can make is assuming that what works in teaching an on-campus class will work in an online course. It's a different medium that requires adapting teaching to a new context to make it work. It takes a real commitment to doing it right, but doing it right means everybody wins -- faculty, students, and ultimately their students.