Overcoming the 10 Most Serious and Challenging Obstacles of Teaching Online

Written by: Errol Craig Sull
Published On: June 8, 2013

Anyone who teaches online has run into problems within their courses. Some of these problems can be complicated and if not correctly resolved can do major damage to the online instructor’s reputation and opportunity for teaching future courses. This month’s column tackles the worst of these.

Culled from hundreds of emails I have received over the years from online instructors, as well as from my 18 years of online teaching experience, the 10 major obstacles and their solutions that follow have come up more than any others. (Note: This column does not cover what can be done to prevent these.) Yes, there are many left out—and, as always, I invite you to write me with ones you think deserve a place on this list.

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Losing all power and other related interruptions. We can control nearly all of our efforts in the online classroom, but not being able to interact with our course due to a power failure, a server issue, or a broken computer and/or piece of software on our end can throw the class into chaos. Not to worry, as long as there is a Plan B: the first day of class always ask students to send you their phone numbers and personal email addresses. If one of these problems occurs, you can still contact them. This way, you can always keep students in the loop.

New to teaching/new to teaching online. Whether you are new to teaching or to the environment of online teaching, many missteps await. It’s part of the process of learning how to effectively teach online. Beyond the required online teaching training program your institution probably offers, there are several steps you can take to minimize any errors and reduce your anxiety. Check out the many blogs that focus on distance learning; read some of the numerous books and frequent articles that offer practical online teaching information; reach out to friends and colleagues who have experience teaching online; always read and keep the many emails your school will send out on its policies and procedures related to online teaching; and take lots of notes on anything directly or indirectly related to online teaching.

A severe medical problem strains teaching efforts. Medical concerns, as well as deaths, tap our lives at expected and unexpected times. And they can become one of those personal facets of our lives that legitimately can be blamed for disrupting our professional lives. Yet the students must be taught. They cannot simply be abandoned, so thinking ahead about the possibility of dealing with an illness or a death is mandatory. Most important, communicate with your students. Let them know why you may be absent for a few days; they will respect you for your honesty. Also look at your syllabus for “wiggle room” to allow extra time to grade assignments. Be sure you have a laptop so classes can be taught in the event you are confined to a bed, and be familiar with your school’s policy on someone taking over your class in the event of an extended absence. Finally, if you suddenly need to stop teaching your course, be sure it is always in good shape with all grading and student responses up to date. You want folks to know you’ve been an effective online teacher so you will be warmly welcomed back.

Sexual/aggressive emails and other difficult communications from students. These messages seem to come from nowhere—students sending inappropriate messages of a sexual nature, continually complaining, inviting you to be their “friend” on Facebook or a similar social media site, or giving ongoing excuses as to why assignments are continually late. There are many approaches to handle each, but generally they include keeping a file of all student emails (and dates/content of calls) and your responses; informing your immediate supervisor of any student who is over the top in these areas (and always reporting any student whose communication contains sexual or threatening messages or tones); responding to such communication in a professional, impersonal manner; keeping student-instructor interaction friendly but never as a friend; and being aware of any school policies relating to these types of student communication. Everyone should always know you as professional, as one who follows school policies, and as an online educator who can be trusted.

Receiving poor student and/or supervisor evaluations. This is the bane of all online educators, yet it happens—sometimes justified, sometimes not. Don’t despair. Don’t think your teaching career is over. Don’t let any negative emotions show in emails to anyone at school. Rather, consider the criticism and ask yourself, “Is this something on which I really need to work?” And then give yourself an honest answer. For the “yes” answers, start keeping a file of “areas to improve,” and refer to it often as you teach your future courses. You don’t want to make the same mistake twice. For any negative responses, be sure you can back up why the negatives were unjustified. In evaluations, always respond to your supervisor in a positive tone, acknowledging areas in which you agree improvement is needed and/or explaining why you believe an item or two were unjustified. Finally, no matter how good you are as an online instructor, there will be the occasional student who decides to punish you for the poor grade he or she earned. Deal with it in a gracious, positive manner.

Teaching an unfamiliar course or subject. There are times when we are asked to teach a course we haven’t previously taught, and sometimes it is a subject not very familiar to us. This can happen because a scheduled instructor suddenly was not available to teach the course or because of lack of an instructor. Don’t panic. All general online teaching principles apply. Thoroughly look over the course site, because there may be activities you’re unfamiliar with. Ask your supervisor for access to a similar course that has ended so you can get a feel as to how the course was taught. Most important, steep yourself in the subject so you know it well.

Links in course not working/course setup items incorrect. This can be embarrassing and frustrating for us and our students. Consider the following approaches: (1) The best defense is a good offense (i.e., post an early email to the class asking them to immediately report any links not working or items that appear to be missing—the students are now on your side); (2) When you discover such a problem, immediately let your students know; and (3) Have all contact information ready (such as the IT folks) to help you correct any such problem. The quicker you get the item(s) corrected, the happier your students will be and the smoother your course will be.

Efficiently managing time. Many folks go into online teaching with the idea that it will be laid back and more relaxed than teaching in a face-to-face class. Wrong! The responsibilities, deadlines, and communication are ongoing and intense. Many online educators often find themselves in a time battle with their online courses, personal lives, and other professional responsibilities. Not properly managing time in the online class can be disastrous, so … be very organized in your course; don’t leave anything until the last minute. Have a daily checklist of what needs to be done. Use online reminder software to help you. Seek out some of the numerous online time management articles. Let family and friends know you can’t be disturbed while involved in your class.

Accidentally posting email, etc., with improper/offensive wording. Few online instructors have not done this accidentally or when emotion got in the way of pragmatic thinking. When this happens, immediately send out a mea culpanote, including the correction and a brief explanation as to why it happened (and here a white lie may not be such a bad thing). It’s always better for you to acknowledge the error before someone else points it out. 

Posting grades incorrectly—especially final ones. When rushing to get grades posted, it’s easy to type the wrong letter or number, and usually it’s not until an angry or confused student contacts us that we learn of our error. This can become especially uncomfortable with final grades. Students can miss out on registering for financial aid due to improper final grades, and sometimes the instructor cannot change it once a final grade has been entered—the supervisor or registrar must. To minimize such errors, look over your grades after they have been posted. If you find a mistake, immediately rectify it (chances are that the student will not have seen it yet). But when a student informs you of such a problem, simply acknowledge your mistake, apologize, and correct it. And if you must go through your supervisor, fess up—you made an error, and his or her help would be appreciated.

REMEMBER: “Oops!” and “Uh oh!” are part of life—it’s what we do to rectify the current mistake and prevent future ones that determines whether or not we can be counted on and respected. 

Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for 18 years and has a national reputation in the subject, writing and conducting workshops on distance learning, with national recognition in the field of distance education. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his second online teaching text.

Online Classroom newsletter

This article originally appeared in the newsletter
Online Classroom 12.6 (2012): 6, 7.

The Online Classroom newsletter helps you stay current with the latest trends in online learning by offering ideas and advice for the new trailblazers in higher education.