4 Unexpected Benefits of Being an Online Instructor

As a self-taught programmer, I wasted time learning things I didn’t need to know and took more time in my studies than necessary. Later, when I found a mentor, I realized the importance of formal instruction to help students avoid similar mistakes. This revelation inspired me to become an instructor, and I started in a physical classroom.

I’ve taught a few in-person cohorts of the University of Arizona Coding Boot Camp, but more recently I transitioned to online instruction. With the unfortunate news of the COVID-19 outbreak, many instructors are compelled to do the same as universities shift to online learning.

It’s normal to be leery of this change. But I am here to assure you that online instruction means the same class, the same lesson plan, and the same high-quality learning experience. Based on my own experience, here are four important upsides to online education.

Students typically feel more confident and empowered online.

One of the biggest changes—advantages I’d say—I’ve found in teaching online is that my students feel more empowered to participate in class. My latest cohort has the highest engagement of any classroom I have taught: They ask questions without fear of how their peers perceive them. And if they’re not comfortable asking something in a breakout room or on the screen, they can connect with me privately on Slack.

My in-person students didn’t have a way to contact me outside of class or on-campus office hours. Now, I’m able to offer guidance at intervals throughout the day—or hop on a live call with students. If I can’t get to their questions during class, I can explain a concept later on. My online students seek my—or my TA’s—help more often, and they are further ahead in the material than my previous cohorts have been at this point in the boot camp.

My teaching style has improved with online instruction.

It’s not just my students that are more confident online; I’ve become more confident too. I have more control over the online classroom and am more comfortable with my public speaking. The boot camp team was supportive throughout my transition from in-person to online teaching, offering guidance on everything from effective instruction styles to the technology we use.

The instructor training balanced tech skills with interpersonal skills; I learned not only how we teach but why we teach the way we do. Through the “start with why” approach the boot camp team taught me, I was able to go deeper into my lessons and help students understand the meaning behind assignments.

I have greater empathy now that I’ve been working one-on-one with more students. I can listen to them, commiserate with them, and thoughtfully explain solutions. The experience has improved my mentorship skills immensely, allowing me to develop a whole new vocabulary and learn to articulate why and how a solution is correct. With the ability to teach from my home or office, I have newfound freedom to interact, instruct, and provide assistance to students—putting hours back into the day and easing some former stress.

Technology provides meaningful new opportunities.

My online classroom is enhanced with powerful technology. Platforms like Zoom, which I use to hold live classes, allow me to interact with students as I would if it were an in-person lecture. I can still see students, and Zoom provides the ability to host breakout rooms and meetings for group projects and study sessions. I also use Sidecar, a MacOS feature that allows me to use my iPad as an external monitor. This way I’m able to view both my class and lesson plan side-by-side. In a physical class, I would be glancing down at the lesson plan, whereas my screen setup provides a more seamless experience—and keeps my focus firmly on the class. Collaborative cloud editors and extensions like Visual Studio Live Share allow the class to code together in a manner similar to collaborative editing in Google Docs. Students can code along with me and industry-experienced TAs in real-time to automate common tasks and alleviate class annoyances.

Additionally, my students have unique ways to interact during class, whether it’s talking to each other, Slacking me a question, or using emojis to convey understanding. I use what is called the “fist of five” model, where students can post a hand in the chat to show me where their comprehension level is, based on the number of fingers displayed. And at the end of class, I often employ “3-2-1” checks: three things the students learned that day, two things they want to know more about, and one question they have. These spaces for reflection are great ways to understand when we need to focus more attention on a topic without fully sidetracking the class.

Online lessons are more flexible.

I used to have students who would get stuck in traffic on their way to class, come in late and be stressed, or have to rearrange their work schedules to make it to school. Now, students tune in from home, on their couch, or wherever they’d like to be. When students are relaxed and at ease, they feel more positive and are better prepared to learn the material.

Students can also learn at their own pace. We’re able to record every lecture and assignment, including the material covered in breakout rooms, my answers to questions, and in-depth topic conversations. Students can replay anything they like, as they work through specific homework assignments and improve their general comprehension.

We also provide interactive and asynchronous class guides: a “lesson plan” for students. This ensures that no one gets left behind, even if they have to miss a class. In contrast, there was always a limit to how much I could help students who missed an in-person lecture.

Behind the screen, in front of the class.

I was thrilled when I was offered the opportunity to teach the University of Arizona Coding Boot Camp cohort online. I used to spend hours commuting and worried about making arrangements with my full-time job. Online education is an enriching experience, and with the amazing technology tools available today, there are virtually no differences or downsides—for students or instructors.

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