Taking a Hard Look at the Soft Skills of Online Course Design and Online Teaching in Higher Education

Taking a Hard Look at the Soft Skills of Online Course Design and Online Teaching in Higher Education

Kevin P. Gosselin (Texas A&M University, USA), Maria Northcote (Avondale College of Higher Education, Australia), Kristi D. Wuensche (Texas A&M University, USA) and Trudy Stoddard (Tabor College of Higher Education, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0968-4.ch008
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Over the past few decades, substantial growth has occurred in online education in general, and this has been particularly true of the higher education sector. Most universities and post-secondary institutions now offer students the opportunity to enroll in online pre-tertiary, vocational, undergraduate and/or postgraduate courses. While some of these courses are successful for the learners who enroll in them, others have been found somewhat deficient, often criticized for their lack of humanization, interaction, communication and online presence. This chapter examines the role of the so-called soft skills of online course design and online teaching that are seen as vital for online educators who are responsible for the facilitation of high quality online learning. Along with a review of relevant literature about the soft skills of online teaching, the chapter presents three institutional case studies from which a set of practically-focused recommendations for promoting the design of humanized online learning environments has been developed.
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Overwhelmingly, research has established the link between a teacher’s approach to teaching and students’ learning approaches (Prosser & Trigwell, 1998; Trigwell, Prosser, & Waterhouse, 1999). Similarly, the way in which online courses are designed and taught has been shown to influence the way in which students learn in online courses. There may also be a relationship between the emotional aspects of teaching and learning that are typically played out in the application of soft skills, an issue explored by Becker, Goetz, Morger and Ranellucci’s study (2014) which focused on “the relationship between teachers’ emotions, their instructional behavior, and students’ emotions in class” (p. 15). Other soft skills, such as teacher non-verbal immediacy, have been explored in relationship to student cognitive learning (Rodríguez, Plax, & Kearney, 1996). Soft skills encompass a variety of emotional and relational aspects of teaching including, but not limited to, communication, integrity, time management, self-management, self-esteem, etiquette, sociability, teamwork, cultural competence, flexibility, and empathy. Meanwhile, the experiences of students engaged in online courses within higher education contexts have not always been positive, and the way in which these experiences are influenced by the skills of online instructors remains under-researched.

While the success of some online courses has been attributed to the availability of the instructor, opportunities for interaction with other students and the provision of clear learning directions and expectations (Lehman & Conceicao, 2010), the lack of these characteristics has been associated with unsatisfactory and ineffective learning experiences (Etherington, 2008; Palloff & Pratt, 2002; Paxton, 2003). For example, some students report feeling disconnected, lonely and isolated from others (Kear, Chetwynd, & Jefferis, 2014; Morahan-Martin & Schumacher, 2003), confused about what is expected of them (Garrison, 2006), and lacking in direction and opportunities for interaction (Hun Lim, Morris, & Kupritz, 2007; Russo & Benson, 2005). These well known deficits of online learning contexts may be addressed by online instructors who have relevant soft skills appropriate to facilitating online learning, some of which have been described along with sets of technical and pedagogical online teaching skills (Archambault, 2008; Baran, Correia, & Thompson, 2011; Cleveland-Innes & Ally, 2006; Goodyear, Salmon, Spector, Steeples, & Tickner, 2001; Lehman & Conceicao, 2010; Northcote, Seddon, & Brown, 2011; Van Duzer, 2002; White & Weight, 2000). There is potential for online instructors to demonstrate soft skills in the way they design and develop online courses, as well as in their ability to teach online and to facilitate online learning activities. The significance of online instructors’ soft skills can be described in association with the role of emotionality and affect in adult learning (Becker et al., 2014; Hagenauer & Volet, 2014; Israel, Kamman, McCray, & Sindelar, 2014; Postareff & Lindblom-Ylänne, 2011). Furthermore, the soft skills of online educators are often related to communication and interpersonal issues which, when operationalized, promote online learning environments underpinned by principles of social constructivism (Mbati, 2013; Perkins, 2006) and connectivism (Siemens, 2005).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Online Presence: A sense of presence in an online teaching environment. For an instructor, this could incorporate “teaching presence”, “social presence” as well as “cognitive presence” – all essential elements within a “Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework” (Garrison, 2009, p. 352 AU205: Anchored Object 105 ).

Threshold Concepts: Major concepts encountered during the journey of learning that may be considered “akin to passing through a portal” or “conceptual gateway” that opens up “previously inaccessible way[s] of thinking about something” (Meyer & Land, 2003 AU206: The in-text citation "Land, 2003" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. , p. 1 AU207: Anchored Object 106 ). The major concepts encountered on the journey of learning about online teaching and course design, from a faculty’s point of view, can be seen as threshold concepts.

Sociocultural Framework: Within the context of education, this framework takes into account cultural, institutional, individual and social factors as they pertain to learning and development. The framework takes into account the interdependence of individual and social processes to facilitate the learning process.

Soft Skills of Online Teaching: Soft skills encompass personal qualities, interpersonal skills, and knowledge about online teaching. These include areas such as communication, integrity, time management, self-management, self-esteem, etiquette, sociability, teamwork, cultural competence, flexibility and empathy.

Community Of Inquiry: A virtual, online space in which students and the instructor engage in collaborative learning. This definition also includes the reflective practice involved in transformative learning within the context of on online environment.

Instructional Design of Online Courses: A systematic process of creating online instructional content that includes analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation (ADDIE). Effective instructional design consists of a team approach including at minimum a subject matter expert (teacher) to identify content to be taught and an instructional designer to create the design and delivery of the content from the subject matter expert. Additional members can include multimedia and technology specialists, evaluation experts, and additional subject matter experts to review content.

Humanization of Online Education: The process of humanizing online course design and online learning experiences of students by enhancing the online presence of both students and instructors and by developing instructors’ soft skills associated with communication and interpersonal interaction.

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