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Tips for Online Teaching Success from a Seasoned Cisco Networking Academy Online Instructor


As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold and impact every aspects of our lives, the teaching community has been tasked with moving from in-person classes to online courses in record time – forcing millions of teachers to adapt quickly.

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Cisco Networking Academy Instructor Stephanie Harvey, an online teacher on the faculty at University of Alaska Fairbanks. Stephanie teaches all of her nearly 100 students each year online, and she shared the tips and tricks she has learned as an online educator.

1.   How long have you been teaching online with Cisco Networking Academy?

I’ve been teaching Networking Academy courses for over 3 years. I mainly teach the CCNA networking courses, but I’ve also taught CCNA Cybersecurity Operations, Introduction to Internet of Things (IoT), and Python.

2.   How do you keep students engaged in an online setting?

It is definitely harder to engage students online as compared to a traditional classroom. Students are going to feel more hesitant to get on camera or use the microphone. So, you have to be more diligent in getting people to interact. It’s a lot about helping people get out of their comfort zones and develop their online communication skills. These are skills they will need both in the short and long term, as more of our lives temporarily move online and the global workforce continues to evolve.

Another important aspect of student engagement is presenting content in different ways. Students have different learning styles, so you have to teach to those different styles – all at once! Some will learn best by seeing, others by reading, and others by doing. This makes having a well-rounded course essential to student engagement. For example, incorporate into your curriculum video demonstrations, images, and graphics. Don’t solely rely on PowerPoint presentations or recorded sessions – that gets boring for the students.

3.   What does classroom management look like online?

It’s a little different each semester depending on the students, because you get different groups each time. But I have live sessions with my students once or twice a week in an environment like Cisco Webex, where we interact through live video chats and sharing content.

Typically, I have one lecture day where I go over everything for that week, and then I have a lab day where students break into groups on NETLAB (a remote access solution) or I walk them through how to configure that week’s material. All throughout the process I provide students with opportunities to interact and provide feedback. That’s very important. And from an overall structure standpoint, I have my course materials and assignments clearly laid out and then I utilize NetAcad.com for the tests and reading materials.

4.   How does Networking Academy’s flexible online learning platform, NetAcad.com, facilitate online learning?

What I really like about NetAcad.com is that it offers content in different ways to meet the needs of all students. Recently, in fact, they changed the CCNA course materials to make them even more interactive, adding more videos, quizzes, and Packet Tracer (virtual network simulator) labs to make it easier for students to retain what they’ve learned. Packet Tracer is especially effective in an online environment, because it allows students to actually configure and set up networks without having to access physical equipment.

5.   What would you tell an educator who must start teaching online, but has never done it before?

Teaching online is definitely different than in-person. So, you shouldn't necessarily treat it the same way. You're going to have to put more effort into certain areas, like how you present and organization. You especially have to put more effort into providing a warm and welcoming online environment where students can feel your personality. Without it, they won’t be able to pick up on your teaching style or easily interact with you. That’s why I really like live sessions over recorded sessions. I get to pick up on my students’ personalities and engage with them.

Also, I recommend not relying on traditional online discussion boards as a way to get students to engage with each other. They often encourage students to go through the motions - meeting just the minimum requirements of the assignment. Instead, get students together in an online classroom or platform so they can interact with each other and use videos, tools, and interesting articles to drive conversations that facilitate learning. Webex Teams is an example of a solution where students can collaborate and share.

6.   What are your top five teaching tips for first-time online educators?

1.   Don’t wing it. Get your course materials and assignments organized very clearly. If you don’t, student will get frustrated. I try to keep things simple by making the course structure and assignments very clear and easy to navigate. For example, I provide links to the syllabus, weekly assignments, and the Networking Academy curriculum on the menu in the classroom on an online teaching platform.

2.   Don’t rely on PowerPoint for all of your lectures. That’s a big one. It’s not very engaging to only use PPT and different students learn differently. Mix it up – do video demonstrations, live demos of lab equipment, or share interesting websites or other tools.

3.   Do live sessions. Live sessions are important, because they create back-and-forth engagement. Recorded sessions don’t offer students the engagement they need.

4.   Respond to students in a timely manner. I typically try to respond with 24 hours. It’s not like in-person when they can get instant feedback. The longer you wait to respond, the more it frustrates students, and the harder it becomes for them to complete their assignments.

5.   Ask for feedback. Sometimes it’s hard to hear, but students can tell you what’s working and what’s not. Regularly I ask my students “what’s working for you?” and “what would you change about this course?” And I do it frequently to gauge how the course is going. I’m constantly adapting my courses based on the feedback from my students.

7.   What’s an important skill for online teaching?

Having good time management skills is a must. You need to be able to respond back to students, grade assignments, and provide feedback in a timely manner - otherwise the learning process stalls. In an online environment this is especially critical, because students are getting less feedback than in a traditional classroom setting. It’s also a great way to keep students engaged.

8.   What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of my job is helping students gain the skills and understanding they need to get started in the IT field. I love it when they ask me questions or when we meet online to walk through some struggles they’re having. I love also hearing that what they’re learning in the classroom is being used in the real world. Like when they say, “That thing we learned last week is helping me in my job!” That’s one of my favorite things.

To learn more tips for successful online teaching, visit Cisco Webex.