BE VOCAL: Characteristics of Successful Online Instructors – An Article Review

If I had to recommend just one article for instructors new to online education, it just might be BE VOCAL: characteristics of successful online instructors by John R. Savery (Savery, John R. (2005). BE VOCAL: characteristics of successful online instructors. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 4(2), 141-152). In it, Savery describes many of the best practices that I suggest to instructors and faculty who are designing or teaching online courses in what he calls the VOCAL model.

VOCAL is an acronym that stands for Visible, Organized, Compassionate, Analytical, and Leader-by-Example.

Visible refers to what we often call “instructor presence”. In an online course, an instructor cannot see their students and vice versa. Students need to know their instructor is actively engaged in the teaching process; they need to feel connected to their instructor and their peers, to be most successful as a learner.

Online courses require the instructor to be highly organized. It is critical that specific details be well thought out and articulated to students in the beginning of the term. For example, ensure that formats and methods for handing in assignments and naming conventions for assignment files are specified, and that clear directions for learning activities are provided.

Most, if not all, great instructors are compassionate. Online students often face additional challenges that face-to-face students may not – technological, personal, etc. Successful online courses are highly dependent on a safe, compassionate, community of trust and communication between students and instructor.

Effective online instructors must be analytical. They must be able to collect evidence of student learning (data), analyse student progress, and provide feedback for improvement. Whether the data are in the form of online tests, small assignments, and/or participation on discussion forums, the instructor must analyse to what extent the students are engaging in the course and achieving the course learning outcomes.

Finally, instructors must be leaders-by-example. The instructor, whether in face-to-face, online, or anywhere in-between, must model for the students active engagement, appropriate behviour, and a scholarly approach to the discipline.

The VOCAL model can apply to courses that are fully online, blended (face-to-face classes with some online components), or hybrid (some face-to-face classes with the majority of the class materials online). The characteristics in this VOCAL model can apply to all successful instructors regardless of course delivery, even face-to-face teaching, but become increasingly important as in-person interactions are replaced by virtual connection. Many good practical ideas are listed in this article – definitely worth a read.

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