10+ Best Practices for Teaching Online!

Recently, I presented a webinar called “Best Pactices for Teaching Online”. I wanted to cover all my bases so I sifted through many of the “Best Practices” that are on the web. I ended up compiling this list into 10. I put 10+ because really there are actually tips inside of the 10 too. 😉 At the bottom are a few great resources that helped form this list.


1. Learn Basic Technology Skills

  • Know who can help you and your students and convey that information so everyone knows who to go to for help. Who do you call when you have technical issues, problems with the learning management system, or design issues? Know who is available at your institution to assist you and be sure and let students know who they can contact for help as well.
  • Can you..?
    • Use Word, Excel, and PowerPoint? or want to go beyond Powerpoint?
    • Use internet browsers and email?
    • Upload content to the LMS (Learning Management System)?
    • Show or hide assignments & assessments or discussion boards
    • Add web links
    • Use discussion boards and chat or whiteboard tools
    • Edit and revise assignment descriptions & instructions?
    • Navigate and use the grade book?
  • Without being comfortable with the basic tools available to you in your LMS, it’s very difficult to help students feel at ease and confident as they use the LMS for course work.

2. Before Class Starts, Design, Develop, and Set Up the Course

  • Many of us have have had to fly the plane while it is being built (see video) in the past but this is not good idea with online courses. It’s best to develop your course well in advance ensuring that the course is set up and complete before class starts. There are also best practices for the development of online courses and I’ve listed just a few below.
    • Syllabus
    • Welcome message from instructor
    • Module learning guides (lists objectives, and guides the students through the module, letting them know what they need to read, view, do, etc along with learning activities, discussions, etc). Think of it like a roadmap for students.
    • Appropriate and appealing course banner.
    • Consistent look and feel of course content
    • Use web-friendly formats (not large files, consider .pdf and .html rather than .ppt and .doc if possible)
    • Instructor to student and student to student communication strategies
    • Measurable learning objectives, rubrics
    • Include any support resources your institution has available
    • Comply with institution, state, and federal regulations (copyright, FERPA, 508, ADA)
  • Other Considerations:
    • When using technologies, provide content in multiple formats (ex: video with a script)
    • Consider download time for files (video and audio sizes, etc)
    • Consider different modes of learning for multiple ways for students to practice until material and skills are mastered
    • Use a variety of large group, small group, and individual work experiences
    • Use problem based learning activities applied to course concepts and provide adequate structure for group work.
    • Provide structure but allow for flexibility
    • If possible work with an Instructional Designer or use course rubrics for quality such as Quality Matters rubric, Blackboard Exemplary course rubric, or iNACOL standards for quality online courses.
  • Set up your course PRIOR to class starting:
    • Update the syllabus
    • Check due dates on assignments, assessments, and discussions
    • Hide modules or content you want hidden and show what you want shown.
    • Create a welcome announcement and introduction video to the course. Send a welcome email.
    • Double check links, videos, etc to ensure course content is available and relevant. Update if needed.
    • Prepare a weekly calendar to help you make the best use of your time online (virtual office hours, grading, discussions, feedback, and responses, etc)

3. Communicate Expectations

  • Your syllabus should include the following expectations:
    • Concepts taught, objectives, and learning outcomes in a clearly written format
    • Define the norms for class interaction for both instructor and students
    • Define grading criteria
    • Establish appropriate behavior and explain course organization
    • Include student and instructor response time expectations
    • Communicate high expectations. Remember, you are excited to teach online! Your LMS is great! 😉 This is going to be amazing for your students!  Be excited about teaching online and communicate that enthusiasm to your students.
    • As mentioned earlier, notify students whose available to help them (instructor, aids, tech support, libraries, academic services, etc)
    • Discourage lateness and encourage promptness
    • Provide students with a rubric of what good course participation looks like
    • Use the due date features in the grade book of the LMS
  • Develop an interaction plan for unsuccessful learners. What will you do to assist those who struggle?

4. Build Your Online Presence

  • Especially during the first week, log on every day. This is the period of time when students are most likely to experience problems, and you want to solve them right away. Tell them to who to call for help. Note: The level of student online activity is strongly predictive of eventual course grade and the probability of dropping the course. Instructors are key!
  • During the first two weeks of class:
    • check overall student activity – run tracking reports if available
    • contact low-participating students, noting your concern and offer assistance
    • Remind them of additional tutoring, academic services if applicable.
  • Establish a routine. Carry out actions most days of the week – at least 4. Students pay attention to your online presence or absence.
  • Build a relationship of trust and reliable expectations
  • Be present in the course – a liberal use of the tools: announcements, discussion board postings, feedback on assignments, etc communicate to students that their instructor cares about who they are, their questions, and concerns and is “present” to mentor and assist when needed. Note: Have a student & instructor introduction discussion post to help break the ice and begin developing a sense of community.
  • Be prepared for questions students would know had they read the syllabus. 😉 Post an announcement answering commonly asked questions, etc.

5. Encourage Interaction, Participation, and Collaboration

  • Tips for discussions
    • Discussions should occur during a specified time (two weeks, etc) so all posts and replies are somewhat during the same time.
    • Enforce guidelines for respect and responsibility in discussion boards, blogs, or chat rooms.
    • Require participation – state minimum number of postings per student, per discussion
    • Clearly state the purpose of the discussion – how will it help them achieve the course learning objectives? What benefit is there to a discussion?
    • Provide examples of good vs poor discussion messages
    • Post rules and hints regarding writing style for discussion boards
    • Clarify misunderstandings and bring the discussions back to key topics if they go way off topic.
  • In addition to discussions and blogs, consider using survey tools like polldaddy, suveymonkey, etc to increase the relevance of course concepts to students. Learn more about using surveys in your courses.

6. Have a Variety of Learning Activities in the Course

  • Design activities that encourage “active learning” in which students are expected to participate and be active.
  • Recognize that students have different learning styles.
  • Increase interaction in your courses – previous post.
  • Have a variety of types of learning activities:
    • Discussions, blogs, journals, projects, presentations, assignments, assessments, web quests, etc
  • Always provide feedback, what was good, what needs improvement
  • be prepared for students to request extensions of the deadlines (have a clearly stated policy)
  • Use auto-grade self-assessments where students can be given immediate results as they practice.
  • Use grading forms and rubrics to make the job of grading easier and ensuring students know how they will be evaluated.
  • Complete grading within your promised timeline.
  • Integrate mobile devices! Here is a prevous post on 8 Ways to Integrate Mobile Learning in Your Online or Blended Courses.

7. Provide Regular & Timely Feedback

  • Online students can feel isolated and distant. One of the most important things an instructor can do is provide regular and timely feedback. Provide feedback in a 24 hour response time, as often as possible.
  • Announcements:
    • Post announcements often (make them popup or send as email too if possible)
    • Include “teasers” for upcoming class sessions
    • Include time-dependent information like “Exam 3 grades have been posted”.
    • Include personal touches like holiday greetings, comments about class sections, occasional praise, relevant jokes, etc
    • Provide a summary and conclusion when a discussion is closed.
  • Develop FAQ to respond to recurring questions
  • Follow up with students who are not actively participating via email reminders
  • Email, text, or call students
  • Search the grade book for low grades and contact low scorers or those with dramatic changes in scores.
  • Be human: Incorporate warmth in your writing, occasional personal details, gentle jokes, etc.
  • Offer virtual office hours (ex: night before an exam, etc).
  • Always respond to questions within 24 hours

8. Modeling Ethics & Good Online Behavior

  • Include a statement on academic dishonesty in your syllabus and course
  • Identify risks of academic dishonesty for students
  • Use course content that complies with intellectual property rights and fair use standards
  • Create an environment online that promotes legal, ethical, safe, and healthy behavior online

9. Understand the Online Student Perspective

  • Just like on campus students, online students are extremely diverse. They are often trying to balance their course work with family, work, clubs, sports, and other outside activities. Demonstrating empathy for students goes a long way.
  • Understand their perspective through responsiveness and a supportive attitude.
  • Try and anticipate challenges and problems in the online classroom that may happen. Then proactively come up with alternatives for support.
  • Recognize that student success (grade, level of participation, mastery of content, completion percentage) is an important measure of course success
  • Remember that the online student appreciates clarity, flexibility, and response
  • Take an online course! Being a student in an online environment can really make a huge difference and help you as you teach because you will understand their perspective even better.

10. Share Ideas and Collaborate

  • Meet with your Online Ed team at your institution to learn more about how they can assist you with teaching online.
  • Discuss challenges with fellow faculty and other online instructors to get key insights
  • Read blogs and online articles about teaching online. No need to reinvent the wheel! 😉
  • Join a social networking site such as Twitter and search for like-minded colleagues around the world to share ideas. I’m a huge fan of twitter. Here is a previous post on why every educator should be on twitter. I’m on Twitter @Kodystimpson and @HigheredOnlineL

What other suggestions do you have? Please leave additional best practices in the comments area.

Here are a few resources referred to when compiling this list:


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