Tips for Teaching Online

Pedagogy for Online Instruction

Teaching an online course can be very different than teaching a traditional course. Most often, pedagogical changes must occur to make the online teaching/learning experience a positive one. Chickering and Gamson (1991) provide seven principles for good teaching practice that apply to both traditional in-class instruction and online instruction. The principles can serve as a guide while developing materials and learning exercises. The principles are:

  • encourage contact between students and faculty,
  • develop reciprocity and cooperation among students,
  • encourage active learning,
  • give prompt feedback,
  • emphasize time on task,
  • communicate high expectations, and
  • respect diverse talents and ways of learning.

While these principles can guide curricular decisions, more specific information is needed to implement them. For example, "Encourage contact" can be achieved by requiring that students participate in online discussions. As the instructor, it is up to you to guide this communication. Having students post 2-3 responses, questions, or comments to a reading assignment or to a question posed by you is more focused than simply requiring that students post 2-3 times to the discussion each week. Klemm (2001) offers other ideas for implementing these principles and for getting students engaged using online communication.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Learning

Initial benefits to online learning were believed to be cost effectiveness and access to new learners unable to attend traditional classes. It is generally agreed that the initial cost associated with developing an online course is much higher than the sustained cost of teaching the course once it is developed but that cost effectiveness benefits are not immediate. It is obvious that the flexibility of scheduling available with online learning enables many nontraditional students to acquire an education. Furthermore, the use of online information for teaching provides more immediacy than traditional textbooks. While there are truly a number of advantages to online teaching and learning, there are new challenges as well.

Factors to consider when developing a partial or completely online course include:

  • class size may be smaller than a traditional course due to the volume of online communication that must be processed by the instructor
  • computing skills are a prerequisite to an online course, not a by-product of it
  • technical limitations and issues might introduce problems to be overcome
  • communications (chat and discussions) can be unfocused unless the instructor exercises a strong guiding influence on the conversation with prompts, cues, and suggestions
  • the demographics of students in online courses and in traditional courses is usually different (with online courses generally being more diverse and often being comprised of older, non-degree-seeking, part-time students)

A study done at the State University of New York (cited in Mayadas, Bourne and Moore, 2002) revealed that:

  • students reported studying more for online courses than for traditional courses
  • students reported putting more thought into online discussions
  • students reported their satisfaction with timely, constructive feedback
  • faculty reported that online teaching improves understanding of teaching with technology
  • faculty reported that online teaching improves face-to-face teaching

Choosing an Online Communications Tool

There are a number of technologies that can be used with online instruction to facilitate communication among students and the instructor. Knowing some characteristics of these tools enables an instructor to adopt the best tool for his or her purpose. The figure below categorizes commonly used communication technologies into a quadrant depicting tools for synchronous (same time) or asynchronous (time delayed) and for one-to-many or one-to-one communications.

Chart: One-to-Many: Synchronous - chat; Asynchronous - eMail, Discussion forum, listserv, Bulletin board. One-to-Many: Synchronous - instant message, chat; Asynchronous - email.

Tips for Effective Online Communication

WebCT and MIX both provide several useful communication tools that can be used to enhance your course. Additionally there are a number of free and commercial applications that can be used for course-based communications. These tools are both synchronous (chat and instant messages) and asynchronous (course-based email and bulletin board/discussions). It may be helpful to experiment with these tools by "test driving" them if they are new to you.

Asynchronous Communication (Bulletin Board / Discussion Forums / Email / Listserv)

Most asynchronous communication tools are one-to-many approaches involving a user (e.g., instructor) posting a message and responses from other users being posted at a later time (bulletin board, discussion, listserv). That is, a single person's message is read by multiple other people engaging in this activity at different times. Although often overlooked because it is used so commonly, asynchronous communication can also be one-to-one (Email). Inherently, one-to-many and one-to-one asynchronous communication allows the learner more time to reflect on the topic at hand before sending or posting a message. Additionally, with one-to-many communications the effect of audience typically generates more effort in message composition.

  • Inform learners of your expectations for how these tools will be used as part of the course.
  • Initially send a post on the discussion list. Tell the students a bit about yourself and/or the course. Encourage students to do the same. Your use of the tool models an appropriate use of it and provides students with the initial prompt to begin a discussion. This exercise will also reveal if students are having difficulty understanding how to post or reply to a message.
  • Focus the discussion by carefully preparing questions in advance.
  • Provide discussion board participation guidelines to students, including instructor expectations and rules of conduct.
  • Monitor the discussion or assign a student monitor to keep learners focused on the topic.
  • Monitor the quality and regularity of the postings. If learners appear to post late (when you have already gone on to another posting), not participate, or post nonsubstantive messages, communicate with that student privately.
  • Consider asking students to facilitate discussions in specific content areas where they may have particular expertise or where expertise needs to be developed. Having a student lead the discussion can lead to the student preparing in advance with relevant issues and information.
  • Provide a summary of the discussion before moving on to a new thread.

Synchronous Communication (Chat / Instant Messages)

Many learners are accustomed to using chat for recreational purposes which is often very informal and quickly composed without reflection (e.g., AOL Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger, iChat, etc.). Effectively adopting chat for academic purposes requires structure and effective moderation of the discussion. As a synchronous tool, chat is usually one-to-many and involves all participants being online simultaneously and often has them interacting at the same time. Without time for reflection, some instructors have found it effective to prepare students in advance with specific questions or content for them to mull over before engaging in dialogue. As a one-to-one tool, many instructors are finding instant messaging to be an effective tool for conducting virtual office hours and for providing more responsiveness to student requests. Here are some additional "tips" for effectively using chat for academic purposes:

  • Inform learners of your expectations for how these tools will be used as part of the course.
  • Outline the rules in your syllabus (i.e., no harsh language, no belittling of their fellow classmates, keeping their comments relevant to the topic).
  • Decide what your objectives are for using chat. Ask how can using chat assist the learners in achieving the overall goals of the course.
  • Prepare a focused topic in advance for each chat session.
  • Monitor the dialogue to keep it on topic.
  • Consider the number of students that can be meaningfully involved in chat.
  • Establish a protocol so that learners will know when another has completed their message (i.e. ask learners to add an asterisk * at the end of their sentence).
  • Be aware of those who tend not to participate. Is it due to a technological or skill problem? Some learners can type very quickly while others type quite slowly. This may affect the frequency of all learner's participation. If nonparticipation seems to be attributed to neither technological problems or typing skills, is there a way to draw them into the chat?
  • Summarize the major points at the end of the chat session.

There are a number of other technologies used for online learning that go beyond communication tools. Most web-based course management solutions (like WebCT) offer quizzes, course information, calendars, and a number of other features. Not only can student participation be increased with such tools, but the administration of the course can be somewhat simplified as well. If you are new to online learning and are looking for some general guiding principles for distance teaching and learning, the American Distance Education Consortium provides such a list. Please consult the ADEC Guiding Principles for Distance Teaching and Learning site for more information.

What Works - Tips from Instructors

We have collected the following tips from discussions and interactions with instructors who teach online:

  • role-playing exercises engage students
  • peer review of work provides authentic audience and valuable feedback
  • assigned discussion questions focuses the discussion and requires student participation
  • frequent quizzes and short answer essays keeps students engaged and reduces procrastination
  • success is in the details (provide lots of directions and be very explicit)
  • student partners (allow students to guide direction of some course elements)
  • control pace (close units after allotted time, make quizzes available/unavailable, require completion of one unit before going on to the next, etc.)


Chickering, A.W., & Gamson, Z.F. (1991). Applying the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. 47, Fall 1991. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Klemm, W. Eight Ways to get students more involved in online conferences. 21 August 2001. 11 September 2002

Mayadas, F., Bourne, J., & Moore, J. (2002). Introduction. In J. Bourne & J. Moore (Eds.), Elements of quality online education (p. 9). Needham, MA: Sloan-C.