Those new to online instruction will need to adapt their best practices to engage students in online learning environments. Instructors who adopt the best practices outlined below will help guarantee high-quality learning experiences for university students that reflect an institution’s commitment to academic excellence.
Institutions with established online programs usually have their own prescribed guidelines for best practices in an online class. Oftentimes, online course instructors are required to accept and meet these guidelines. Instructors who do not accept or who inconsistently meet the university’s expectations may not be offered contracts in the future. So, one of the most important places to begin as a new instructor is with the very guidelines of the institution. You must be familiar with them and what is expected of you.
Nonetheless, certain best practices will assist you in teaching and engaging with online learners in nearly all university programs. Some of those best practices are briefly described here for you to get you started on your online teaching journey.
Instructor presence is the most vital of all online teaching practices. In a “traditional” classroom, you are seeing and visiting with students at regular intervals. This, however, can be absent in a virtual classroom. You must account for the change in dynamic between you and your online learners.
According to students, the best online faculty are those who are “present” multiple times per week, and ideally are present daily. Consistent and thoughtful presence shows your students that you care about their questions and concerns. Presence also shows your willingness to mentor, challenge, and guide their learning experience. Use tools like announcements, discussion forum postings, and email to communicate with students regularly.
The idea of “daily presence” may seem overwhelming. Time management and efficient use of course tools are essential here. Try to create presence by focusing your energy on responses in a course discussion board instead of one-on-one emails. This not only encourages discourse between you and your students, but between the students themselves.
Additionally, consider adding an open discussion forum to your course. This forum has no designated topic or assignment, rather it holds a space where anyone can post questions, updates, requests for study groups, etc. at any time. This technique helps to create community support and networking opportunities.
Announcements in the Learning Management System (LMS) or a designated “Course News” forum can be used to remind students of assignment due dates or upcoming activities. Gentle reminders and active participation in the students’ coursework will let them know you are present.
The success of students in an online learning environment is dependent upon effective communication between faculty and students. Instructors are expected to communicate regularly with students throughout courses and to respond promptly to students’ questions and needs. Communicating with students early and often is the most important thing that an online course instructor can do to help students succeed.
Communication does not begin on the first day of class. Rather, communication should begin about two weeks prior to the first day of class. That communication ought to be consistent throughout the entirety of the course and will take on both proactive and reactive components.
Standard points of communication instructors should be incorporating in their online classrooms include a “Welcome Note” and office hours. The “Welcome Note” should be disseminated at least two weeks prior to the course start date. Online instructors will provide instructor contact information and information necessary for the students to prepare for the start of the course (course syllabus, textbook information, course-specific technology or software requirements, class format details, etc.).
Office hours—typically called “virtual office hours”—are also critical to establish consistency and communication in an online classroom. Generally, online learners find weekly office hours in the evening to be most beneficial, as many online learners have full-time jobs or other obligations during the day. Virtual office hours may take place via web-based video conferencing (Adobe Connect, Skype, Google Hangout, Zoom, Teams, etc.), Discovery chat, FaceTime, or phone.
Finally, the students are likely learning new technologies and platforms right along with you. You must become familiar with the resources available to online students at your institution. You’ll need to encourage students to reach out to you when they encounter technical difficulties and you must be ready to guide students to the university’s Help Desk.
Consider balancing Instructor-to-Learner, Learner-to-Learner, and Learner-to-Content interactions to help build and support community in an online course. Learner-to-Content interactions come most naturally as students interact with the course materials regularly. However, creating community through interactions between learners and with the instructor requires more intentional preparation and effort.
Anthea Papadopoulou, “How to Build an Online Learning Community (In 2021),” LearnWorlds (April 28, 2020) available at https://www.learnworlds.com/build-online-learning-community/
Rob Kelly, “Five Things Online Students Want from Faculty,” Faculty Focus (May 30, 2014) available at https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/online-students-want-from-faculty/