Online Teaching

What is it?

Online teaching is an exciting, yet potentially intimidating, growing trend in higher education. In the early to mid-1990s, colleges and universities began to experiment with teaching online courses, but it did not take off until just before the new millennium. Online education consists of a course where the majority of the content is delivered online, by using the internet as means of delivery. Instructors can reach students all around the world, as long as they have access to the internet. Students are able to log in almost anywhere, and complete work any time of day. Online courses have no set meeting times or locations, which adds flexibility for the professors and students to accommodate other life responsibilities. However, online teaching differs drastically from teaching in the classroom and there are many techniques necessary for effective online teaching.

How does it work?

Pelletier (2013) discussed four basic elements of being an effective online instructor based on her nine years of prior experience: presence, communication, discussion, and constructive feedback. While the students chose to enroll in a class without the physical meetings at a certain time, they are unable to successfully complete a class without any engagement with their professor. Through communication and discussion, instructors can make themselves present in the course so the students do not feel lost or abandoned. Pelletier states “If you want your students to be engaged, you must model the type of behavior you seek (2013). 

Communication is critical in an online classroom, and with ever-changing technology, means of communication are constantly expanding. It is important to understand the tone behind what is written, as students reading the message might misinterpret the underlying tone and take something the wrong way. Nonverbals are nonexistent in online classrooms, and keeping this in mind is crucial. Take advantage of technology and implement different programs into the course and ask for student feedback. Utilize email, Skype, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, among many others. If a professor disappears part way through an online class, students will grow frustrated and become lost. Students need to have an open line of communication; however it is important to set boundaries at the beginning of the course. Let students know what hours are open to contact them when they need an immediate response. Some professors choose to give out their phone numbers, so boundaries are necessary to avoid 2am phone calls from students. Inform students of the average time expected between them posting and a response. Pelletier suggests responding within a 24 hour period, if not sooner (2013). Depending on the nature of the course, office hours can still be relevant to students enrolled in an online class, so posting them on the online platform (D2L) can be beneficial to students as well. 

Utilize discussion boards within the online platform for students to engage with one another. As a professor, it is also important to participate in the discussions too in order to show their presence, give feedback, or help evoke further thoughts from the students. By participating in discussions, it helps validate the importance of the students’ efforts and thoughts. Students can post individual responses or group work can be assigned and later posted for the rest of the class to see. Discussion boards take the place of tradition classroom discussion, where a lot of learning takes place. These posts can be mandatory for a grade, or encouraged for the class participation aspect of the class.

Students are more open and receptive to constructive feedback. Rather than critically outlining mistakes that were made, professor can offer feedback that supports student learning and development. At the start of the course, let students know how they will be graded, when they can expect assignments and grades to be returned, and the policy for turning in late work. Pelletier (2013) suggests returning assignments with feedback no later than 5 days after the due date. Also, provide rubrics in order for students to know what areas they will be graded on, and the weights of each. It is highly unlikely that students will always submit perfect work that will always earn them an A, and negative comments can be helpful in their learning process. Intertwine the positive comments with the negative, so students can see while they can improve in one area, they did really well in another. 

Who is doing it?

Sheehy (2013) found that by the end of 2002, 32.5% of colleges offered online degree programs, and by the end of 2012 that percent jumped to 62.4% of colleges (as cited in Britt, 2015). Online education is becoming increasingly popular not only at the collegiate level, but within K-12 schools. Instructors who are willing to step out of their comfort zones, or those who have a love for technology are embracing the flexibility and convenience that online courses offer. Professors with other jobs, families, hobbies, perhaps those who teach at multiple institutions or travel a lot are able to take care of their other responsibilities without being held to specific time or location constraints. 

Why is it significant?

While the flexibility of being able to read student responses, give feedback, or update course content from almost anywhere is a huge benefit of online teaching, there are specific groups of people that are also benefiting from this type of learning, therefore opening doors for them that they never thought possible. Kentnor stated “online learning is the fastest growing form of distance education...” and 65% of institutions reported online learning as being a critical component to their long-term strategic plans in 2011 (Kentnor, 2015, p. 30). More colleges and universities adopting more online programs allows for a much larger population to have access to further education, which might have never been possible for them before. Barr and Miller (2013) found that nontraditional college students represent a greater presence in online education, compared to traditional college students. Nontraditional college students were defined as those who are age 25 and older, with full-time employment and potentially families. The increase in need for distance and online education is due to the increased presence of nontraditional, household, and lifelong learners. 

Some individuals do not feel comfortable being in a large classroom with many people, because they are concerned about being judged due to their appearance, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, or many other factors. Through online education, these individuals are comfortable interacting with others without worrying about what others are thinking about them, unrelated to the course. Individuals who might have a disability or illness keeping them from getting to a physical classroom now have the option to complete classes from where ever they might be.

Students who are shy and do not feel comfortable sharing in classrooms miss out on valuable conversations and class participation points. Online courses allow them the opportunity to carefully plan out or think about what they are going to say before writing and posting it for everyone to see, resulting in them being more confident in their response and of course, class participation points. Let’s face it, posting in a discussion board and engaging with other students virtually can be much more beneficial than attempting to speak in front of a lecture hall with 300 students. Professors can easily respond or engage with students via discussion boards or email in less time than attempting to answer 300 questions in a 50 minute class. 

What are the downsides?

Developing an online course requires a lot of time and effort and depending on what resources the institution already has, it could be expensive right off the bat. Software, computers, or other equipment might have to be purchased, resulting in a high start-up cost, however down the road the institution does not have to worry about parking expenses, facilities costs, custodial costs, etc. 

It can potentially be time consuming for professors to make their already developed lesson plans “web friendly” or to create completely new lesson plans for online courses. Learning the software or online platform used by the institution usually requires some kind of training, and of course practice to become comfortable with the technology. Instructors need to regularly have access to their email, or course page in order to keep up with questions or concerns their students may have. Coming to a solution with students can take more time because of having to wait for responses from one another, and it all requires a lot of reading and strong writing. Some professors do not like to constantly be communicating virtually, so in that case they should probably still to traditional classroom instruction. Lessons throughout the course usually take more time than those in the classroom settings. If students have to work in partners or groups, they are often not online at the same time. These types of activities require more allotted time than those same activities that would be done in a traditional classroom. Instructors should be aware of this and plan accordingly.

The most common downside of online teaching is the feeling of isolation. When teaching an online course, some professors miss out on the daily interaction with fellow instructors and students. If a professor is used to being surrounded by people all day every day, the sudden change of being alone in an office or their home can be uncomfortable. Incorporating Skype into the course allows the instructor to interact with students “face-to-face”, and regular interaction with students via email or participation in discussion boards can help ease the feeling of isolation. The University Alliance recommended for online professors to find online discussion forums or chat groups with other online educators (University of Scranton, 2016). Also, if instructors know of other instructors at their institution that teach online, they can form a group that meets in person weekly or monthly, to discuss their classes, practices, or just to have a friendly face to talk to.

Technology never works flawlessly so technical problems can potentially arise and cause issues for students and instructors. By knowing who to contact is these instances, professors can go about fixing the issue on their own, or they can readily relay the message to their students without having to wait and interfere with the course schedule (Barr & Miller, 2013).

Where is it going?

Online teaching is continuing to allow a diverse group of student work towards and earn degrees that they never thought was possible. With advancing technology and smaller devices, participating in or completing classwork can be done from more and more places, even those without Wi-Fi due to phone plans often having data included. Instructors are constantly finding new and improved ways to engage their students in online courses by taking advantage of trainings and seminars. With experience, they are realizing what really works for their students and what really does not. Online teaching is being incorporated into grade schools around the world. Some school provide laptops or tablets for students to access information or learning tools online, while cyber schooling is also becoming more popular among grade school students to learn totally online from where ever they have internet access. For some students, online education in college is much more appealing if they have experience with online educations during their grade school years. The number of lifelong learners is also increasing due to the competitive job market encouraging people to continue their education for better employment. The need for online education will only continue to grow.

What are the implications for teaching and learning?

Online education is a learning experience for the students enrolled, but also for the instructors facilitating the course. Attending raining and utilizing new or different software and tools creates a learning experience for the instructor, and it also can introduce students to new ways of learning that they might have never experienced before. Introducing students to new ways of learning can allow them to find new things that are especially beneficial to their unique learning styles, while allowing the instructor to receive feedback on what the students enjoyed or found helpful. 

It is important for everyone to feel welcome to get the education they desire. Online education opens doors for more potential students who either do not learn well in the traditional classroom setting, or they have obligations keeping them from getting into a classroom. Anyone with access to a computer or capable electronic device now has a chance to earn a college degree.

Want to learn more?

5 Ways to Build a More Engaging Online Class
Dr. Oliver Dreon, Associate Professor & Director for the Center for Academic Excellence

10 Ways for Online Students to Engage with Content
Dr. Oliver Dreon, Associate Professor & Director for the Center for Academic Excellence

Online Teaching Resources 
CAE Reference Library

Online Teaching Best Practices
Faculty Focus

Strategies for Effective Online Teaching
Montana State University

10 Principles of Effective Online Teaching: Best Practices in Distance Education
Lawrence C. Ragan, PhD., Director of Instructional Design and Development for Penn State's World Campus

Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology
Michelle D. Miller 


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         Education and Training Studies
3(5), 1-9.

Baran, E., & Correia, A. (2014). A professional development framework for online    
         teaching. Techtrends: Linking Research & Practice To Improve Learning58(5), 95-101.

Barr, Betty A., and Sonya F. Miller. "Higher education: The online teaching and learning
         experience." Online Submission (May 22, 2013): ERIC, EBSCOhost (accessed February 9,

Britt, D. M. (2015). How to better engage online students with online strategies. College Student
49(3), 399-404.

Kentnor, H. E. (2015). Chapter 2 Distance education and the evolution of online learning in the
        United States. Curriculum & Teaching Dialogue17(1/2), (Sp)21-(Sp)34.

Ragan, L. C. (2007, August 27). 10 Principles of effective online teaching: Best practices in distance

Strategies for effective online teaching. (n.d.). Montana State University, Bozeman.