May 18th, 2011

Guidelines for Online Teaching Success


Years ago at a faculty meeting Larry Ragan, PhD, director of Faculty Development for Penn State’s World Campus, was trying to soft-sell the idea of performance expectations for online faculty. He didn’t want the discussion to be misinterpreted as an indictment against their teaching style, but he also saw an opportunity to share proven practices for improving the online teaching and learning experience. Finally a senior faculty member grew tired of the tip-toeing around the subject and said, “If you don’t tell us what is expected, how will we know what to do to succeed?”

The faculty member’s point was well taken, and over the years Ragan and others on various committees at Penn State have worked to define:

Core competencies for online teaching success – Currently there are 28 competencies across the three main topic areas of technology, course administration, and pedagogy.

Online instructors’ performance expectations – Currently there are eight key performance expectations and a description of the associated behaviors.

Performance metrics – Although not all of the behaviors lend themselves to metrics, items such as feedback, availability and communication can be quantified.

“The online performance expectations are shared with online instructors as both a way to set the context for their online teaching experience and as a tool to help balance their own teaching expectations,” Ragan said. “They have been developed from almost 15 years of experience, best practices research, observations of what good instructors do, and student feedback.”

During the recent online video seminar Setting Expectations for Online Instructor Performance, Ragan explained the importance of defining expectations for the online classroom, as well as how to keep new instructors from getting overwhelmed.

Ragan also provided an overview of the eight performance expectations developed by the Penn State World Campus Performance Expectations Committee, and encouraged participants to adapt the categories and associated behaviors to the culture of their specific college or unit.

The online instructor performance expectations he discussed are:

1. Technology Access
The instructor is responsible for meeting the same technology requirements as required for students.

The instructor is expected to:

  • Secure access to a high-speed bandwidth connection for class activities.
  • Test all course-related technology prior to the start of the course.

2. Course Management and Instruction
The instructor is responsible for managing and teaching the class from start to finish.

The instructor is expected to:

  • Follow the established and published course schedule.
  • Conduct (that is, “teach”) the course within the scheduled time frame.
  • Make and communicate schedule adjustments as necessary.
  • Provide each student equal opportunity to succeed.

3. Preparation
The instructor is responsible for assuring that they possess the required skills and competencies for teaching online.

The instructor is expected to:

  • Be operationally proficient in the course technology.
  • Be prepared with the skills to teach online.
  • Be able to complete the required administrative tasks necessary to complete the course.

4. Course Familiarity
The instructor is responsible for being adequately familiar with the online course.

The instructor is expected to:

  • Be familiar with the syllabus including course milestones, due dates and critical course activities.
  • Make changes to the syllabus as necessary and communicate the changes to the students.
  • Review and be familiar with the course content.
  • Identify and report inaccurate course content, confusing information and/or instructions, broken links, and other course design issues.
  • Review the course teaching guide to gain an understanding of the intent/context of the course such as the author’s teaching philosophy, content, learning activities, and assessments.

5. Availability
The instructor is required to be available to the online learner for the duration of the course.

The instructor is expected to:

  • Regularly access the online course.
  • Notify students and appropriate administrative units if unable to log in to the course.

6. Communication
The online instructor is responsible for managing course–related communications.

The instructor is expected to:

  • Clearly communicate student expectations.
  • Communicate instructor class schedule and access.
  • Actively participate in course-related discussions and activities where appropriate.

7. Feedback
The online instructor is responsible communicating with and providing feedback to students.

The instructor is expected to:

  • Provide prompt feedback.
  • Inform the learner of when they can expect a response if the instructor cannot provide a detailed response within 12 hours.
  • Provide clear and concise feedback to explain the degree to which the student is achieving the course/lesson outcomes.
  • Communicate to students when they can expect to receive graded feedback on assignments and exams.

8. Documentation & Record Keeping
The online instructor is responsible for maintaining records of course transactions and communications.

The instructor is expected to:

  • Keep a record of communications with students including when other modes of communications are used.
  • Record and communicate student progress information such as assignment and quiz grades.
  • Post the final course grade promptly.

  • Lynn

    I had the pleasure of hearing Larry Ragan speak at the University of Findlay last week. He is a wonderful, engaging speaker who easily defines what it takes to be successful in online teaching. I left the session with great ideas to take back to my own campus. Thank you, Larry!

  • Faye

    This is a very real concern for online program administrators. How do we design a program that meets the needs of the students and maintains consistency with policies and procedures without infringing on the creative freedom of the instructors? There is definitely concern expressed by instructors who feel "gagged and bound" in their online classrooms – and who wouldn't feel that way when given the entire curriculum in a neat and tidy bundle with the words "Don't touch" written across the top? It seems that we who design programs around collaborative learning often can't come to the table and discuss such a critical issue as program/course design without conflict and someone going away disappointed or even angry. Resolution is far better than the decision to "agree to disagree" or the decision to go our respective ways and do our own thing. It's time for some serious table talks between online administrators and faculty.

  • Joseph Bartosch

    This article touches on an area that is close to my heart: faculty success. My background has made me one who puts a high premium on faculty philosophy and proficiency. Since I’ve come over to distance learning (DL), I’ve noticed that our center gives our faculty excellent incentives to be successful in online education. Our faculty members are highly motivated to be good at this. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to provide them with all the necessary tools and methodology to succeed. This includes reasonable governance.

    It is apparent that Larry Ragan was in a comparable position. He was sensitive to the faculty that he loved, and he did not want to offend them. “Finally a senior faculty member grew tired of the tip-toeing around the subject and said, ‘If you don’t tell us what is expected, how will we know what to do to succeed?’” That is my kind of faculty member! I am surrounded by faculty with such an attitude every day at my institution. Ragan’s time-tested checklist of best practice guidelines for faculty development presents something that I would want to have in our DL faculty handbook. I’ve personally witnessed how DL is a hub of faculty growth in pedagogy. These are the essential basics. Sadly, such basics are too often overlooked. How many DL centers have had faculty try to get by on technology that was inferior to that required of the students? How many instructors have expected the DL team to take care of all of the communications for them? Publishing simple standardized expectations is a key to good leadership and management. Ragan graciously provides a helpful starting point. I would love to read his “core competencies for online teaching success” and his “performance metrics.” I need what he has.

  • shiela

    i have a problem because my trainor told me that i have a lot of complaints with my students.. their complaint is my teaching strategies but i am doing my best in teaching them…
    what will i do to make my student renew their contract again to me? please help me before the company will kicked me..

    • Guest

      Were you given specifics?

  • CMD

    Although a good start, this list seems too vague to me. I was hoping to see specifics like perhaps a 24-hour response time to student questions, live online office hours, etc. For example, in number 2 above, the instructor is expected to "teach." Well – that does not help at all to explain the expectation for an online instructor. What does that mean if the course is fully developed?

    Without specifics, it seems like tip-toeing is still occuring.

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  • PRH

    I am currently a student at a well-known online university. I have taken 20 online courses to date. I, too, find this to be a wimpy and lackluster list of guidelines. Some courses I have had were taught with skill, finesse, experience, and knowledge. Others just simply were not taught. Thank goodness that I am one of those "independent learners"!
    Of the "good" online instructors, across the board I get an overwhelming sense of their STRESS in accomplishing what they do, as if they just don't have time to be particularly supportive or friendly. The bad instructors (yes, facilitators…okaaay!!!) are generally absent and nearly bark at you if you ask a question… if you even get an answer, that is. I also wonder about the big push for "collaborative learning"…which seems to mean that the students read the material and discuss it and then hopefully come to the correct conclusion because generally the instructor isn't there to guide them. This being the case, just give me the book and I will teach the class. Collaborative learning also seems to take away from the generally accepted thought that those who do take online classes are motivated, independent learners and forces them to work in groups…which takes lessens the learning of the independent learners and keeps the others in a mode of dependent learning. Just my own thoughts. For all you good online teachers: thank you for all you do! 🙂

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