Back to the Basics: Revisiting the ABCs of Teaching Online Courses

ABCs of online teaching

The global pandemic sent higher education institutions into a whirlwind as many faculty members scrambled to make the rapid transition from traditional to online courses. However, COVID-19 revealed the creativity and resilience of our administrators, faculty, and staff. As efforts are implemented to foster a learning environment that engages all students, the challenges of digital access have been magnified, and the steep learning curve for faculty members who are new to the digital space has revealed the need for ongoing training. To equip faculty with best practices for teaching online, understanding the pedagogy of online education is foundational. The following is a summary of the fundamental things online instructors should remember to create an engaging, inclusive, and equitable learning environment for all students.

Accept Change

Face-to-face and online instruction is different. Copying and pasting curricular content into a course shell is not synonymous with online pedagogy. Online education allows faculty to incorporate appropriate technology applications to help increase the digital literacy of students.

Be Present

The transition to teaching online can leave faculty feeling like they are forgetting to do something. Remember to log into the course daily to check discussions, grade assignments, and answer questions. Since students need multiple forms of engagement, scheduling virtual office hours via Zoom or Microsoft Teams will create opportunities to make a personal connection with students.


Send announcements using supportive language as a model for students. Consider using short, video announcements to replace text-only communications to send reminders or an overview for each module or unit. Since oral communication is an essential 21st-century workforce skill (Ortiz, Region-Sebest & MacDermott, 2016), assignments that allow students to develop this skillset can be helpful.

Diversify Instructional Materials

Check your course content, textbooks, bibliography, stock photos, videos, and other materials for diversity. Model cultural competency by exposing students to various voices, particularly incorporating those from marginalized populations.

Engage Intentionally

Despite the geographical distance, an online course can still foster head to heart connections. Extend a virtual handshake/greeting via a welcome video. A good practice is to introduce yourself to students before introducing them to the course syllabus. Use the welcome video to show your personality and passion for your discipline.

First Impressions Matter

Disorganized and inaccessible documents impact retention. Check links, spelling, grammar, and release dates for accessibility. Updating links and resources to reflect current industry needs should be considered as well.

Greet Students

Address students by their preferred name and gender pronouns. This information can be collected using a text or video discussion prompt. When students are addressed by their name it fosters social presence and increases personal connection (Sung & Mayer, 2012).

Have Fun

Assign a syllabus scavenger hunt to acclimate students to the course learning management system, course expectations, and support services so students know who to contact for different needs. This can be particularly helpful for first-generation students.

Ignite Curiosity

The first day of class often includes an icebreaker before reviewing the course syllabus. A best practice is to immediately connect students with the course content and demonstrate its applicability to real-world events. This can occur in the form of a video, article, or discussion question to promote dialogue.

Just Breathe

Resilience and teacher self-efficacy are growing areas of research (Taormina, 2015). While change is scary, remember to apply the skills you have developed. The ability to navigate through this time will likely reveal areas of creativity that many did not know they possessed.

Keep Watch

Contact students who stop participating (Eifler, 2019). Send a follow-up email or call to express your concern and willingness to help them complete the task. This small act often helps with retention and demonstrates that the student matters. If needed, submit an Early Alert for additional follow up by academic advisors and other institutional support personnel.

Life Happens

Since students are juggling many responsibilities, add a “life insurance policy” to the course syllabus. The policy does not absolve the student from being accountable but communicates compassion should a life event – birth, death, or sickness – occur during the course.

Model Professionalism

Respond promptly and speak kindly – “tone matters.” The instructor should model professionalism by returning phone calls, responding to emails, and grading assignments by the documented timeframe reflected in the course syllabus.

Never Assume

Assumption can lead to an influx of questions that distract from the course content and discourage student persistence. To circumvent such occurrences, the Quality Matters framework recommends that links to tutorials or other resources for tools are included in the course LMS.

Organize Student Groups

Create opportunities for collaboration by using groups for discussions and projects. This helps students build community with their peers, provides an additional level of support, and prepares students for the dynamics of team interaction for the workforce (Zach & Agosto, 2009).

Prepare to Grow

The online space presents opportunities to develop and demonstrate a growth mindset. Be willing to try a new tool, technique, or approach. Many instructional techniques that were used in person can be adapted for online instruction.

Quit Stressing

You cannot give to students if you are operating on fumes. Prioritize your health – exercise, eat healthily, and talk to a colleague or professional counselor.

Repetition Sells

Consistently follow the same structure for each model or unit. Make it easy for students to navigate through the course.

Spell It Out

Be clear, concise, and remove the ambiguity. Say what you mean in different ways to appeal to various learning modalities.

Teach Critical Thinking

Help students evaluate digital information for accuracy. Create opportunities for students to assess the authenticity of the information posted on Wikipedia versus that of Google Scholar, ERIC, and PsycINFO.

Understand your Audience

Well-crafted questions can reveal important details. An introductory discussion that asks students to share one thing you need to know about them may reveal challenges such as childcare, transportation, or technology access.

Value Every Voice

Use tools such as Flipgrid and VoiceThread to engage students in meaningful discussions. Remember the introverted students who have great insights to share but are often overshadowed by students who are more vocal in traditional courses.

Why Matters

Use the backward design model to develop the course objectives (Wiggins, Wiggins, & McTighe, 2005). Begin by considering what you want students to learn and to be able to do after your course.

Provide eXplanations

Articulate how the learning activities coincide with the course learning objectives. Provide clear pathways for students to connect how each aspect of the course is meaningful and interconnected.

You Can Do It

Passion and discipline are valuable prerequisites to guide learners. You entered this profession because you love your discipline and enjoy teaching the next generation.

Zoom with Confidence

Empower students to use the virtual background feature for meetings to mitigate concerns about their living environment.

While the pandemic has presented a unique set of challenges, opportunities to demonstrate resilience, creativity, and adaptability are traits that will benefit students personally and professionally. As an online instructor, you can bridge the digital divide between technology and pedagogy. The workforce skills students will need to succeed can be developed now with intentional and committed efforts to foster learner-centered courses. Seize this opportunity to teach our students that impactful learning practices can still occur at a distance. According to Sanders (2018), “the purpose of college is to become a learner” (pg. 2).

Jeremiah E. Shipp, EdD, is a faculty development specialist at Winston-Salem State University. He is also an adjunct professor of leadership at multiple institutions teaching online courses for graduate students. He is an experienced information technology professional with over 16 years of industry experience. His engaging teaching style inspires and challenges faculty to identify effective technological solutions to bridge the gap between pedagogy and practice. For more information, he can be reached at


Eifler, Karen. Tips for faculty when students stop showing up. Teaching and Learning Collaborative, 2019.

Ortiz, Lorelei A., Michelle Region-Sebest, and Catherine MacDermott. “Employer perceptions of oral communication competencies most valued in new hires as a factor in company success.” Business and Professional Communication Quarterly 79, no. 3 (2016): 317-330.

Sanders, Matthew L. Becoming a learner: Realizing the opportunity of education. Macmillan Learning Curriculum Solutions, 2018.

Sung, Eunmo, and Richard E. Mayer. “Five facets of social presence in online distance education.” Computers in Human Behavior 28, no. 5 (2012): 1738-1747.

Taormina, Robert J. “Adult personal resilience: A new theory, new measure, and practical implications.” Psychological Thought, 8(1), 35-46, 2015.

Wiggins, Grant, Grant P. Wiggins, and Jay McTighe. Understanding by design. Ascd, 2005.

Zach, Lisl, and Denise E. Agosto. “Using the online learning environment to develop real-life collaboration and knowledge-sharing skills: A theoretical discussion and framework for online course design.” MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 5, no. 4 (2009): 590-599.