Three Ways to Breathe New Life into Your Online Courses

Online teaching is growing at a rapid pace. To meet the increasing demand of online education, many courses have been designed to enable the instructor to be more of a facilitator rather than an active participant in the classroom space (Ragan, 2009). However, building an active, student-centered learning environment in online classes is needed to prevent instructors from becoming stagnant and to motivate and inspire them to take on a variety of roles as the students’ “guide, facilitator, and teacher” (Ragan, 2009, p. 6). This article will discuss the unique needs of the online student and suggest three strategies to meet these needs through effective, innovative online instruction.

1. Use Web 2.0 and social media tools when appropriate to engage student learners
Web 2.0 and social media tools can add robustness and dimension to an otherwise flat learning medium: the computer screen (Thompson, 2006). It can also allow instructors to select tools that directly speak to the wide range of needs of diverse learners in online classrooms. These tools can be beneficial for learners because:

  • Using tools such as Pinterest, Twitter, and PollDaddy can tap into resources that students already utilize outside the classroom.
  • They allow students to access materials and resources that pertain to class inside and outside the classroom.
  • They help instructors stay current in resources, tools, and lesson planning.

We want to emphasize that Web 2.0 and social media tools should not be used to simply add an impression of excitement to the classroom. There has to be a purpose. It is best to select tools that are free, easy to use, and relate to the course content and goals, as well as the most important objective: to enhance student learning.

2. Use Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) to gauge student learning and understanding of course objectives
Instructors can use Angelo and Cross’s (1993) concept of CATs to embed on-the-spot activities into the classroom that illuminate possible areas for growth or greater understanding. In the online classroom, CATs are particularly important as non-verbal communication is generally non-existent and students’ comprehension of course concepts may be harder to identify.

The use of formative assessment is beneficial in the online classroom because:

  • It serves as a quick check for understanding that will proactively guide lessons or discussions based on the needs of the class/students.
  • It allows faculty to gauge where the class is at as a whole.
  • It provides students with a quick self-evaluation of their own level of understanding in terms of a specific objective.
  • It allows the instructor to use their creative spirit to identify gaps or holes in student learning.

One of the integral components of using CATs is that instructors can constantly change or improve the activities to better meet the needs of each group of student learners (Angelo & Cross, 1993; Cross, 1987). This is particularly important in the online classroom where both traditional and non-traditional students are present and various learning styles and backgrounds come into play. As Angelo and Cross (1993) have made clear, it is important to close the loop of the teaching and learning cycle by continually providing feedback that improves student learning outcomes.

3. Engage in professional development opportunities to stay abreast of best practices
At many universities, there are professional development opportunities for instructors. However, these opportunities tend to be fewer for online instructors who are often in a remote location. We recommend seeking out resources like Faculty Focus or the Chronicle of Higher Education to find ideas that can help inject energy into the online classroom. LinkedIn groups also provide a free avenue for connecting with like-minded educators. For example, The Teaching Professor group on LinkedIn has more than 45,000 members, many of whom teaching online.

Utilizing professional development will assist teachers in continuing education because:

  • Collaborating with fellow colleagues allows for the exchange of materials, activities, and strategies.
  • Engaging in short bursts of professional development in a mini-lesson type format enables online instructors to efficiently and effectively grow classroom design and practice.

As online education continues to grow and expand in availability and popularity, the need for innovation increases. Not only has the role of the instructor become more interactive and easily accessed, but the collaboration between online instructors has become a common resource to assist in improving techniques and methods. By relying on and enhancing instructor creativity, we can breathe new life into our online courses. Web 2.0 tools, the use of formative assessment, such as classroom assessment techniques, and meaningful interaction with other online instructors can build much needed vibrancy into the online setting.

Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cross, P. K. (1987). The adventures of education in wonderland: Implementing educational reform. Phi Delta Kappan, 68(7), 496-592. Retrieved from

Ragan, L. C. (2009). Principles of effective online teaching: #1 show up and teach. From 10 principles of effective online teaching: Best practices in distance education. Faculty Focus Special Report. Retrieved from

Thompson, C. (2006, June 26). Clive Thompson on how Twitter creates a social sixth sense. Wired Magazine, 15(07). Retrieved from

Meredith Rae DeCosta, PhD, manager, full-time online faculty; Emily Bergquist, online full-time faculty management; and Rick Holbeck, director, full-time online faculty – all are with Grand Canyon University.