September 20th, 2013

What Online Teachers Need to Know


The majority of us teach the way we were taught growing up (Southern Regional Education Board, 2009). This presents a challenge for online faculty, who most likely received their education in a traditional, brick and mortar school. Online instruction is much different from face-to-face instruction. Over the past nine years, I have discovered four basic elements that contribute to being an effective online teacher.

1. Presence

  • Online instruction might be more convenient, but it takes much more of your time than on ground learning. An online course requires continuous interaction throughout the week.
  • Your presence is not required on a specific day or time but continuously to keep the learner challenged and engaged. The key is to find creative ways to enthuse the student to participate in the learning environment daily.
  • Students are expected to be engaged in the online learning environment but it doesn’t happen automatically. If you want your students to be engaged, you must model the type of behavior you seek.

2. Communication

  • In the online environment, communication is the key. The first thing to understand about communication is that the effect of the communication is not always what is written in black and white. You must read between the lines.
  • Good communication requires attention to detail and a reiteration of what the student has stated or asked. This helps you understand the communication and provides effective communication with the student.
  • Exceptional facilitators are open to many different avenues of communication. This is not limited to email and could include text, Skype, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and telephone contact information.
  • Avenues of communication have no effect if you do not respond. Respond to all communication within a 24-hour period (more quickly if you can).
  • Post your information and office hours in a highly visible place within the Learning Management System (LMS) so students know when and how they can reach you if they need a question answered.
  • Students do not have the benefit of your nonverbal communication. You must consider your words very carefully and think about how the student will perceive the words. Avoid using slang or any comments that might be misconstrued. Use positive words and tone to develop a trusting student/teacher relationship.

3. Discussion

  • Most online platforms have a discussion board. Online facilitators must understand that this is where the heart of the learning happens.
  • Exceptional facilitators must have a frequent and active presence in the discussion. It is recommended that you respond to at least three student responses to the discussion assignment on four different days during the assignment week.
  • When you ask students questions, it is important to validate the student’s answer with a confirmation post. Without doing this, you alienate the student and do not place value on their opinions and responses.
  • You should never reprimand a student in the discussion area. These comments should be expressed with your constructive feedback during grading or through a personal email.
  • Arrive in the discussion each week before the students, interact with the students throughout the week, and provide a discussion wrap-up.

4. Constructive Feedback

  • Grading is another teachable moment. Take the time you need to make constructive feedback to your students. This should include positive as well as negative comments. Sandwich your negative feedback between positive comments for maximum effect!
  • While grading, you should address the student by name when summarizing the overall quality of the assignment. You should also provide a grading rubric with comments with points earned to show the student how you derived their grade.
  • Timeliness of grading is necessary. A reasonable guideline to follow is to grade all assignment no later than five days after the due date.
  • Communicate to students how they will be graded, when they can expect you to return the assignments, and your policy for assignments turned in late.

A final note
Higher education institutions offer many different types of professional development to their online instructors. Webinars, workshops, and formal online courses are a few of the methods used to train and develop online teachers (Kolowich, 2010). One of the most effective types of training I have found is to enroll in an online course yourself. This will give you the opportunity to experience what it feels like to be the learner, and will no doubt reinforce the importance of presence, communication skills, engaged discussion, constructive feedback.

Southern Regional Education Board [PDF file]. (2009, March). Retrieved from

Kolowich, S. (2010, November 10). Teaching online professors … online. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Dr. Patricia Pelletier is the Academic Chair of the Department of Educational Studies at Kaplan University.

  • Great tips! I really like the suggestion to "enroll in an online class yourself". I found that to be an invaluable experience, especially since, as you noted, all of my educational experience was in a traditional school. 🙂

  • rbastien

    I found the article to be most relevant . The point about communication is significant as I find this to be the greatest challenge that I have faced whilst doing online courses. There is an anxiety that a student feels when he/she does not know that a timely response will be received from a lecturer.

  • Naz

    I can appreciate the time it takes for a facilitator presence to be felt in a meaningful way, not simply to make casual comments and move on. Also, in a face to face encounter, communication can be much easier as both student and teacher can read nonverbal cues, enriching the communication process, whereas on-line communication words must be used to express exact meaning.

  • Rodessia Richins

    Very relevant to the M.A T.V.E.T students and their exposure to online learning. However it is important that facilitators pay attention to the questions or queries originating from the learners so that improvements can be made. Often times the facilitator does not use the queries to fix ongoing problems the learner may have with the instructions received for online learning.

  • Dr. Schumann

    I have been teaching online for about 8 years at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. I find this article exactly on point, especially for the modern student who is used to a lot of feedback and to some extent, a great deal of hand-holding. The non-traditional older student, who is less tech savy, needs help in the beginning but is not so needy as time goes on. All of these comments are great. Prof. S.

  • BharatTutors

    Online teaching is getting popular day-by-day. Though ease on commute, time saving are positives; but fast internet and good power supply are need for this modern mode of teaching.

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  • Dr. Junior Gentles

    Excellent tips for teaching in this modality. I've been teaching online for the past 9 years and these tips follow the script for successfully navigating the online arena. From experience, the quickest way to lose the students is to not be available to them continuously. I always strive to be there by mail, by phone or otherwise. I use Adobe Connect in my classes a lot and encourage the students to attend those sessions and ask question and receive information on the material.

  • Clare

    These comments are very helpful. One big issue I have found at college level teaching is that faculty are experts in their field, but have had no training in teaching. Being trained as a teacher first, has helped me a great deal for I have an understanding of how students learn.