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How to Be a Better Online Teacher

06 April / 2020

Whether you’ve taught online a lot or a little, chances are you didn’t enjoy it as much as teaching in person.  Clearly, many academics don’t see the value of online courses or of trying to become a better online teacher.

Most of us don’t know how to teach online or how to get better at it — and we may not be motivated to learn. This article contain advice on how to make your online pedagogy as effective and satisfying as the in-person version.

So lets go.


10 Essential Principles and Practices

1. Show Up to Class
Fundamentally, good teaching requires you to be in the classroom with your students. When you teach in person, you don’t leave students to their own devices. You’re with them, engaging in any number of teacherly activities. Many of you haven’t translated that to online practice.

Schedule the same amount of time each week to be visibly present and engaged in your semester-long online class. Here are some ways to do that:

Post a weekly announcement to provide an overview of the coming week’s topic or a recap of the previous week’s work, or both.

Respond to questions posted in an online question-and-answer discussion forum or sent to you by email.

Hold online office hours according to a schedule, by appointment, or both.

Post a quick video to clarify misconceptions about a class topic or assignment.

Grade and return students’ work in a timely fashion.

Talk with students in online discussions.

When you are regularly present and engaged in the online classroom, your students are more likely to be, too.

2. Be Yourself

Most teachers enjoy teaching in person because of the opportunity to interact with students, share our passion for a subject, and watch understanding dawn on their faces. 

Capture your personality and your passion in ways that are different from what you might do in person, yet authentic.

Mini-lectures, assignment instructions, answers to questions, weekly announcements — you can write those in such a way as to represent your true self:

Infuse your writing with warmth. Convey your support.

Be human. For example, at the end of a set of assignment instructions, you could write, “If you have any questions at all about what you are supposed to do on this assignment, please remember I am here to help. Reach out any time so I can support your success.” 

3. Put Yourself in Their Shoes

In a physical classroom, you can pick up on nonverbal cues. When students are taking class at home, you can’t observe when you’ve lost their attention or when your instructions aren’t clear. Better yet, have a trusted colleague evaluate your online class. Use their observations to help you make a few tweaks. 

You must be intentional, put yourself in your students’ shoes, and design for clarity. This principle should guide your practice for the next few suggestions.

4. Organize Course Content Intuitively

Try to think like a student when you organize course materials. Strive for a course organization that is clear, methodical, and intuitive.

5. Add Visual Appeal

Online courses suffer a well-earned reputation of being boring and unappealing.

You don’t have to be a graphic designer to enhance course appearance. A little attention to presentation goes a long way. Do you have a lot of written lecture notes or instructions? Break up long chunks of text with subheads and space between paragraphs. Embed relevant images. Include thumbnail videos that you’ve either created or sourced from YouTube, news sites, or library resources. Aim for attractive yet appropriate.

6. Explain Your Expectations

Here are a few ways to do that:

Write down the directions as if you were having a conversation with a student, so they don’t read like a textbook.

Create an informal two-minute explainer video to flesh out some details of an assignment.

Provide a rubric.

Share an example of student work that earned top marks. Maybe even share an example of mediocre work so students can compare the two.

In short, provide as much meaningful support as you can — without going overboard — so that students don’t have to guess what you want them to do.

7. Scaffold Learning Activities

Look for ways to break down complex tasks so that students make timely progress and receive feedback while there is still time to adjust their approach.

8. Provide Examples

During an in-person course, if students raise their hands and say they just don’t get some concept, you find another way to explain it. You come up with examples, maybe from another realm of life. That variety of examples and explanations helps learners grasp the information in a way that makes the most sense to them. Examples are even more crucial in online teaching.

9. Make Class an Inviting, Pleasant Place to Be

When you teach in person, you do a lot of things to help students feel welcome. You greet students. Smile. Make eye contact. Apply that same principle to your online classes.

Students will want to be in your online class if you:

Use plenty of visuals, media, interactive tools, and learning activities.

Streamline course organization and navigation.

Convey positivity and optimism that students can succeed.

Demonstrate compassion and caring for your busy online learners.

Respect their time and engagement by being present and engaged yourself.

By making your online class more enjoyable, you make students want to show up. And students have to want to be in class before they can learn anything.

10. Commit to Continuous Improvement

A hallmark of good teaching is the desire to keep getting better at it. Bring that zeal into your online classroom the same way you bring it to your in-person classroom. Invest a little time and energy into developing as an online teacher. Even small efforts can have a big impact.


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