Best Practices for Teaching Online

Teaching that is mediated by technology is different than teaching in a face-to-face setting, just as a movie differs from a play. Both are powerful experiences, but they require very different activities to implement successfully. Learn about these differences before you begin your course.

Learn the differences between online and face-to-face teaching

In online courses, all instruction and collaboration are mediated by technology. When students “go to class,” they open their computers and view web pages. Much, if not all, of the coursework is done “asynchronously” – at different times for different students. Intense discussions can take place over many days, as some students contribute in the morning, some in the afternoon, and some at night.

Read Key Differences Between Online and Face-to-Face Teaching for an overview of the ways in which online learning is different than face-to-face, and what actions you can take to accommodate those differences.

Create a Community of Inquiry

We know what student engagement looks like in a traditional course: students lean forward, watching and listening. They are thinking, responding to questions, and writing down notes. If it’s a group activity, they are talking and listening, arguing, laughing and critiquing ideas. No one is surfing the web, or texting, or taking pictures to upload on Instagram.

In an online course, student engagement looks very similar, but you can’t see it. It’s like flying a plane in a heavy fog on instruments; you can’t see the ground or the obstacles, so you have to line up your plane so that you are likely to be in the right place, and check your instruments closely. It’s more challenging, and requires different actions. But with the right training, it can be done very well.

Student engagement may be harder to support in an online course because the chemistry of the classroom doesn’t exist; information is largely verbal. With text, students can’t see you smile or hear the passion in your voice. But even with video, the most brilliant lecture is flattened when it’s watched on a 13-inch screen; research shows that the longer an online video lasts, the more likely students are to stop watching. This is true even for professionally produced video segments. In addition, there is a delay between every communicative element, which can reduce the sense of immediacy and connection.

Research has supported a model of three key elements that create an engaged, powerful online course where deep learning and critical thinking are supported. This model is called the Community of Inquiry, and it consists of three elements:

  • Teaching presence, which refers to the development of a well-structured set of learning experiences, the active facilitation of the course through guiding discussion and providing formative feedback, and administering the class effectively.  
  • Social presence, which involves the development of trust and connection with other people in an online course; and
  • Cognitive presence, which refers to students’ making meaning out of information, through interaction and reflection; it reflects higher order thinking and critical analysis.

Community of Inquiry which provides the educational experience through social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence.

These concepts are described in detail, along with selected research supporting various aspects of the model, on the CoI Website.

To create a community of inquiry, courses must be designed around student activities. That is, students must be taking actions and getting feedback, sharing ideas, applying concepts and thinking deeply. Meaningful and collaborative learning activities are keys to engaging students in online courses.  

Create Teaching Presence

The first step in creating teaching presence begins long before the term starts. The instructor must develop the online course, which should be completed beforehand and should be available to students a week before the term starts. This involves much more than the syllabus. It includes:

  • Providing orientations to online learning, and the course
  • Developing the syllabus, with interesting and applied learning activities throughout the course;
  • Developing detailed descriptions of all class activities and assessments, and rubrics used to evaluate students’ work; and
  • Curating and/or developing learning resources, such as text descriptions, articles, textbooks, websites, videos, and other materials;

One key difference between a correspondence course and an online course is the role of the instructor; she or he should be a constant presence, guiding learning, solving problems, answering questions, inviting deeper understanding, giving useful feedback -- in a word, teaching. This role is critical in online and hybrid courses. Although effective online instruction involves faculty guiding students' exploration and learning, rather than being the "sage on the stage" who personally presents all information, the role of the teacher is critical to student success.

To create teaching presence, the instructor must be engaged and actively guiding the class experience. Maintain your presence by giving timely formative feedback on work, posting announcements, guiding students from one section of the course to the next, actively guiding asynchronous discussions, setting up text chat or webinar sessions, answering questions, summarizing learning, handling administrative problem, and other online teaching activities.

Instructor presence is one of the main factors that makes online learning successful, and increases student satisfaction, engagement and learning. When students perceive that their instructor isn’t active or doesn’t care about what they do, they are likely to reduce their motivation in an online course. Unlike the face-to-face classroom, students cannot see you reading their work; unless you actively write or say something, they believe you are not present. You must regularly participate to create a sense of instructor presence.

Another tip to provide strong teaching presence is to avoid extensive communication by email. When you engage in email exchanges, you are very “present” to one student, but invisible to the rest of the class. Any issues that are relevant to more than one student should be shared in the class itself, rather than in email. While students may ignore a request to post questions in a “Course Q & A” discussion topic, you can encourage it by moving questions that are emailed to the discussion. Respond by email only to let the student know that you received the email and inform them where to look for the answer. Copy-paste the question anonymously into the course discussion. Respond by thanking or complimenting them for asking the question (e.g., “One of you asked an excellent question…), and answer it. This will encourage students to use the course discussion areas, and reduce the time you spend repeating the same information.

Use Video to Enhance Teaching Presence

Providing a personalized course introduction by video allows the students to get to know you as the instructor, as well as provides you with an opportunity to give students a broad overview of your course, and walk them through key elements. You can use the built-in video feature in Canvas, or download free software that will capture your screen and also insert videos of your face; information about such software is available on the Teaching Tools page on this website.

Regular weekly summaries of the course concepts, and preparation for the upcoming week, are important ways to enhance teaching presence. These can be written out in the class announcements, or created as short videos that are inserted into the course each week.

For hybrid courses, you can use different techniques for "inverting" or "flipping" your course, by having students watch short lectures before class and engaging in active learning during class sessions. Using narrated PowerPoint slides may be an efficient way to reproduce lecture materials, but it often produces lower levels of student engagement.  Instead, combine content with pictures, and include some images of you talking, so students feel like the instructor is talking directly to them.  This enhances student engagement, and builds a sense of instructor presence within the course.

Create Social Presence

Although many believe that online learning results in a sense of isolation, it is not necessarily the case; there are many ways to create a strong sense of community among online learners. This sense of community is important to student satisfaction, participation, learning and even retention. It can be created in many ways, the most common of which are discussions, group work, and other interactive learning activities.

Many online classes involve asynchronous discussion, or “discussion boards” in which students post comments and respond to one another at different times. Many also involve synchronous interactions through chat tools (for simultaneous written communication) or webinars (for simultaneous verbal communication). Synchronous discussions create a strong sense of social presence, but are not ideal for all tasks in online classes. Many students expect to work on the class at different times, and it may be difficult to find a time all can attend. Having a coherent discussion is difficult because taking turns is difficult to negotiate, which can result in chaotic and confusing discussions, particularly with larger classes. Technology problems may impede some students from participating.

On the other hand, asynchronous threaded discussion facilitates focusing on course topics. It allows shy or introverted students to participate fully, as well as ESL students and others who are less likely to volunteer in face-to-face settings. It allows discussion to continue for an extended period, enabling deep analysis that applies a wide range of ideas and resources to problems. However, it lacks the immediacy of synchronous communication, and generally does not have the richness of non-verbal information that webinars do.

There are many ways to increase the sense of community through effective guidance of asynchronous discussion. Some major approaches, as described by Swan and Shih (2005), are:

  • To model and support affective expressions, through direct expression of feelings, punctuation, using symbols and emoticons, as well as humor and self-disclosure
  • To support cohesiveness through references to the group as a whole, using student names and inviting social sharing;
  • To support interaction and personal connections through acknowledgements of contributions, expressions of agreement or disagreement, invitations to discuss, and encouragement.

Aragon provides many helpful tips on how to support a strong sense of social presence, emphasizing support for asynchronous discussion: Creating Social Presence in Online Environments.

Create Cognitive Presence

It is challenging to support social connections through asynchronous discussion and simultaneously support higher-order thinking and critical discourse, because many students hesitate to directly criticize one another and instead make general comments about their personal beliefs and experiences. Thus one finds ubiquitous comments in online discussions: “Great Point!” and “I agree!”

However, both higher order thinking and a strong learning community can be created by explicitly requiring students to critically examine ideas and support opinions with evidence. Research has found more critical inquiry occurs when students engage in debates and case analyses than in general open discussion of ideas. In face-to-face settings, “what do you think is going on here?” can produce an effective discussion; in an online setting, this would likely lead to frustration and limited learning.

In addition, authentic assessment leads to more higher order thinking. Authentic assessment refers to assigning students complex real-world or realistic problems to resolve, typically ones that have no single correct answer. Such problems tend to be very challenging, so students should build up to them by learning concepts and terms, then applying them in mini-cases and then larger-scale cases, and/or by analyzing situations of failure. In addition, complex problems can be broken down into stages that students complete, revise, and integrate over time.

In addition, analytical, application and discussion tasks should be defined precisely. This includes specific guidelines for the amount and frequency of interaction, and rubrics that include evaluative criteria such depth of analysis, critical inquiry, and application of concepts. If you let students know what your expectations are, they are much more likely to achieve them. In addition, you can provide clear roles and responsibilities for students, formally assigning the roles such as “respectful challenger” and “integrator.”

The Importance of Alignment

In a face-to-face course, students walk into class and see the professor; she or he is the source of information, and can immediately adjust content or activities based on what is happening in the classroom. In an online course, students navigate to class and see the prepared online materials; they are the source of information, and it can be difficult for faculty to know when students experience problems or confusion. This makes the quality of the online materials critical, and in particular their alignment.

Alignment refers to the consistency across all the elements of a course with one another, and with the learning objectives. The information (writing, videos, resources) should reflect the learning objectives. The activities students engage in should help them develop mastery of the learning objectives. And the assessments should allow instructors to evaluate the learning objectives. When all of these are aligned, students have the best chance of success. However, if students are assessed on skills they have not practiced, or on material not included in the course, they are likely to be dissatisfied and demotivated.

Apply Quality Standards to Your Online Materials

A great deal of research has been conducted on factors that make online instruction successful, and this research has been integrated into standards of quality. These quality standards focus only on how courses are designed – how the materials are arranged and what students are asked to do, rather than on what content is taught.

Two quality standards are available to Miami University faculty. First, Miami is a member of the Quality Matters Consortium, which has a rubric that can be used to evaluate the quality of online and hybrid courses. Read about the rubric on the Quality Matters website. If you are an Oxford instructor interested in getting a copy of the rubric, or taking the training needed to evaluate a course, please contact

A second set of standards was created by a Faculty Learning Community specifically for Miami faculty. This form includes additional aspects, such as aspects of teaching and academic rigor. It is designed as a formative process for self-assessment. Click here to view and download the Miami Guidelines for Teaching Online: Best Practices & Quality Standards.

Orient Students to Online Learning

All online courses should have an orientation to online learning.

  • Identify the level of personal responsibility of students in order to succeed
  • List the technical, organizational and time-management skills needed to succeed. Some examples:
    • "Are You Ready" web page: Self Evaluation for Potential Online Students- from the Illinois Online Network: Educational Resources. This web site helps learners to evaluate if they have the personal skills and habits to be a successful online learner.
    • "Learning Online" Harper College Distance Learning Orientation. This site covers characteristics of successful online learners and helps learners self-evaluate the time they have available for online learning and their learning style preferences.
  • Student resources—ELM Canvas for Students to teach students how to use Canvas.
  • Download the Miami University “Getting Started” materials for students.
  • Describe the specifics of your course, including how to navigate, find resources and assignments, and communicate with you and fellow students.
  • Describe your expectations for online participation, communication and netiquette.
  • Describe course policies such as academic integrity, working together, late work, etc.

Provide Resources to Learners

It is critical to let students know how to get help when they need it. Here are a few key resources:

Set a Warm Tone

Your tone is critical to creating an environment in which students will push themselves intellectually and take the risk of being wrong. The online venue is "cold" in that it lacks the emotional content of face-to-face settings. You can create a warm tone by:

  • Using a picture of yourself in your profile, so students see you every time you post
  • Inserting short videos
  • Using (respectful) humor; you may want to identify it as humor, with words or symbols such as <G> or ;-), but avoid sarcasm or put-downs
  • Using students' names
  • Complimenting the group
  • Showing emotion through emoticons, words or punctuation
  • Enhancing a sense of community by directing students to interact informally, such as using icebreakers or giving a “virtual gifts” in small groups. This can be especially important in the first part of an online course.
  • Invite a discussion early in the course about the way students expect one another to behave in the discussion forums, and summarize key features such as respect, clarity, critiquing ideas rather than people, collegial engagement, etc.
  • Supporting critical thinking and higher order learning
  • Enabling affective as well as cognitive learning

Lead Discussions Effectively

Leading asynchronous discussions in an online environment is very different from leading them in a traditional classroom, Because the environment and time frames are so different, the instincts and habits that lead to success in the classroom can create problems online. For example, allowing silence to build in a room creates a tension that students resolve by speaking up; in an online venue, they are more likely to become frustrated and leave the course. On the other hand, when an online discussion is engaging, students can spend far more time and dig much deeper into concepts and applications, without affecting the pace of your course. Read the articles below to learn how to create and lead effective online discussions.

Lead Discussions Efficiently

Leading online discussions can be very time-consuming. Here are some tips to manage your time effectively:

  • Respond in the discussion forum when possible, rather than by email. This gets students turning to one place – the course – for help, and slows them to share information.
  • After the first few weeks, you can post less often as students share the facilitation role -- if you emphasize and reward that behavior.
  • Provide open-ended formative feedback weekly the first few weeks to teach them what kind of participation you expect, and then after your norms have been established you can provide only numerical evaluations.
  • Direct students to resources rather than explaining everything yourself.
  • Guide students to respond to others' questions, and to collaborate, compare, contrast, analyze and explain to one another

Be Present and Responsive

Students cannot see you teaching an online class as readily as they do face-to-face. It is only possible to maintain a close connection and sense of presence if you are often visible in the online class.

  • Go into your course at least five days each week. Let students know ahead of time when your “weekend” away from the course will be.
  • Post regularly in discussions; reading without posting will not let students know that you are there. Actively guide learning by commenting, asking questions and probing. When students post questions, answer quickly -- even if your response is to invite others to answer.
  • Create announcements at least weekly, whether with text, audio or video.
  • Providing timely feedback – weekly on discussions, and within a week for longer assignments.
  • Be transparent—in online courses, it is very helpful to let students know directly why you are taking the actions you are taking. In the absence of that information, students often assume the worst. Direct, simple explanations enhance presence, clarity and metacognition.

Engage Students

There are many ways to engage students and keep them motivated. Review these resources for some ideas:

Enhance Academic Integrity

Academic integrity is critical in online instruction, just as it is in the traditional classroom. It can be enhanced through online course design as well as through instruction:

  • Directly address the subject, defining acceptable and unacceptable behaviors (e.g., when sharing of work is acceptable). Tell students the penalties for violating academic integrity.
  • Request students to either write or endorse a pledge acknowledging your policies and maintaining academic integrity.
  • Use tools such as Turn-It-In to identify plagiarism for major papers. (Note that such tools should not be used repeatedly for work that will be turned in several times with iterations, because once a work is uploaded it will included in the database and will appear as plagiarized when it is revised.)
  • Use test proctoring software, and/or tools that lock down browsers and restrict the ability to copy-paste.

Additional resources:

Adding some TEC-Variety: 100+ activities for motivating and retaining learners online (Download the eBook from this page)

Seven Principles of Effective Teaching