Tips on First Time Online Teaching

Question 1: What are the first things I should do if I am curious about teaching online?

  • You should not plan to teach an online course a week after you first thought about it. You should give yourself at least a semester to make plans and prepare materials.
  • You should consider whether there is a real incentive for you to teach online. Preparing an online course, at least at the beginning, requires a lot of time commitment. Most people think about teaching online when there is an external pressure/nudge (e.g., your department chair suggests that your program needs to expand to other satellite campuses or increase student enrollment). It is much easier to sustain your interest to teach online if there is a real need and you are really intrinsically motivated as well.
  • Go talk to people you know who are teaching online, and ask them to enroll in their online courses, so that you can see some examples of how others are doing it.
  • Learn about the support available at Temple for teaching online through the Office of Distance Learning, the Teaching and Learning Center, and the Instructional Support Center.
  • Consider a pilot project like teaching one or two classes of your traditional course using the virtual classroom (e.g., Wimba Live Classroom, Blackboard Collaborative) before you teach an entire course.
  • Make sure that your department chair is supportive of your initiative.
  • Keep it really simple the first time around. Assess the minimum level of technology you will need, and how much of it is new and you will have to learn. You may realize that you already have most of the basic technological skills under your belt. But be sure to learn the technology you think you will need but you don’t know how to use. (See also Question 6).
  • We found the following references useful for getting started:

Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R.-M. (2010). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Major, C. H. (2015).  Teaching online: A guide to theory, research, and Practice. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Smith, R. M. (2008). Conquering the content: A step-by-step guide to online course design. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

  • Unless there is a particular course that you are expected to teach online, choose a course that is easily adaptable to the online format. This should be a course that you have already taught several times in the traditional classroom and the course content is already well established (with regular updates, of course). It is not a good idea to develop an entirely new course and teach it online for the first time.

Question 2: How do I decide if teaching online will be an effective way to teach a course I now teach in a traditional mode?

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much time do I have to translate the course to the online environment? (Learning to teach online takes preparation time, and planning at least 6 months ahead is probably necessary)
  • What methods do I already use in my teaching? (e.g., features of blackboard such as discussion board, grading, live classroom, power point, short lecture segments punctuated by activities)
  • Are there materials that are not available in digital format (hard to get films, books, field trips, or guest speakers uncomfortable or lacking technology for virtual meetings) that are an important part of your course?
  • Will the goals of the course be met online?
    • information literacy–Can students learn the content of the course through a combination of the best practices for teaching online—short, visually illustrated lectures, independent and group activities?
    • social interaction –How important is the dialogue that happens spontaneously? Does it matter if students get to know each other through visual cues? Is it important for the class to develop a group identity? (These things are possible, but more difficult to achieve in the online environment)
    • skills acquisition–Are there skills you want students to acquire you need to demonstrate in person or supervise closely as they learn?
    • sensitive topics–Are you teaching a topic where you want to read facial expressions and monitor emotional responses to the material and discussion? Are immediate reactions an important part of fostering dialogue?

Question 3: What resources are available at Temple?

  • Office of Distance Learning at Temple–Information on online courses at Temple as well as support for teaching online courses
    • Online Tutorials
    • Wimba cheat sheet
    • When students sign up for an online course, the Office of Distance Learning offers them basic training on how to use technology for an online course.
  • The Teaching and Learning Center will help you plan content through individual meetings and workshops
  • The Instructional Support Center will provide assistance with technology, including helping you pilot-test your technology by giving you an opportunity to see the course from a student’s perspective.
  • Temple has formed an online learning standards committee, and the committee is currently working on developing its guidelines on online teaching.

Question 4: What is the minimal level of technological competence and equipment that I need in order to teach an online course at Temple?

  • As an instructor, you should be thoroughly familiar with the courseware that Temple uses, Blackboard. There are many features on Blackboard that we use routinely in traditional courses such as announcements, grading center, document storage, email, attendance, safe assign, survey and test creation, and discussion boards that are necessary in both synchronous (real time) and asynchronous courses online.
  • But other tools are also helpful. To compensate for the absence of face-to-face encounters, it is a good idea for all online courses that instructors learn to use the voice and video functions available on Blackboard.
  • Synchronous courses (or taped segments in asynchronous courses) can simulate some of the dimensions of the lived social environment virtually. Most online courses are hybrids, using a combination of synchronous and asynchronous activities.
  • It is therefore helpful to become competent in the use of the online conferencing platform (e.g., Wimba, Webex, or Blackboard Collaborative).
    • This virtual classroom is quite useful but not simple to use; it requires a good deal of practice for the novice to feel as at home in it as one does in one’s “real” classroom. (And of course you can use it from home, and in many ways ultimately become even more comfortable!)
    • In order to use the virtual classroom effectively instructors should ideally be conversant with finding and creating internet websites, video and audio sources, wikis, and podcasts, and the variety of social media, as well as assembling effective power point lectures. But our experiences tell us that one can start teaching in the virtual classroom with relatively simple tools, and once you become more comfortable with using the conference platform, you can add more sophisticated technologies as the need arises. Unless you try, it is hard to know in advance what technological tools would make your online teaching more effective.
    • Instructors also need to be prepared to guide students in learning how to use these technologies (Never assume that media skills correlate directly with age!).
  • In terms of equipment, instructors (and students) should have a microphone head set and web camera.
    • The headset is necessary because without it the participants in the virtual classroom have to deal with feedback and extraneous noises from classmates’ surroundings. However, it is our experience that some laptops have a decent microphone and sound, so you may be able to get away with not using the headset in a pinch.
    • A less than good headset does prevent a person from participating fully. This is particularly critical for students who are nonnative speakers of English, for whom a clear sound is important for comprehension.
    • The web camera is not absolutely necessary for students, but it is most helpful for instructors to have the option of seeing students when they are talking. While these images can never substitute for the visual cues we read in traditional classrooms, they do help. In order for the images to show properly, good lighting in the room is necessary, so tell your students to turn on the light in the room they are in (otherwise, they would be looking like zombies!).
    • When the sound is not working properly, there is an option to call in by using a telephone. But note that if a participant calls in, his or her name will not show up on the list of the current participants (only the phone number will show up), which makes it tricky to know who is attending the class.
  • We believe that the facility with the basic use of the Blackboard is absolutely necessary to teach online courses effectively; however, beyond Blackboard, one does not necessarily have to be highly technologically sophisticated to teach online courses. We have learned that some instructors teach online courses quite effectively with relatively simple technology.

Question 5: What are some of the teaching strategies and ideas that I can use to teach effectively online?

You need to consider both general principles of good teaching and principles of good teaching specific for online teaching.

Principles of good teaching (online or traditional)

  • *Make sure that you create a community of learners through opening activities that create an environment conducive to learning
  • Provide ground rules for civil engagement
  • Return student work in a timely fashion
  • Provide clear directions for student activities
  • Make a comprehensive, well organized, accessible syllabus
  • Ask yourself what you would like students to take away from your course and retain one year later
  • Provide various types of activities to support different students’ learning styles and abilities
  • Get (and give) feedback early and often
  • Make sure students know how to access help from library and tech support staff
  • Do clear, exciting, focused activities at the beginning and end of every course and every class session
  • *Provide opportunities for faculty free learning space

NOTE: Those items marked with asterisk are extra important online

Principles of good teaching that are unique to online teaching

  • Provide ground rules of netiquette
  • Use digital content only
  • Make sure equipment students need is accessible and working properly
  • Make sure students know how to access help from the Office of Distance Learning
  • Provide extremely clear guidelines on course participation expectations and assignments (and their due dates). Because you are not meeting with your students face-to-face, you cannot gauge their understanding as readily. You therefore need to spell out everything, in order to preempt confusion and unnecessary strings or email inquiries.
  • Package course materials in units according to the structure you set for the course. For instance, if you are organizing your course in modules instead of the traditional weekly calendar, all materials for each module should be bundled together and placed on Blackboard in one folder. If your syllabus is assignment driven, all materials associated with each assignment should be bundled together.
  • Be clear about when you will be present, and be present for at least a brief amount of time each day the course meets (virtual office hours). Lay clear ground rules for how you will respond to students’ questions. This is important because if you do not, you will have frustrated students who will find you rude for not returning their email within a few hours, and you will have difficulty managing the volume of your email:
    • Tell students that you will return email within a specified time, usually between 24 and hours.
    • Encourage students to post questions on the discussion board rather than emailing them to you. Encourage students to answer each other’s questions. Tell them that you will check discussion board questions within 48 hours.
    • Tell students that if you receive a question from a student and you think your answer will be useful to everyone, you will post your answer on Announcements rather than responding individually to the student.
  • Do not introduce a new technology or a new tool at the same time as high-stakes assignment. If an assignment involves the use of new technology for students (e.g., creating a wiki), have students practice the skill first, and then give them the assignment.
  • Encourage students to look for and share new materials online that would be relevant for the course. Students often find materials online that you are not aware of, having them contribute relevant materials to the course will keep your course current and students enjoy contributing materials and seeing them used in class.

Question 6: How do I make a decision about what type of online course I should teach: synchronous, asynchronous, or hybrid?

  • Completely asynchronous courses have no face-to-face or virtual meetings. Students log in at their own convenience. These courses are preferable if:
  • You want students to be able to complete the course at their own pace
  • You dislike the technological aspects that synchronous courses require
  • You are teaching students in different timezones (especially on the other side of the globe)
  • Completely synchronous course meet “live” and online at all times. These courses are preferable if:
  • You are interested in creating an experience that is as close to a traditional classroom as possible
  • Creating a social space is a central learning goal for your course
  • Hybrid courses sometimes meet “live” face-to-face and other times meet virtually. At Temple, courses that meet least 3 sessions online are defined as hybrid courses. These courses are preferable if:
  • You are experimenting with teaching online for the first time and want to try a few sessions before you commit to doing a full online course (and in the process) you may discover that the “blend” is just right for you
  • Most students can technically get to the classroom most of the time, but some students may be traveling from a distance and having at least some sessions online would make their lives a little easier.
  • A good online course will include a combination of elements that incorporate short instructor “lectures,” large and small group activities, and individual projects that require interaction among peers and between the instructor and each individual student. The balance, however, is up to you!

NOTE: If you choose to include at least 3 Wimba sessions, your course will be advertised on Banner as an online course–consult your department scheduler at the earliest possible date! A hybrid course with at least 3 Wimba sessions will appear on the Temple Course Schedule Listing like this. This way students will know exactly when they are meeting online. Nonetheless, they do need to be reminded every time!:

Question 7: What does an online course syllabus look like?

There are two main options for the design of online syllabi.

  • Some instructors create syllabi that are no different from the ones they use in traditional courses. This is more likely when the course is synchronous or hybrid and the instructor meets with students on a regular basis via online conferencing (thereby simulating the traditional classroom environment).
  • Other instructors organize their syllabi in modules or according to the major assignments. This is more likely when the course is asynchronous and the instructor divides the sections of the course content according to topics or “chunks.” These “chunks” need not correlate to the standard division of course material into “weeks,” but are rather tied to an assessment of students’ progress based on the assignments they submit.
    • This type of syllabus will have a list of major assignments and their descriptions, due dates, and the percentage of each assignment, instead of the usual week-by-week topics and readings.

Question 8: What are the logistics of teaching an online course at Temple?

Begin the process by getting in touch with the Office of Distance Learning. You will want to look at the tutorials they provide on their website, and also consider taking the introductory seminar they offer. Before the beginning of the registration period for the semester you intend to teach the online course, you will need to notify the person responsible for scheduling in your department so that the course can be properly coded into the Banner system. If you intend to teach three or more sessions of a hybrid course using Wimba, you must notify the Office of Distance Learning. They will provide training for all students who register prior to the beginning of the course.

Final Thoughts…

In conclusion, we all know that experience is the best teacher, and so just like any kind of learning, you will not know what it is like to teach online unless you plunge into it. Each of us started very slowly, with Rebecca with just one Wimba session and Yasko with three, with relatively simple technology and lots of help. We recommend that you try it.

We also found the company of the Online Teaching Circle colleagues immensely helpful. It is doubtful if either of us would have started teaching online had we not participated in the circle or worked on this project together. So find a friend.