Online Teaching and Learning

With enrollments up in the UW Colleges Online Program and an increase of campus offerings of hybrid or blended courses in which the learning environment is equally divided between face-to-face (F2F) and online (OL), attention to effective online teaching and learning is critical. This white paper will highlight some of the research-based best practices for effective online teaching and learning.

Why Online?
A 2010 US Department of Education meta-analysis of online learning research found that "Students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction"--with the caveat that the effect may be due to variables other than the actual delivery mode, such as the availability of additional content materials, the extra time provided by asynchronous work, and the increased collaboration possible in online conditions. In other words, it's not the technology itself but instead the effective adaptation of certain teaching and learning principles to the online environment. 

Best Practices: Course Design and Management
The Teaching Professor's Faculty Focus site run by Maryellen Weimer offers a handful of reports, white papers, and online seminars on online teaching and learning.  Many of them focus on recommendations about course design and management since these fundamentals are decided first with tremendous effects on the entire semester (course design) and are the most challenging for workload and student satisfaction (course management).  

Take, for instance, this outline of some basic "core competencies" for teaching online (Ragan), or this short list of tips for providing "media richness" to increase student engagement and interaction (Schiefelbein), both of which provide sound advice for online teaching.  Additionally, the ideas in the report "10 Principles of Effective Online Teaching"--taken together--reflect a broader picture of the effective online teacher as one who is organized with the online environment, clear in course materials and communications, and present but not overly present:

1. Show Up and Teach: Resist the pressure to be available to students 24/7, both because it leads to burnout for you and unrealistic expectations and passivity from students.

Consider the Effects of Your Approach to Teaching Online

"When you first start teaching online, there's the temptation to put on your Superman cape and try to be ultra responsive and ever-present. So intent on ensuring that each and every student has a successful learning experience in your class, you answer student emails at any hour of the day or night, respond to every discussion board post, and design elaborate assignments that take advantage of all the latest technology tools available.

Unfortunately, this approach leaves instructors exhausted, frustrated, and burned out.... Meanwhile, the students wait passively for the instructor to spoon feed them every step of the way, never learning how to take an active role in their learning, solve problems, or forge a bond with others in the class." --Mary Bart, "Fostering student Interaction in the Online Classroom"
Instead, establish a time when you'll teach your online class, and be visible when you do so to prevent the alternative impression that the course is canned and instructorless. As the F2F classroom has "a defined set of parameters including a time and location for both instructor and learner," an online classroom should provide clear parameters as well (6).

2. Practice Proactive Course Management Strategies: Set up your course to offer clear assignment expectations and deadlines available in numerous locations, monitor submissions, and proactively respond to student work (or the absence thereof), keeping in mind that the goal is not to make the students dependent on your reminders but instead to "empower  online learners to take responsibility for managing their own learning experience and free instructors to concentrate their time and energy on crafting a truly engaged learning experience" (8).

3. Establish Patterns of Course Activities: Simulate F2F courses in the sense of creating a routine or set of routines for class activities to "define the boundaries between the online class activities and the rest of life," so both student and instructor can devote a defined amount of time to this course and the rest to other responsibilities and life.  Examples include providing start- and end-times for all activities, consistent routines and sequences, and a clear rhythm to the course.

4. Plan for the Unplanned: "Life happens," so have a clear location for announcing changes to the course schedule or deadlines as you remain flexible in the face of learner needs, crisis, or other just-in-time issues (12).

5. Response Requested and Expected: Building on the above, establish and communicate a reasonable amount of time in which you'll respond to student queries. A common expectation is 24 hours during the week. Whether you'll respond to students on weekends is up to you.

6. Think Before You Write: We all know the problems that can come from writing emails or e-messages too quickly or with an ambiguous tone, so learn, follow, and share the rules of Netiquette, adding any additional guidelines you want for communication in your online classroom.  Use and teach this habit of reflecting and carefully composing thoughts before hitting "send" or "post."

7. Help Maintain Forward Progress: Establish and communicate the (reasonable) timeframe within which you'll return graded assignments, enabling students "to monitor and plan their course activity and, if necessary, take corrective action" (18).

8. Safe and Secure: Keep all communications with your online students in the course management system: password-protected, archived, and organized for easy access.

9. Quality Counts: Invite colleagues to visit and give feedback to your course, and ask students for anonymous mid- and end-of-semester course feedback (such as the Muddiest Point classroom assessment technique, or "What is helping you learn? What is preventing you from learning?").

10. (Double) Click a Mile on My Connection: Make sure you have at least the same or higher technological capability as the students, so you don't experience unnecessary frustration with the course technology and so you can set up, test, and fix the technology when needed.  

Best Practices: Learning Activities
The Department of Education's research meta-analysis notes that the jury is still out on the effect of many online activities on student learning, but a few have been found to have a positive impact on student learning. 

Individual vs. Collaborative Learning
Instead of a model resembling correspondence courses in which students work individually and through asynchronous interactions with just the instructor, providing opportunities for collaboration helps students perform better online. The report "Student Collaboration in the Online Classroom" offers a variety of strategies for setting up, facilitating, and assessing effective online group activities, as well as the underlying assumptions for collaborative learning. Collaborative Learning Techniques (Barkley, Cross, and Major, 2004) is a rich resource for effectively structuring collaborative learning in general and includes frequent explanations for how to adapt specific collaborative learning techniques to the online environment.

Learner Reflection and Self-Monitoring
More than other learning activities, reflective and metacognitive activities improve student learning in the online environment, according to the Department of Education's meta-analysis of all of the research (44-45).  Examples include the following:  
  • "when students answered an item incorrectly, they were told that their response was not correct, and they were given additional resources to explore to find the correct answer. (They were not given the right answer.)" (45)
  • self-assessment questions after activities in preparation for exams, 
  • requirements for students to provide explanations for their problem-solving, and 
  • a "self-monitoring form for students to record their study time and environment, note their learning process, predict their test scores and create a self-evaluation" (45).
Consider moments in your course--as the course begins, after specific assignments, at the end of a unit, at the end of the semester--when you can prompt students to reflect, explain why they made some choices and not others in their work, and self-monitor their learning. 

Best Practices: Your Conceptual Framework for Online Teaching and Learning
Aside from course design, classroom management, and specific learning activities, the actual pedagogies--the deliberate application of a teaching philosophy--that are most effective online are more elusive in the research.  Below are some ideas to prompt reflection on your pedagogies and ways of adapting them most effectively to the online environment.  

The Department of Education's "Conceptual Framework for Online Learning" table to the right is a useful starting place. (Click the image to view it in a larger, legible format.)  It illustrates three different kinds of learning experiences (left column) created by different activities (right columns).  

Think about the ways of thinking required by your discipline and how you thus want your students to practice and demonstrate their learning. Consider what kind of learning environment you want to create.  Should you be more expository, or lecture-based?  Should you strive for active learning by your students?  Should you expect student interaction to be a source of their knowledge construction?  The table shows what each of these approaches to teaching and learning might look like online.

An article by Nancy Chick and Holly Hassel (2009) also provides a framework for thinking through your pedagogy and how you can bring it online effectively. While we focus specifically on feminist pedagogy, the model we provide can easily be adapted to the characteristics of teaching and learning you want to cultivate in your online classroom: 
  • Starting with course design, not technology. Develop the pedagogical framework that most authentically fits your discipline's needs (above), and then bring the technology to that framework. Rather than deferring to the technology and even instructional technology staff because they’re experts in the technology, remember that you're the expert in the content and your disciplinary pedagogies, and a course should start there, not with the machinery. Pedagogical practices can and should drive the structure of the course, and the principles of your pedagogy should be present from the beginning, rather than add-ons at the end.
  • Dynamics and environment.  What kinds of interactions create the environment you want and the best learning by a variety of learners in your course?  Seek ways to make the technology support and facilitate those interactions.
    • For example, if you value students taking active, responsible, and shares roles in their learning, the careful use of the “Ask the Class” and “The Hallway” discussion forums can build community and encourage student authority. These simple forums can create spaces where interaction is dynamic, ongoing, and student-led.
  • Definition of knowledge. In addition to what occurs in the classroom, a coherent pedagogy theorizes what occurs within the learners’ minds by articulating what “knowledge” means and how it’s achieved. How does this understanding of knowledge and knowledge-creation affect the teacher’s role, the students’ roles, how learning happens, what occurs in the classroom, and the goals for the end of the course? Seek ways to make the technology support and facilitate these ways of creating meaning.
    • For example, if you value shared leadership roles; multiple perspectives elicited by open-ended, higher-order questions; contextualized learning; and collaborative construction of meaning, you may help students develop their knowledge through the effective use of small groups, fishbowls, discussion chains, and wikis, as well as an  assignment that ensures that students (not just the instructor) reads, reflects on, and synthesizes the entire discussion.
  • Habits of mind. Because the online environment is most easily translated into another version of the sage on the cyber-stage, complete with virtual lectures and multiple-choice exams in which students work only individually and only with the instructor (see above, "Individual vs. Collaborative Learning"), your online classroom should be designed with opportunities for students to habitually engage in the complex, higher-order thinking appropriate to the content, practices, and values of your discipline.  
    • For instance, after a course informed by feminist pedagogy, students have ideally developed thinking patterns that carry over into their other courses, their work, and their lives. Like any habit, it’s cultivated by repetition over the entire semester, rather than in one or two assignments.  Developing activities that encourage students to connect course content to their personal experiences is a start. The online environment makes easier the use of virtual “field trips,” guest speakers, and service-learning and action research projects to connect course content to the world outside the class and to enact the notion of praxis (theory applied to practice).

In the end, effective online teaching comes from first considering what we know about good teaching and student learning--and then adapting these principles to the online environment by making the technology work for us, rather than starting with technology without sound pedagogical reasons for what we do with the technology.

For Further Study, Reflection, and/or Discussion

  • Click any of the linked materials above.