2 Instructor’s Guide for Online Learning
Robin H. Kay
I have read many books and articles on online learning, and few explicitly address guidelines to help instructors new to teaching in this medium (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016). When I first started teaching online in 2009, even though I had over ten years of teaching experience, I felt like a first-year teacher: anxious, vulnerable, and a bit lost. I really could have used some advice, guidance, and encouragement. This chapter humbly provides said insights.
The general guidelines discussed in the introduction focussed on creating a community of inquiry by developing social, cognitive, and teaching presence (Garrison, 2016). Furthermore, the chapter advocated deeper learning in online classes by explicitly referring to the Deep Learning concepts of citizenship, character, collaboration and critical thinking (Fullan & Langworthy, 2013). Throughout the chapter, insights move from broad to more specific, concluding with examples of opportunities for you to build community and enhance deep learning opportunities.
- Culture. Before you design your course, you need to think about the culture you want to create in your online classroom — the set of rules and guidelines to ensure good digital citizenship (Fullan & Langworthy, 2013). For example, you need to decide whether cameras should be on, how the chat will work, who will monitor the chat, background images when cameras are on, how breakout groups will be assigned, and how to promote respectful dialogue. Ideally, you would work with your class to create the rules for your class with your students. The Read-Set-Go chapter provides more details on this process.
- Student First-Teacher Second. I like in-person teaching partially because of the students’ reactions to what I say, the jokes I might make, the blank stares when I am losing the crowd. You can lose this personal connection online, especially if students turn cameras off. That feels quite odd at first, but it helped me realize, more than ever, that my students come first. Teaching presence (Garrison, 2016) is different online and shifts you to the role of sage on the stage. I talked much less than I would in person and allowed students to interact more in small breakout groups.
- Communication. Clear, concise, prompt communication is critical for online learning. Clarity can be a challenge, especially with written messages, so I send short videos sometimes to improve both social presence (Garrison, 2016) and communication for learning (Fullan & Langworthy, 2013). I also respond very quickly to students, usually within an hour, because online learning can feel quite disconnected. To develop a strong teacher presence (Garrison, 2016), you need to be there when your students need help.
- 5- to-10 Minute Rule. Do not lecture online, and by lecture, I mean talking for more than 10 minutes at a time. A long presentation through a trusted slide deck will significantly reduce cognitive presence (Garrison, 2016). There will likely be no cognitive presence, and students will quickly tune out and start engaging in other activities: email, texting, shopping, checking the sports scores. If you feel that students need content, create videos ahead of time and develop a flipped-classroom approach. Within a class, you have about 5-10 minutes to address a topic, and then you need to have some activity. For example, ask a question for students to respond to in the chat, conduct a poll, have a small breakout discussion, have a large group discussion, solve a problem, check for knowledge. The knowledge will not stick if students do not interact with it.
- Personal Learning Networks are an integral part of online learning, supporting the development of social networks and a sense of community (Downes, 2007). You can find several colleagues teaching online and meet with them semi-regularly to discuss strategy, challenges, new tools, and management issues. Similarly, you could join an active Facebook group or Twitter community and ask questions. It takes much more time if you try to teach online, alone. Collaborating is more time-efficient and effective (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012), especially when starting. Also, ask your colleagues if you can observe one of their classes — you would be startled at how much you can learn.
- Feedback. What saved me when I taught my first class was soliciting anonymous feedback after each class. I know that might seem excessive (you could collect it every 2-3 weeks), but regular feedback helped guide my teaching practice and improve the course’s overall quality. Consistent feedback from your students throughout an online course is essential for success. This feedback also establishes a more substantial teacher presence (Garrison, 2016).
- A growth mindset is not limited to students; it’s also an asset for educators. I would strongly advise that you leave your ego at the entrance to your virtual classroom and open yourself to making mistakes and learning more. With regular feedback (Item 6 above), you can continue learning and growing. Making your learning transparent to students can help create a healthy classroom culture for learning (Fullan & Langworthy, 2013).
- Organization is critical for any teaching format but especially important for online teaching and learning. It is harder to repair and pivot online than in a face-to-face classroom, particularly when technology is involved. Unanticipated problems can eat up significant time in an online class. Of course, you cannot anticipate all issues, but organization and preparation are vital in an online format.
- Self-Care. Online learning, especially when you are new, can be challenging and tiring, especially with increased screen time and the flow of emails at any time of the day or night. In Item 3 above, I responded to emails very quickly, but you need to set boundaries with your students to maximize your health. It would help if you also took frequent screen breaks. I have used short videos to reduce the number of emails, especially before assignments are due. I create a video explanation of the assignment ahead of time, so students do not need to consult me when working on a last-minute project. Finally, go for a walk regularly — fresh air helps to clear your mind, especially when you are in front of a computer all day.
- The right technology can save you time and stress. When teaching online, you need an excellent Internet connection to ensure a consistent, stable to your virtual classroom — slow, choppy internet connections severely and negatively affect teacher presence (Garrison, 2016). It would be best to have a good headset with a clear microphone. If students cannot hear you, they will likely be unable to learn. Finally, it would help if you had a large screen and preferably two to engage in and take advantage of the many available tools. Shifting from tab to tab in a small laptop computer is painful to watch and can interrupt the flow of your virtual class.
- Time. My experience is that teaching activities often take more time online — providing clear instructions, placing students into groups, making sure they have the correct technology. I typically add 25% more time to an online activity than a face-to-face one. Also, use a timer — it is very easy to get distracted and lose track of time in an online environment. One technical problem for one student can significantly sabotage your careful planning.
- Read. Finally, I advise you to find one good book on online teaching and read it cover to cover. There are so many good ideas available. Two books that I have found particularly helpful are The Online Teaching Survival Guide (3d Ed.; Boettcher & Conrad, 2021) and Online Teaching at Its Best (Nilson & Goodson, 2018). If you do not have time (few of us do), check out the online resources at the end of this chapter (or the rest of the book, of course).
Suggestion 1: Get the Right Technology
This step is relatively straightforward — you should invest in technology that enhances your ability to teach online because it will save you time and reduce stress. If you have a poor internet connection, a small monitor, and/or a poor microphone, you will struggle to establish a strong teaching presence (Garrison, 2016) in a virtual or synchronous class. Suppose your connection is dropped or lagging during a virtual class. In that case, you are taking too much time fiddling with or searching on your small screen, or your voice is distracting to students because you are using a poor laptop microphone, you will quickly lose connection with your students. Please consult the Technology Chapter for full details on technology, including screen recording tools and essential software suggestions.
Key areas to focus on include internet speed, your microphone, and your monitor. Review the Technology Chapter for more in-depth guidance. For now, I will provide you with a few quick suggestions.
- Internet Speed. You need to focus on bandwidth here — Download and upload speed. Download speed is how fast information (e.g., videos, images and text) is loaded onto your computer when you click a link. As of 2022, I recommend at least 50 Mbps per person in your house. If you are going wireless (which most people do), you could be competing with others in your household. You will need at least 2 Mbps to use your webcam for upload speed. Otherwise, you could struggle to keep a stable connection with your students.
- Microphone. There are several good headsets out there ranging from CAD$30 to $125 (I’m sure you could pay more}. Logitech is a brand that has worked well for me with a $30 to $60 price tag. If you want to sound like a radio announcer, Plantronics (CAD$100) is wonderful. If you do not like the very attractive over-your-head headphones look (smile), you might consider a Blue Snowball (CAD$50) Yeti StandAlone microphone (CAD$130). Another option is a Mac Computer which is very expensive but has decent built-in audio and video (but a small screen).
- Monitors. I prefer one or two 27″ monitors. Yes, I may have spoiled myself, but I am more efficient with all that screen space. You could connect a monitor to your laptop — that would give you more space. I have conducted an online class with a relatively small laptop, and trying to negotiate multiple screens is exceedingly slow and awkward. You want to focus on your teaching, not the technology you are struggling to use
You will experience at least two challenges here: cost and the time spent searching for a suitable device. As for cost, I consider the hours saved with good technology more than compensates for the upfront expense. Plus, the students get a much better experience. Avoid searching around for technology by consulting our Technology chapter. Keep in mind — there is no best technology — pick a decent one and move on. You can always ask a few colleagues and save yourself searching time. Don’t go on a Google search — you might never return with the range of options available.
Suggestion 2: Well-Organized Lesson Plans
One of the best decisions I have made regarding online teaching is to create a detailed lesson plan for each class that includes learning goals, activity descriptions and estimated times, and asynchronous or home activities. This strategy allows students to see what they will be doing ahead of time, to anticipate workload and guide me during an online lesson. The lesson plan also helps me keep on track with time, a persistent challenge for me in an online learning environment.
- My lesson plans include the key learning goals addressed in the class, a detailed list of activities with time estimates and resources as required, a break time marker, and a very detailed list of asynchronous or home activities. I create them as Google Docs to edit them on the fly so that students can comment or ask questions. Here are several examples of lesson plans that I used: Lesson Plan 1 [Doc.], Lesson Plan 2 [Doc.], and Lesson Plan 3 [Doc.].
- I post my lesson plans on a website (e.g., Technology and the Curriculum); however, they could quickly be posted on the learning management system (e.g., Desire to Learn, Google Classroom, Canvas) of your choice.
- It takes time. Creating these lesson plans takes time and requires a fair bit of planning. I would argue that it is time well spent because online learning needs to be thoroughly organized. It is more challenging to repair distractions and technological issues that can quickly derail a class. If you teach the course more than once, the possibility of repurposing/updating your plan can both save you time and encourage you to engage in constant improvement.
- Workload for secondary school teachers. The other challenge would be the workload for secondary school teachers who need to create daily instead of weekly lesson plans. In this case, you might try making shorter lesson plans or a weekly lesson plan summary.
- Getting off track. Finally, lessons do not always proceed as expected, so you have to make decisions during the class about skipping activities and still achieving the intended learning goals. Sometimes activities need to be postponed to the following class, which can have a rippled effect on future lesson plans that you may have created ahead of time.
Suggestion 3: Chat with Student Help
Many students choose not to use their camera or raise their hands and ask questions in an online virtual classroom. At first, I admit, this is quite disconcerting — you feel like you are teaching in a virtual void. However, students still seem willing to use the chat feature. The challenge is that an instructor cannot monitor the chat and focus on the lesson. To address all chat comments, you need a monitor. I am suggesting that you student volunteer each class. It has been my experience that students love doing this.
Furthermore, a monitored chat increases student focus and cognitive presence (Garrison, 2016) when the instructor is interrupted. That might seem counterintuitive, but students shift their attention when a new voice suddenly appears. Then they pay attention to the question asked. Think about listening to a good podcast. Conversations are much easier to follow than monologues.
The process for soliciting a student volunteer to monitor the chat is relatively straightforward.
- First, explain to your class that you understand that chat is a primary form of communication online and that you need their help making sure all voices are heard.
- Second, note that you will ask a student to volunteer at the beginning of each class to monitor the chat and interrupt the teacher when there is a question or concern. For example, they might say, “Sorry, Robin, Amir has a question,” or “Robin, a class member has asked if you give an example of how that would work.”
- Third, you may want to set a few ground rules about when a student can interrupt you. I treat it like a face-to-face class. If a hand went up, I would answer it immediately. Therefore, if a student posts a chat question, I want to respond immediately.
The number of chat postings can be overwhelming at times, even with a small class. It would help if you worked with your students to develop the most effective way to post comments and questions in the chat. You might ask students to refrain from posting personal messages during a lesson (before a lesson is fine to create a social presence). You might ask them to add the keyword “Question or Comment” at the front of their chat message to make it easy for the student chat monitor to address. I would work this process out with my class at the beginning of the course and involve them in the process. Students are more likely to follow the rules or systems they create.
Another possible challenge is private chat or students texting each other during class. You could turn the private chat off, but I prefer to allow students to choose their learning path and approach. Texting other students in private chat is one way to increase social presence and engagement, regardless of whether it is relevant to the content at hand.
Suggestion 4: Recording Your Lessons or Not
Recording secondary school virtual classes are challenging because you deal with minors — I would probably advise against it. Instead, create short videos to support content or procedural knowledge. Higher education students regularly ask that you record virtual classrooms when they miss a class or want to review material. However, there are several challenges that you need to consider when deciding whether to record your class.
- First, does it make sense, particularly if you have created a highly interactive environment involving small group discussions? The recording will not be particularly effective because you are not giving a lecture, and breakout rooms are not recorded.
- Second, when sections of your virtual class involve long presentations (consider the 5-10 minute rule, please), a recording might be helpful.
- Third, reflect on whether recording a virtual class will discourage students from turning on their cameras and participating in discussions. They may not want themselves recorded.
- Fourth, consider the time and privacy issues required to share your recording.
- Fifth, turn on closed captioning to increase accessibility if you do record.
- Finally, monitor the actual use of your recorded classes. I discovered that no students were watching the video of our 1-2 hour class. I think it comforts students to know it is there, but the idea of watching a rather dull 60-120 minute video of a full class may be daunting to students who are typically unwilling to watch instructional videos for more than 6 minutes (see the optimal video length article).
- Coursera – Learning to Teach Online: Highly rated, a free, comprehensive source on learning to teach online.
- Effective Online Strategies to Improve Your Online Teaching contains articles, reports, resources, seminars, programs, courses on teaching and learning online.
- Effective Teaching and Learning Practices – UBC Centre for Teaching and Learning is an excellent site that offers a combination of written and video support in numerous aspects of online teaching and learning.
- Strategies for Teaching Online: A good list of strategies for teaching online, divided into helpful sections (e.g., EDI, student well-being, discussions.
- Teaching Remotely – Harvard University: Very comprehensive site focusing on getting started, best practices, video and audio, learning from colleagues and technology tools.
- Teaching Strategies of Award-Winning Online Instructors: Five insights on virtual instruction by examining the techniques shared by top-rated online instructors.
Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. M. (2021). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips (3rd Ed.). John Wiley & Sons.
Downes, S. (2007). Learning networks in practice. National Research Council of Canada.
Fullan, M., & Langworthy, M. (2013). Towards a new end: New pedagogies for deep learning. Collaborative Impact.
Garrison, D. R. (2016). E-learning in the 21st century: A community of inquiry framework for research and practice (3rd ed.). Taylor & Francis.
Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. Teachers College Press.