Teaching online: Strategies and tips for college instructors

by Ernest Rice
Ph.D. student, University of Florida

Ernest Rice

Ernest Rice

If you haven’t taught an online course yet, you probably will be sometime soon.

In 2012, the US Department of Education estimated that 6.7 million students were enrolled in online classes in the US, while the number of online classes as well as online only degrees is growing constantly.

Online education began as distance learning, which is a way of educating students who are not in the physical presence of the instructor.

Distance education as we know it began in England in the 1840s when Sir Isaac Pitman started promoting correspondence courses on shorthand in newspaper advertisements as well as through door to door sales.  In the 1920s and 30s several schools experimented with distance learning using radio where students listened to lectures and mailed-in assignments. In the 40s U.S. military troops were shown training films and movies, and in the 50s and 60s television was used to do the same thing.

In the 80s, closed circuit television and satellite systems were used in classrooms to link distant classes with teachers, which brought two-way communication between the teacher and student to distance learning for the first time.  With the Internet and other forms of digital communication available, distance education became online education and has grown immensely.

There are four general categories of online courses:

  1. Hybrid courses are traditional lecture classes with some type of online component, like a blog, wiki, or content management system like Blackboard or Canvas.
  2. Another category of online course that makes use of traditional classrooms is the flipped course, but it uses the classroom in a different manner than hybrid courses.  In the flipped course, the lecture is a recorded video that the class watches outside of the classroom as homework.  When the class physically meets, that time is used for discussion, question and answer sessions, or working problems with the teachers assistance.  The flipped course is very effective with math and technology courses.
  3. The fully online course doesn’t make use of a traditional classroom and is entirely online, though some online classes have class meetings for tests.
  4. The final category of online course is the Massive Open Online Course or MOOC.  A MOOC is an open registration course that anyone can register for and participate in for free, but if you want credit for the course, you must enroll and pay tuition for the course.

These courses have several strengths and weaknesses.

Hybrid courses

The hybrid courses offer a mix of the best of traditional and online courses, but they can still have the weaknesses of both if the teacher doesn’t make use of the course types strengths.

One of the largest strengths of a hybrid course is that it is a good way for both the teacher and the student to get started with online courses.  In practice, hybrids are often used as intermediary steps when taking a traditional lecture course from a classroom to a fully online course for two reasons.  It doesn’t require a large amount of online content front loading, which can then be created over the semester, and it allows the teacher to experiment with different types of online components. Two strengths of hybrid courses that benefit students are exposure to self-learning and learning to communicate using different modes of communication.

The largest weaknesses of hybrid courses are related to the instructor.  Dealing with two learning environments can be significantly more work for the instructor than a standard online course.  And though self-learning would be facilitated, if the instructor doesn’t promote active learning in the classroom, a standard course would have been easier for the instructor to deal with.

Flipped classrooms

Flipped classes are a new form of hybrid course that has a great deal of potential because of its nature, which has several strengths and few weaknesses.  The most important strength is that it promotes both self-learning and active learning.  The student learns to actively seek knowledge out of the classroom, while in-class time can be spent doing discussions and problem solving.  In this way the students increase their interaction and peer-to-peer learning occurs.

The only real weakness of this course design is that it requires significant front loading of the course materials by the teacher.  Though this can also be viewed as a strength once the material is created, the material only has to be updated when needed for future courses.

Online courses

Fully online courses have strengths for both student and institution.  The largest strength for the student is that the course material can be covered at a time that is convenient to their schedule from their home, and that they have unlimited opportunities to review the material at their leisure.  This promotes self-learning and gives the student a sense of self-efficacy.  For the institution, strengths include not having to allocate rooms for instruction, higher class capacities, and the ability to reach underserved populations as well as students well outside their geographic region, which can increase revenue and institutional prestige for the same resource outlay.

The most significant weakness of online courses in general is that they require more motivated students than a traditional lecture course does.  Students who are not motivated often struggle with online formats.  Beyond this, there are several others.  Not everyone has a computer or reliable Internet access to be able to take online courses or do online tests.  Peer-to-peer interaction and teaching is often lost.  Using discussion boards and chat functions of content management systems helps the loss of peer-to-peer interaction, but only to a certain extent.  More practical matters with online courses are testing and technical issues.


The Massive Open Online Courses are designed to facilitate unlimited participation and open access to course material via the web.  MOOCs have all the strengths and weaknesses of online courses, just on a larger scale.  In 2011, Stanford offered its first MOOC course titled Introduction to AI with about 160,000 students enrolled. For more information about MOOCs, please follow this link.  http://www.educause.edu/library/massive-open-online-course-mooc

Strategies for teaching online

Teaching online requires different skills and a different way of thinking than teaching in a traditional classroom does.

A very important consideration to remember about teaching online is to use clear and concise language in instructions and keep subject lines short and informative.  This includes everything from publishing detailed syllabi that contain policies, expectations, objectives, and due dates on the course website home page, to the emails that you send the students.  For the same reasons, keep lecture content videos short (no more than 20 minutes), use descriptive unit and file names so that the students can easily find the information they need, and periodically remind the students about when assignments and homework are due.

Another consideration with communication through email and posting in discussion boards is to be careful when using humor or sarcasm because they can both be misinterpreted easily in online communication.

The last and possibly most important topic is time management.  To avoid burnout and frustration, the instructor must set time boundaries for their interaction with students as well as carefully planning when projects are due.  If an assignment is due on Sunday at 11:59 p.m., the teacher should expect a large number of emails from students on Saturday and Sunday.  The teacher should schedule assignments to be due when they will have time available to deal with answering questions from students.

It is easy for teachers to become too connected to the online environment by getting in the habit of checking in frequently to see how students are progressing or checking on every notification from Canvas. This can lead students to expect their teachers to be online constantly, even at 3 a.m.

Teachers must set clear boundaries up-front about how much time and how frequently students can expect them to be online.  For example, in the syllabus the teacher should include a statement that they will log into the website or course management system once a day to answer questions and contribute to the discussion board conversations, but will be unavailable on weekends.

In effect, the teacher should set online office hours for when you will reply to emails and be online to deal with class related subjects.  This is important because students often do online course work late at night, or in the early morning hours.  The instructor should not get in the habit of working on the students schedule.


Course design help: http://citt.ufl.edu/citt-services/course-design/

Course samples: http://citt.ufl.edu/course-samples/

UFL CITT Tool Box: http://citt.ufl.edu/tool-box/

Tutorials: http://citt.ufl.edu/citt-tutorials/

Faculty Institute for teachers in the UF Online courses: http://teach.ufl.edu/development/faculty-institute/

Pushing Through The Perils of Teaching Online: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/pushing-through-the-perils-of-teaching-online/42104?cid=wc&utm_source=wc&utm_medium=en

Netiquette Guide for Online Courses: https://ufl.instructure.com/courses/194357/files/16938506/download?verifier=X7k3rcx1HsemtUDiAlEzMJlNprsstKjK9jQHX9SU

Managing your Time: https://ufl.instructure.com/courses/194357/files/21677756/download?verifier=O3y5yIeZ8tSMw13fFxPrwZS0luj7VTlTbNNlWIaR

Tips in Teaching Online: Communication: http://mediasite.video.ufl.edu/Mediasite/Play/851c4847d05f404797ba3dd571e3cad71d

Exploring the pros and cons of online, hybrid and face-to-face class formats. (2013, January). Retrieved from http://www.washington.edu/provost/files/2012/11/edtrends_Pros-Cons-ClassFormats.pdf

Hertz, M. B. (2012, July 10). The flipped classroom: Pro and con. Retrieved November 12, 2014, from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/flipped-classroom-pro-and-con-mary-beth-hertz

McCormick, T., & Young, J. (2012). Rebooting the Academy. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, B., & Jones, K. (2010, September). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf

Pappano, L. (2012, November 2). Massive open online courses are multiplying at a rapid pace. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/04/education/edlife/massive-open-online-courses-are-multiplying-at-a-rapid-pace.html

Svinicki, M., & McKeachie, W. (2013). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips (14 edition.). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

Watson, K. (2010, October). Managing your time in online teaching. Retrieved from https://ufl.instructure.com/courses/194357/files/21677756/download?verifier=O3y5yIeZ8tSMw13fFxPrwZS0luj7VTlTbNNlWIaR

What is the flipped classroom. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://ctl.utexas.edu/teaching/flipping-a-class/what

Writers, S. (n.d.). 10 advantages to taking online classes. Retrieved November 12, 2014, from http://oedb.org/ilibrarian/10-advantages-to-taking-online-classes/

Ernest Rice is a doctoral student in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida and a student in Mass Communication Teaching (MMC 6930).


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