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A Guide to Supporting Effective Teaching in Online Environments

Explore strategies that can help faculty grow into effective online instructors and ways in which leadership and administration can support in the process.

In many ways, online teaching can provide the same results as face-to-face education. There are a variety of advantages to interacting one-on-one with students in an online environment, especially when using an effective learning management system (LMS).  

Yet it’s not without challenges. Instructors need time to train and prepare to teach online, and leadership and administrators need to choose the right tools to help faculty make the transition. 

In this guide, we’ll explore strategies that can help faculty grow into effective online instructors, and ways in which leadership and administration can support faculty in the process of moving online. 

Effective Online Teaching Strategies for Faculty  

With online teaching environments becoming more common, best practices must be put in place to protect the quality of learning for all students. You must ask yourself: how do we deliver online learning and keep students engaged outside the traditional classroom?  

Here are four ways you can support online learning models: 

Close-up picture of a person holding a pen and preparing to write something

1. Outline Clear Course Expectations 

Although online classes differ from traditional classroom settings in many ways, the need to share clear and concise course expectations with students applies in both.  

Consider how you can:  

  • Describe your teaching style: Tell students how you’ll be engaging with them. Will you be posting announcements, using email or monitoring discussion threads? Will you be teaching synchronously, asynchronously or both?  
  • Explain the course environment: Describe how you’ll be teaching the course and what the main takeaways will be for your students. Is the course designed with distinct modules? What additional resources will you be providing? Where can they find them?   
  • Clarify performance expectations: Incorporate tools such as rubrics, assignment summaries and exemplars on the course homepage so students can more easily understand what success could look like. What level of reflection and analysis do you expect to see? Should students look for resources beyond the required readings? Is there a particular citation style they should use?  

It’s important to share information early around rules that are specific to your class and on relevant college or university policies. Ideally, you want to make this information readily available via FAQs, announcements and other tools so students can go back and refer to it as needed.  

Man sitting at a table in a library working on his laptop

2. Harness Different Features to Design a Course That Drives Engagement 

Educational technologies today include a variety of features and functions that can help educators keep students involved and on track with their courses. These tools help open doors to create student-centered online classrooms and to power project-based learning. 

When designing an online course, it’s important that the features used—such as course materials, activities, assignments, quizzes and assessments—align with course outcomes.  

The look and feel of the course design can also have an impact on student engagement. Consistency is key. This means that course information, discussion tools and communication from the institution and instructor should be in the same place throughout every course. 

Consider the roles different elements can play, including:  

  • Course calendar: Developing an online calendar with assignment due dates and classroom events can give students quick visibility into the work they have coming up. This can help them prioritize tasks and better manage their time, and you can alert them via email or notifications if anything changes.   
  • Online simulations and role plays: These can complement traditional teaching methods by giving students opportunities to apply what they’re learning in real scenarios, further developing important durable, technical and intellectual skills.  
  • Video/multimedia lessons: Bring lessons to life with images, videos, visual effects and music. Have students create assignments that incorporate different mediums to help nurture and showcase their presentation skills.   
  • Discussion forums: Instructors can help students acclimatize to the online environment by including new discussion topics so learners can introduce themselves. Allow students to form, defend and reflect on their own positions and opinions. A well-crafted discussion can encourage students to critically analyze ideas, concepts and philosophies taught in class.  
  • Technical advice: It’s important to be clear with students about where they can go for technical advice—especially in an online learning environment. This could be reaching out to a teaching assistant if they have a course-specific need, or it could be asking support personnel within the institution about larger issues. 
  • Accessibility: All course material should be accessible from any device. A web-based LMS allows students to access all the great interactive and rich content elements built into your courses. This means that there is more consistency in the learning experience across devices, and across multiple courses. 
Woman sitting at her desk, working at her laptop, and gesturing toward the screen with her hands, one held in front of the other with pointer fingers raised

3. Encourage Open Communication  

Interaction and communication are key to providing a similar online experience to that achieved in a face-to-face environment. Keeping in regular contact with students learning online can help reduce uncertainty and foster a sense of connection.    

As part of setting expectations for the course, you’ll want to outline how you’ll be communicating with students and also explain how students can talk among themselves. 

Communication Between Educators and Students  

  • Outline how students can get in touch: Provide your email address. If there’s a phone number or social media handles you use, share those too.   
  • Response time: Make sure students know how quickly you’ll be responding to inquiries. Should they expect to hear back within 48 hours? Will you be responding to nonurgent issues over the weekend?   
  • Office hours: Notify your students of the days and times you’ll be available and how to reach out to you if they need to set up an individual appointment. Use this time to give your students opportunities for one-to-one, face-to-face connections and to help gauge how they’re doing with the course content and online learning environment.  
  • Announcements: This can be an effective tool for sharing changes, due dates and reminders with the whole class. These can be distributed in many forms, such as email, or for better visibility, on the course homepage, so students can see them as soon as they log in. At the same time, an LMS with an activity feed allows instructors to quickly post updates on a social media-style interface where students visit most frequently.
  • Emails: You can get in touch with specific students or share important news or updates.  
  • Automated notifications: Your institution’s LMS may allow you to set up notifications, which can be released automatically based on criteria you define. For example, congratulating your students on their progress and giving them nudges where they’re needed.  
  • Feedback: It’s important that students receive timely feedback regarding their work and can benefit when it’s personalized and detailed. In some cases, providing video or audio feedback may be appropriate and can add a human touch. 

A powerful LMS should make connecting with students seamless. Learn how Brightspace helps keep instructors and faculty connected online. 

Student-to-student interaction is a vital part of any course experience. After outlining the rules, try integrating opportunities for peer interaction in a way that enhances and balances the lecture content and other instructional materials.  

Communication Among Students  

  • Guidelines for communication: The course outline should include requirements and standards (frequency, length, etc.) for contributing to group projects and discussions.  
  • Course netiquette rules: Since online learning may be a new environment for some students, it’s important to help them understand what is and isn’t socially acceptable.  
  • Online seminars: Allow students to share personal applications of course concepts, analyze using higher-level thinking and connect with their peers.  
  • Group work: Assigning group work can create more opportunities for students to interact with each other. Group work can push students to problem solve together in order to plan and complete assignments. 
  • Create space for collaboration: Creating spaces for students to have informal communication with peers also creates a sense of community. If you already have discussion forums dedicated to course activities, set one up for students to ask questions and to request feedback from their classmates.
Man standing at the front of a classroom talking to a small group of students with a whiteboard beside him

4. Share Feedback With Students—and Ask for It in Return

Providing feedback to students is integral to online instruction, as it helps give students a clear sense of both what they’re doing well and where they could potentially improve. In designing an online course, you need to think carefully about how students will be receiving feedback in a way that supports their learning. 

Not only is it important to give constant feedback to your students, but it’s also important that they share their thoughts with you. This feedback loop involves you asking students for their opinion about elements of the course. 

Providing Feedback for Students 

  • Synchronous feedback sessions: You can schedule feedback sessions with individual students to share what went well with an assignment, where there were gaps and future ideas for development. This is particularly useful for projects that are done in phases or include multiple elements.   
  • Audio and video feedback: If students submitted a recording of themselves delivering a presentation, as an example, you could provide audio or video feedback in turn that’s tied to specific moments.  
  • Written feedback: You can give specific feedback on submissions or via email that acknowledges both successes and opportunities on a personal level. You can also add a note in discussion forums to let students know you appreciate the effort they put into sharing their thoughts.  

The right LMS will make it easy for faculty to provide helpful feedback. Learn more about how D2L Brightspace provides rich feedback by using annotations. 

Getting Feedback from Students  

  • Asking the right questions: Are they getting the information and support they need? Is there anything you discussed that they want to know more about? Make sure to give students the opportunity to openly and honestly share their feedback on your course. 
  • How to gather the data: You can gather opinions in a variety of ways, including through surveys or discussion forums. The insights you gain from whichever methods you choose can be used to modify instruction or course content to better support student success.  

Final Advice for Instructors  

Teaching an online course is an opportunity to reach learners in ways that were previously thought to be difficult or impossible. This is a great time to be part of the evolution of education and to bring your experience, enthusiasm and dedication to making education more attractive and attainable to more students.  

Take what you know and what you do best, then work with your administrators, the design team and your IT department to build courses that you can confidently share with your students.

How Leadership and Administrators Can Support Faculty and Students in Effective Online Learning

The Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics has reported double-digit percentages of students enrolled exclusively in online learning since at least the fall semester of 2017—49% of students at private for-profit institutions, 19% of students at private nonprofit institutions, and 11% of students at public institutions. The number of students studying exclusively online increased significantly in the fall of 2020—60% at private for-profit institutions, 46% at public institutions and 34% at private nonprofit institutions. 

Even though online learning in higher education has been in heavy rotation for a while now, the uptick in blended learning is driving even more courses online. This has created a big change for even more students and faculty in terms of discovering new ways of learning and teaching.

“It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to replicate a lecture in an online format,” says Dr. Christopher Sessums, senior customer success manager at D2L. “But learning to truly teach online—replicating the classroom engagement, interaction and communication with students—presents challenges that many instructors have never had to deal with before. There’s no universal handbook for creating engaging, high-level course content online, even though that’s exactly what instructors need to be successful in the era of online learning.”  

One of the most urgent tasks is supporting faculty to make the leap to online learning. It’s the only way institutions can ensure that the most fundamental element of higher education—the connection and communication between instructors and students—remains intact. 

Institutions must face the central challenge that will make or break institutional success in higher education today: empowering instructors to deliver a cutting-edge educational experience in a digital format. Supporting instructors is the paramount responsibility of higher education administration. It’s the most effective path to influencing a student’s educational experience and overall student success.

A New Decade of Unique Challenges Facing Higher Education

Here are four ways senior leadership and administrators can help faculty make the leap to online learning, while also supporting students along the way:

A woman and a man are working at a desk. The woman is standing behind the man who is sitting. They're both looking at a laptop.

1. Lead With Pedagogy, Not Technology

Because the process of moving instruction online relies so much on choosing the right educational partner and platform, it’s natural to start the transition with technology in mind.

They are instrumental in helping design course strategies by aligning learning paths with their own expertise; by returning to the roots of teaching and embracing a philosophy of iterative improvement and creative problem solving. Instructors will be able to better inform the course structure to ensure the design is easy to use and the navigation makes sense for their students. 

Administrators seeking to support the development of effective online courses need to start with the content. When the purpose of the course is clear and in alignment with the instructor’s teaching philosophy, administrators effectively help instructors rethink and re-organize the content to bring it to life in a digital medium.  

For the Center of Distance Learning at City Colleges of Chicago, leading with teaching philosophy looks like a two-part process of online learning for instructors. First, instructors take a brief series of courses that introduce online learning, rubrics and the college’s online learning platform, Brightspace. Then, they have the opportunity to consult with distance learning specialists to replicate their courses in a way that will best meet the needs of the online student.  

Online teaching tip: An instructor will know exactly when in a course a piece of information may require clarification using a PDF diagram or a video clip. They can decide the best time to introduce a short quiz in order to gauge student learning. They may choose to include a short video of themselves to provide an audio/visual aid for their students. These are elements that are second nature in an online environment and instructors can help determine the best way to take advantage of them. 

Next Steps for Faculty After Choosing Tech 

Once course content has been developed and has started to come alive online, here are some further steps that can be taken to get faculty acclimatized to using a new LMS: 

  • Training: If you’re introducing a new LMS or an upgrade to your current one, it’s essential to provide training to your instructors. Your new LMS is a great way to deliver this professional training. Not only will it help instructors to learn the technology, it will encourage empathy with their students who will also be using the system. For administration, this can save on the cost of running a professional development program through another system while providing useful data through the LMS to track and monitor the progress, adoption levels and more.  
  • Course design: As instructors get more comfortable with online course development, they can get more involved in course creation. This gives instructors the ability to express freedom and creativity in their education delivery and also helps to free up resources for your design teams. HTML templates will maintain your branding and content requirements, while also providing a consistent experience for students. 

Your LMS is a powerful tool that can be used to build your online learning program. Discover how Brightspace helped a seven-college system college build a unique and customized online learning program. 

A group of students sitting in a classroom looking toward the front of the class

2. Show Faculty the Value of Online Learning

Moving from an in-person teaching environment to learning how to teach in an online environment won’t happen overnight. And the acceptance and success of online learning won’t happen unless faculty is on board.  

Faculty Champions 

One way to encourage the adoption of online teaching is to bring communities of practice together around faculty champions—the handful of instructors who have eagerly embraced remote teaching best practices and who can influence their peers to engage with new training. 

“The more we made the process faculty-driven, the easier it was to convince teaching staff to engage,” said Dr. Selom Assignon, director of instructional design with online learning, City Colleges of Chicago. “Our faculty champions understood the significance of the change taking place, and the importance of learning how to use the LMS technology. For example, they could communicate the inefficiency of trying to manage the workload via individual email exchanges with students much better than we could—and with much better results.”  

Prepare your faculty members to reflect on their remote teaching experience by organizing informal communities of practice where they can discuss their experiences:  

  • Real-time connections: In these groups, instructors can meet a few times per semester to have conversations with their peers in real-time and embrace their natural orientation to iterative improvement. 
  • Explore what worked: As instructors work through the school year, they will develop new ideas and innovative ways to deliver an education in an online space. Everyone can benefit from the sharing of these new teaching strategies and best practices.  
  • Professional development: How does your institution help connect educators to their peers, both within their own institution and with others across the industry? Would they benefit from using the LMS for professional development? Instructors might consider hosting webinars and online conferences to share what they’re discovering and developing in their experiences. 
Online teaching tip: If assigning badges appears to have motivated students in a particularly effective way, consider developing deeper levels of game-based and story-centered learning for students. Take what worked and build upon it. The LMS should be flexible to accommodate innovative ideas, even in small test environments such as for competency or mastery-based education programs. 
“A community of practice, a critical friends group, a working group—whatever you call it, instructors derive tons of value from sitting down informally with colleagues to discuss what is and is not working.” 

Dr. Christopher Sessums, Senior Customer Success Manager at D2L

Share Successful Data 

Online teaching best practices have been researched by educational psychologists for decades, who examine what does and doesn’t work, says Sessums. “The distribution and dissemination of that data, however, is often limited among instructors. If administrators can organize and bring that information to light, they have the opportunity to create institutional best practices that have wide-reaching impact.” 

In a situation where faculty are especially open to support and feedback, administrators can organize and distribute evidence-based principles of online learning to help educators be as effective as possible.  

Share the data: Consider monitoring evidence-based teaching practices from institutions like OneHE and the National Communication Association, then sharing a monthly or quarterly update with your instructional staff. 
OneHE and the National Communication Association

3. Use Leadership Buy-In to Get Faculty Buy-In

Successful change management starts with executive buy-in. Support from leadership and administration is foundational in assisting and influencing how instructors manage the shift from in-person to blended learning.  

“Executive sponsorship is critical in the adoption of new ideas and innovation,” says Sessums. “Institutional leadership must be all-in, or else they put the professional development team at the risk of being a police officer rather than a tour guide. It’s the difference between the faculty feeling this is something done to them, versus something done for them—which makes all the difference.”  

To gain or make the most of executive sponsorship, Sessums recommends considering how you would answer the following questions about online learning within your institution today:  

  • How will this make things better? If faculty and staff are not dissatisfied with their current methods of instruction, getting them to change will be more challenging. What relative advantage does your solution provide and what will be gained or lost in adopting a new solution?  
  • How easy will this be to use? The easier it is to adopt a solution and the less friction it causes faculty members, the better. Make it clear how a solution will reduce complexity for users. 
  • How much support will we have? Especially in today’s high-pressure circumstances, few instructors want to add more to their plates. But for the adoption of a new solution to be successful, you need the institutional capacity to support the transition. Take a proactive look at whether or not you can handle the transition alone, or how your vendor will be able to help carry the load. 
  • How likely are we to succeed? Faculty and staff—and executive leaders, for that matter—are more likely to invest in things if they can see evidence of success, such as examples and case studies of similar institutions achieving their goals. Consider how you can provide strong evidence of success in adopting your solution. 

Learn more about how Metropolitan University of Monterrey was able to move 4,500 courses online in under a week and support faculty with a rapid adoption of Brightspace by providing daily training sessions. 

4. Choose Technology That Supports Success and Innovation

Introducing online teaching starts with instructor preparation, strategic planning and careful evaluation of student needs. But it’s also heavily influenced by an institution’s delivery method and technology of choice. Select a platform and partner that can deliver benefits to all stakeholders in higher education—students, faculty and administration.  

Here are some examples of how the right LMS can help encourage institutional success: 

  • Enable alerts and communication: The institution can benefit from having a methodology in place to address student performance issues or absences. In some cases, advisors may have insight from student data drawn from the LMS that can reveal patterns in student behavior, such as missed assignments or deadlines. Whether it’s through analytics or simply an instructor’s observations, it’s important that advisors be notified immediately about concerns.  
  • Help identify issues with the course design: If the majority of a class scores poorly on a quiz, this might be a sign that the quiz was covering content that hasn’t yet fully been absorbed by students. The data provided through the LMS gives instructors a “heads up” about their class and allows them to take a closer look at the material to see if there were issues with the course design itself. Because the LMS allows for continuous improvement, changes to the course can be made with each passing session that serve to strengthen the course over time.  
  • Fix any courseware problems: There is always the possibility that things can go wrong inside an online course. There might be broken links or URLs that were active when the course was designed, but have not since been updated, or deleted by a third-party source provider (e.g., a YouTube video may have been taken down). Adjusting an online course can be easy through a what-you-see-is-what-you-get editor—a quick fix to address any problems with broken links, typos or mistakes. 
  • Learn from students: By analyzing assessment data, student performance and course evaluations, courses can be developed with renewed vigor and pedagogical strategy. Student surveys will convey the efficacy of teaching programs and education technology. How much do students desire consistency and reliability when using their LMS? What are the tools that they love and can’t live without? Instructors are on the front line when it comes to compliments and complaints. They need to share their observations with administration to ensure that every stakeholder is getting the highest return on the technology investment. 

Keeping Pace With the Evolving Future of Online Learning  

Highly qualified and accomplished faculty, professors and instructors have always been a significant value driver for higher education institutions. But to ensure they continue to make an effective contribution to student success as institutions move online, senior leadership and administrators will need to support them in bringing their best and boldest instruction into a virtual format—a process that requires technology, time and resources as they learn a new model of delivery and a new approach to the future of online learning. 

Table of Contents
  1. Effective Online Teaching Strategies
  2. How Leadership and Administrators Can Support
  3. A New Decade of Unique Challenges
  4. Keeping Pace With Change