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7 Best Practices for Online Teaching

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Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenFaculty Director, School of Arts, Humanities and Education

Teachers can be successful teaching online by adopting best practices to help them prepare and teach the class. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares seven best practices to help online educators plan ahead, humanize their classroom, guide students to tackle challenging assignments, be adaptive during the class, conduct self-evaluations, and get students’ feedback during and after the course.

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome back to the Online Teaching Lounge. It’s Bethanie, your host, and I’m very excited to meet with you today.

We’re starting a new school year at the time of this recording. But even if you’re not starting a new school year, often we’re looking for best practices for online teaching.

There is no real “best” way to teach online, but there are definitely best practices that work and are tried and true. You can be a great online teacher, and your virtual teaching can be exceptional in ways that students rave about.

Some of the things I’ll share with you in these seven tips today are ways to get started with the class and also how to connect with your students. So let’s dive in.

Tip 1: Plan Ahead

When you’re teaching online, it’s critical that your classroom be prepared in advance. If universities or institutions create the course for you, perhaps there is a standardized classroom. And there might be some content that is prepared ahead of time including the lessons, the homework, the assignments, the discussions, and an assigned textbook. But if you are the instructor who is creating that class, you will definitely want to plan ahead.

Teaching online is not an experience where you want to “wing it” or “walk into the room” with your vast array of expertise and just lecture. Instead of being the sage on the stage, online teaching is more the guide on the side experience.

You will want to facilitate discussions. You will want to tell them what’s coming and will also need to be able to tell them how the items all meet the course objectives. How the experiences they are going to have in this class are going to serve them incredibly well to learn the subject matter. All of that requires advanced planning.

Additionally, your classroom will need some extra helpful elements. For example, when you have discussions, you will need to give them some directions on how to participate in those discussions. What kind of things they should write, when they are due, what day of the week, and what to expect in terms of their engagement. Should they reply to others?

When you plan your classroom in advance, you really need to plan every week of the course. Most of this can be installed into an online classroom ahead of time, and you can have a space for everything that you might still be adding as the course unfolds. Just a word of advice here from someone who’s been there: building your class while you are teaching it is an extremely overwhelming experience.

If you are building the class while you’re teaching it during the semester, you will have very little time to actually teach it. You will find that you’re doing the back end stuff so much that you’re no longer connected to your students. So planning your course in advance and getting it up there into the E-classroom is critical.

Tip 2: Find Ways to Personalize the Course that Represents You, Specifically.

Some of us are a little bit worried about putting our image, our video, or any personal information about ourselves online. After all, there are all kinds of spam that come to your Gmail account, if you have one of those, or other email. There’re also phishing attempts. There are a lot of different kinds of internet hacks, were people try to get to know you and steal your information. So we’re very protective online as people, and we don’t want to share very much.

However, as the instructor in an online class, you must share some things about yourself to help students feel comfortable engaging. If they were with you face-to-face in a live classroom, you would tell all these things to help them get to know you. In the written form, or in video form, or even if it’s an audio clip, you also need to help students get to know you. So, the second tip that’s a best practice for online teaching is to humanize your online classroom.

Some ways I’ve seen this done incredibly well are by making screen casts, by creating video introductions of yourself as the instructor. Creating audio narrations to slideshows that you might have in week one, but also in other weeks, and by typing some things about yourself that tell who you are as a person. For example, you might share that you have a background in your subject matter and then you might also tell people about how you love downhill skiing, baking bread, and taking care of your puppies. Whatever it is that humanizes you, share with your students, and it will invite them to be themselves and share as well.

Tip 3: Look Ahead to the Difficult Assignments Students Will Face During the Course, and Prepare Some Helpful Guides

There is at least one other episode of the Online Teaching Lounge podcast devoted to creating student assets. For that reason, I’m not going to get into those details here. I just encourage you to check out that episode. Plan ahead and create guidance in some form that’s uniquely from you helping students prepare for the assignments and leading them into a successful result.

Tip 4: Plan Ahead to Work Regularly and Consistently During the Class

When you’re teaching a live class, you’re going to go to class five days a week, three days a week, or two days a week, and in the in-between time, you don’t even have to be thinking about that class. You might plan, you might grade work; you might answer emails from students. But when it’s a live class much of the action happens during the course or around the course meeting time.

When you’re teaching online, your presence needs to be a lot more methodical and regular. So you’ll have to check in, you’ll have to be checking the discussions, and I recommend five days a week or every other day if your institution doesn’t have specific guidance, or if you get to choose.

Whatever your pattern is, tell students when you’re going to be online so they can expect you and know when they can watch for you. This means that when you’re online, you are to be posting some answers, some comments in the discussion; you’re going to be grading work from time to time. And you’re probably going to answer students’ questions, whether that’s in messaging or in your email, or also in the discussion area.

Tip 5: Be Adaptive

Now it’s a great idea to be adaptive to whatever is happening in the world when you’re teaching the course. For example, if something happens across the country and students are really going to be impacted by that emotionally or intellectually, acknowledge it when you’re teaching the course, you might share a news clip or announcement. You might even adjust your forum discussion prompt so that can be addressed and discussed.

Students need a place to talk about their fears, their worries, but also tie the course content into the real world. If you can find ways to adapt what you’re doing while you’re doing it, that’s going to help meet students’ needs and is also can help them feel seen and heard so that this course isn’t really taking place in an isolated academic environment or in a vacuum, it’s in the real world. And you’re seeing students’ needs as it’s unfolding.

Another way to be adaptive while you’re teaching your online class is to think about getting to know your students. This starts in the first week, when you’re reading their introductions. You can get to know what their backgrounds are, what age bracket they might fall into, and also what they’re pursuing as a course of study.

Many students will tell you what their major is and sometimes you’ll learn about their age bracket, as I mentioned. You have a lot of adult learners who are older, have a lot more life experience they can bring into the course, and need to have some autonomy to their learning. It’s good to know that.

If you have a lot of younger students who are fresh out of high school, maybe in the 18- to 25-year-old range, they might need a little more guidance and a little more specific direction, and it’s good to know that too.

As you get to know your students, you’ll notice some things and what they do in the discussion area or specific things they’ll tell you in your messaging or over email. And these things about students can really help you get to know them and adapt your approach. For example, if you have a student who is serving in the military and they might be in another country, and you don’t see them very often, you can start reaching out because you’re aware of who they are and what their needs might be.

Tip 6: Self-Assess

Before you ever begin teaching your online course, recognize there will not be a lot of observers passing through to give you feedback. And your students may not give you feedback until the end of the class. Likewise, it’s easy to get negative feedback when feedback is given, because the few vocal minority who are having a negative experience, the smaller group in your class, those people will speak out often. And the ones who are really happy with your teaching may not say so much. So you will need a way to self-assess to know how you’re doing, and to observe yourself.

Think about what you’re trying to accomplish as an educator, and also think about what you’re hoping to accomplish in the subject matter with these students, specifically. And periodically throughout your teaching, take the time to reflect on what’s going on. Notice yourself. How you are engaging with others. How much time you’re giving this, and give yourself some self-assessment.

And of course, if you notice something needs to be changed, make some adjustments along the way. So that your teaching can improve. Your presence can improve, and you can meet the needs of your students while you’re teaching them.

Tip 7: Get Your Students’ Feedback

Just like it’s important to self-assess, it’s also important to get your students feedback. Most institutions have some kind of end-of-course survey. You’re not going to get this feedback until the class has ended. And because it has ended, it’s not going to help you teach the current course. You can look to previous feedback and you can see what was said to you and make adjustments for the next time you’re teaching.

But in order to get feedback about the current course you’re teaching from these students you have right now, you’ll need to ask them questions along the way.

One way I like to do that is to embed in the discussion forum an additional question that just asks the check-in. That could be something like adding: “And how does this apply to your life and work? Where are you in your learning in the class? Are you accomplishing so far what you hoped to learn? Is there more you wish you were doing at this point? How on-track are you with your learning goals?”

You can add those to the discussion area, and it’s a very natural way to get a sense for how students are doing and whether they’re pleased with how the course is going. That way, you can mid-course correct when you get their feedback.

A second less direct way to get feedback is by simply looking at the work students are submitting. How often they’re logging in and how much they’re engaging. Some learning management systems have statistics where you can see how much your students are engaging in the class. If you have high engagement, quality assignments, and things that reflect that they are learning, and they are personalizing that learning, that’s great feedback. You can take that away and you can use that to reflect on your practice.

Overall, there are many, many ways for good virtual teaching, and you can be a great online teacher with different approaches that humanize you. That create guidance for your students, that plan ahead to engage. That adapt to what is needed. That self-assess and get students’ feedback.

All of this works really well when you prep your course in advance and plan ahead for what’s going to be needed during the term. Think about your practice as an online educator, and set up your next course in a way that makes you very satisfied to be there, no matter what the students’ experience. If you put yourself out there and do your best work and make those adaptive changes to help your students along the way, you’re going to be satisfied with your own work as an educator. And you can accomplish those things you set out to do in working with your students.

Thank you for being here with the Online Teaching Lounge today. I wish you all the best with these seven best practices for online teaching as you start your next course.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen is a Faculty Director and Certified Professional Coach for the School of Arts & Humanities. She holds a B.M. in Music Education from Brigham Young University, a M.S. in Arts & Letters from Southern Oregon University and a DMA in Music Education from Boston University. She is an educator, coach, manager, writer, presenter and musician with 25 years of experience helping others achieve their goals.

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