Best Practices in Online Teaching

When I began working in online learning in 2000, there were few examples of best practices in online learning and there were few research studies that existed.  The only reports that existed were reports that were suggesting that online learning may increase at the college level and at K-12.  The past 10 years have seen effective online teaching practices emerge and many more studies that suggest the types of best practices that work.

When I worked in the Clovis Unified School District we began offering part time online courses to high school students in 2000.  The four teachers I hired to teach Algebra I, Biology, English 9 and Economics were pioneers in the world of online learning, as were others at every level of education who were teaching online.  We learned quickly that effective online teaching was more than posting a PowerPoint on the web or linking daily homework assignments.  When I became principal of the Clovis Online School, a full time online charter school, there was again a learning curve that occurred for all of the teachers – each one who taught one section of their subject to students almost completely online. Very few teachers – whether face-to-face or online – are as successful in their first year as they are in their third or fifth year of teaching.   From my own experience in coordinating both part time and full time online schools and working with teachers, I am listing what I would consider to be “best practices”, and where possible, point to the research that supports that.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are the things that worked for us.

  • Problem, Student Dropouts:  In the first summer, close to 40% of the students who signed up dropped out of the online courses in the first week of courses.
    Solution: When I interviewed the students who dropped out, a majority of them replied, “I couldn’t figure out how to log in.”  In the next semester, we instituted face-to-face training to teach students how to work online.  We now know that students may be on the web for Facebook and looking up their favorite entertainer or sports team, but they need to be taught how to use the web for learning and research.  Eventually, our online courses included lessons that taught these skills.  Before a student could ever enter our online school, they would complete a series of online lessons to teach them what learning was like online so they were better prepared.  Once enrolled, students participated in further training to equip the with the skills needed to be successful online.  We developed a checklist that students needed to complete that included signatures by parents.  An increased percentage of students were then more successful in the online programs because of the training.
  • Problem, Time Management: We thought that students could manage their own time and do their courses when it worked into their schedules.  Turns out that most teenagers are not good managers of time and need to be taught how to do this.
    Solution: As part of the enrollment process and training, we required students to have an organized binder and to write down when they would do their online work and we encouraged parents to check in with their students daily.  There is a myth that many parents believe that when students reach high school, that students are on their own.  The myth increases online when parents think that because they don’t understand the Internet that they can’t check on their child’s work.
  • Problem, Email:  We assumed that students would check their email daily for notes from their teachers and knew how to respond.  I will never forget when I asked one of the more capable seniors in the full time online school to “cc” me in an email and she asked, “What does cc mean?”
    Solution: Email is an adult thing, not a student thing.  It is important to set expectations and to show students how to use email if it will be a communication device in your online program.  Incidentally, knowing how to use email is an important skill for the business world.
  • Problem, Student Work Deadlines: Initially, we had lose deadlines for when student assignments were due.  We would tell students that they had an 8-week period within which they could turn in their assignments.  The problem was that many students would not do any work for several weeks and then try to turn in all the work during the final week.
    Solution:  Students liked having weekly deadlines and became more successful with weekly deadlines.  Many teachers also started to use what we called “dailies” which were short 5-10 minute assignments that were assigned every day to get students engaged each day.  Dailies might be discussing a different piece of art for an art history course or doing a vocabulary game at FreeRice.com for an English course or doing a math problem of the week in a math course.
  • Problem, Students Would Not Communicate via Email: Teachers became frustrated when students would not respond on email or complete their work.
    Solution: Teachers began emailing a weekly update to all students at the beginning of every week.  When students replied to the email, they received points toward their overall grade.

The ideas listed above are just a few examples of “best practices” or strategies for teaching online.  There are a number of online resources the better organize and share best practices.  The Faculty Focus people provide guidance to mostly online college teachers.  Michael Barbour in this blog post points K-12 online educators to some excellent research based best practices.

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17 Responses to “Best Practices in Online Teaching”


  1. 1 mkbnl March 6, 2012 at 6:36 am

    Actually Rob, the entry that you have linked to doesn’t provide any best practices. It is actually a length discussion that cautions the research community from doing exactly what you have done in this entry. To quote from my entry that you linked to:

    [These best practices] are at best methodologically limited case studies. The results of which can’t be generalized beyond the context that they have occurred. At worse they are simply methodologically flawed studies that mislead practitioners into believing that they provide some kind of manual to be followed.

    This is one of the reasons why research in both K-12 online learning and educational technology in general has had little impact on the practice of K-12 education. Researchers have done a bad job trying to provide contrived McNuggets for practitioners, when the reality is that lessons are far more complex and contextual than practitioners are often willing to listen to because we’ve made them think there are McNuggets to be had.

  2. 2 Maestra Delia March 9, 2012 at 8:12 am

    Yes, we have to teach them. A lot of my students have been less digital literate than I expected. Some of them couldn’t figure out how to access their Wikispaces accounts (bulk-created by me). So, I did a little PowerPoint presentation to teach them the basic procedures step by step. It worked!

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