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Teaching Online Courses in Psychology

Abstract and Keywords

The Internet has revolutionized many aspects of our lives—including the how and where individuals pursue advanced degrees. Online learning has gone “mainstream,” and this chapter explores best practices for the effective development and teaching of online courses, including which technology-based services and software applications can be leveraged to deliver information and enhance the online learning experience. Understanding how to best develop and teach and online course must begin with obtaining a deeper understanding of the makeup of today’s online student, and this chapter examines what differentiates these students from those who pursue learning in more traditional educational settings. Further, the discussion will explore various ways technology can be used to enhance the online teaching experience and review ways in which instructors can increase the likelihood that a student will succeed in today’s online learning environment.

Keywords: online education, effective use of technology, online learners, online course development

Over the course of the last few years, the ways in which we consume information has changed tremendously. Before our eyes, blogs, YouTube videos, and podcasts have appeared everywhere. Everyone and anyone can record and post audio or video files online to be shared with the world. As a busy junior faculty member I have often found myself listening to educational podcasts and archives conference presentations rather than listening to music. Within a short period of time, it is amazing how much one can learn from researchers and scholars who have generously shared files online. That said, I find myself annoyed on occasion by students sitting in my classes with an iPod bud in their ear. Seemingly overnight, iPhones, iPods, iPads and other listening devices had invaded the classroom and students simply could not live without them. For me, the breaking point was when one of my students proudly announced he had recorded one of my lectures with his phone—with the intent of listening to the lecture later for information he did not catch in class. Then it occurred to me that perhaps this student was on to something. Were there ways in which I could leverage emerging technologies—especially the Internet—in the classroom to enhance the learning experience and outcomes? Exploring the answer to that question led me into a deeper understanding of not only the various technology applications and tools for bettering learning but also how students use technology to learn and what differentiates online students from traditional classroom learners.

It is safe to say that few aspects of our lives have been the same since the advent of the Internet—education included. The ability of students anywhere in the world to engage with other students and instructors has revolutionized education, opening doors for individuals who had previously been excluded from higher education, or had limited access due to geography and/or work and family commitments. Today, the popularity of online courses has grown to such an extent that it is (p. 276) common for leading institutions to offer full degree programs conducted entirely online—without the need for a student to ever set foot on the physical campus. That is a tremendous development in a relatively short time period.

As online education increasingly evolves into a viable—and rewarding—environment for teaching and learning, greater attention must be paid to how to maximize this opportunity on a go-forward basis. This chapter will identify today’s online learners, examine best practices in online education, learning outcomes of online education, and identify the challenges we currently face with online education.

Understanding Today’s Online Learners

Online learning is a more advanced form of eLearning, which itself was a form of distance learning that leveraged various technologies such as DVDs, telephones, and TVs to provide educational content. What makes teaching online unique is its use of the Internet as primary means of communication and content delivery. Initially, online education was primarily focused on nontraditional adult learners; however, this is rapidly changing, and we are beginning to see more “traditional” learners choosing education paths defined by online offerings. Because of the wide range of characteristics and needs that make up our online education population, developing unique teaching approaches that support students and facilitate their ability to learn is critical to creating an optimal online learning environment.

In order to understand how to provide such a learning environment, it is important to understand who chooses the online learning environment over the traditional face-to face learning experience. Today’s online learning population is a heterogeneous and diverse group from a variety of cultural and educational backgrounds (Stavredes, 2011). Research has shown that one of the primary reasons that people decide to pursue an online education is because it fits their lifestyle. Globalization has created an environment in which learners are no longer place-bound but they can engage in their educational goals virtually anywhere and anytime (Dabbagh, 2007).

Typically, geography plays a significant role in a student’s decision-making process of which university or college to attend. However, when it comes to choosing an online learning environment, students often select schools and/or programs that are more closely aligned with their broader educational goals rather than their geographic location. Temporary relocation or commuting long distances is not even part of the equation. Individuals who enroll in online classes typically fit into three broad categories:

  1. 1. Individuals who prefer an online education because it allows them to pursue an education while fulfilling other obligations, such as work and being parents.

  2. 2. Individuals who prefer online education because it does not limit their educational choices geographically.

  3. 3. Individuals who enjoy the convenience of taking classes from the convenience and comfort of their homes.

If we were to paint a portrait of today’s online learner population, what would it look like? A study conducted in 2009 comprised of nearly 87,000 learners from more than 85 institutions revealed that the online population is 68 percent female and 32 percent male. Although the greatest percentage of classroom students is younger than 25, 58 percent of the online population is between the ages of 25 and 44 (Noel-Levitz, 2009). Earlier research showed that 70 percent of online learners are employed full-time, 17 percent are employed part-time, and 13 percent are not employed at all (Noel-Levitz, 2007). Again, this is a dramatic difference compared to student populations who learn in traditional classroom environments. Finally, this study also revealed that 37 percent of online learners are married with at least one child, 11 percent are single parents, and another 18 percent are married with no children.

What these statistics tell us is that even though online population profiles may be changing as online curriculum grows in popularity, online students differ from what we have come to think of as a traditional student. Today’s online learners are more likely to have to juggle full-time responsibilities such as work and family, and as a result they are seeking greater flexibility from their academic pursuits. For educators, the growth in online learning presents a new set of challenges—not only in the simple delivery of a curriculum but in connecting with students who may possess different motivations and methods for internalizing information.

Best Practices in Online Teaching

Many instructors who have taught a course are likely to say that the experience made them better teachers—not just in the online environment, but also in their face-to-face classes because the (p. 277) experience heightened overall awareness of their own teaching (Ko & Rossen, 2010). Without students present to observe and respond to, instructors must construct the entire teaching and learning process in their head. The transition from traditional face-to-face teaching to the online environment has been compared to “switching from street performer to playwriter” (McKeachie & Svinicki, 2006). Even though it may not be possible to experience a student’s reaction to an assignment in person, the online experience can help instructors deliver information and lectures in a more explicit and deliberate manner, which, in turn, can provide the foundation for changes in the delivery of material in a face-to-face environment. Online education also fosters the exploration of new types of learning activities and methods, taking advantage of the way in which face-to-face approaches can be changed to deepen a student’s understanding of course material.

Teaching knowledge to students—online or face-to-face—is not simply about how information is delivered but rather about how students process the to-be-learned material (Daniel, 2012). Thus, transforming lectures developed for the classroom into something suitable for an online course requires more than simply posting PowerPoint slides or lecture notes to an Intranet or course-management application. Online education encompasses a wide range of teaching methods whose common denominator is that students and instructors interact remotely. Whatever form online education takes, it is constructed from a variety of elements, each of which needs careful planning and design to aid students’ processing of information in a meaningful way.

There are a number of methods that have been developed to guide and evaluate quality design in online courses. These systems can be used to both guide the design of an online course (i.e., what is the general structure of the course, how is material presented, how do students and instructors engage in discussion/debate, and so on) and to evaluate the quality of an online course (i.e., were learning objectives achieved). Most rubrics include criteria that not only apply to course teaching and learning aspects but also the overall design of the course.

The Illinois Quality Online Course Initiative rubric, (Illinois Online Network, 2010) for example, is comprised of six main areas: (1) instructional design, (2) communication, interaction and collaboration, (3) student evaluation and assessment, (4) learner support and resources, (5) web design, and (6) course evaluation. The instructional design rubric for instance includes aspects such as whether content is sequenced and structured, whether information is chunked, and whether course objectives are clearly presented and explicated. The rubric is available to the public at A similar rubric is available from Quality Matters (QM) Program at QM Program’s rubric is widely used for both training of new staff as well as peer evaluation and is divided into eight major standards: (1) Course overview and introduction, (2) learning objectives/competencies, (3) assessment and measurement, (4) instructional materials, (5) learner interaction and engagement, (6) course technology, (7) learner support, and (8) accessibility. Some additional online evaluation rubrics are available from The North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL) ( and California State University, Chico ( Although it is common for universities to subscribe to a specific rubric, all the aforementioned measures of standard will be helpful in designing and implementing an online course in the event a particular standard has not been adopted by an instructor’s university.

Developing the online course.

Before an instructor begins planning an online course, he or she should first establish what the course goals and objectives are. A goal can be something that can be known but not necessarily measured, whereas objectives are measurable learning outcomes. For example, the goal for a research methods course in psychology may be for students to attain a better understanding of how research in the social sciences is conducted, but a more precise objective would be for a student to engage in collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data that they have collected. Goals set the parameters of what we expect students to gain from the learning experience, whereas objectives tell us how we will be able to know whether a student has mastered the material. Writing out the course goals and objectives will help keep instructors focused on what is to be taught, what is to be learned, and assist with planning. From the student point of view, providing them with course goals and objectives enable them to better understand what will be expected from them and why they are being asked to master particular course material. It may also be helpful to write down some corresponding readings, activities, and assessments being used to accomplish course objectives. One approach for coming (p. 278) up with good learning objectives is to use Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, Englehart, Furst, Hill, & Krathwohl, 1956), a hierarchical system of classifying different levels of thinking. Each level of thinking is typically associated with different verbs that correspond to each task level. Many charts and graphic representations of Bloom’s Taxonomy are available and can be used as a guide to develop course objectives. One example can be found on the website Table 23.1 also provides a template for how an instructor can plan each unit in the book.

The next step is to develop a syllabus and class schedule as well as course material, activities, and assessments that will be used in the class. While developing these materials, it is important to keep in mind what the course objectives for the course are and to make sure that the assignments match the course objectives. The move to an online format offers many opportunities to try new teaching methods and approaches; however, to preserve the quality of the course does not necessarily mean that an exact translation of face-to-face content has to be accomplished. The Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s resource website provides sample syllabi for a variety of online psychology classes ranging from General Psychology to Senior Seminar courses. Sample syllabi can be downloaded at

Once the course objectives and syllabus have been established, it is time to choose a textbook or other resource for the online course. The most obvious choice for instructors is to adopt a textbook as they would in a traditional course. Increasingly, textbooks are available both in hard copy as well as in the form of an eBook. Even though many students still prefer to have a hard copy of a textbook because it is easier to read, the ever rising cost of textbooks makes purchasing electronic versions of a book increasingly more appealing (Woody, Daniel, & Baker, 2010). Depending on the course, materials from open educational resources may be available on the Web, which can be used as the course materials. These open educational resources (OERs) are sometimes made available by universities such as MIT or specific individuals at various universities across the globe. For more information about how to find OERs, see Ko & Rossen (2010).

The next step is to develop lectures and commentary to present the course content. To translate traditional lecture methods into an online format, an instructor has to decide what methods of delivery best suits the course. Because teaching is a personal interaction between teacher and student, translating face-to-face lectures to an online format can be challenging. When tackling this task it is important to remember that there is no single strategy that works for every teacher every time but mastering the online format will probably require some trial and error (Hardin, 2007). One option is to convert lecture notes to written notes for the students, though keeping in mind that listening and reading (p. 279) are two completely separate actions. It is crucial to make sure the text is appropriate for the student audience considering the expected proficiency that students will bring to the subject. It is best to find a middle ground between casual speech and formal writing because students will not be able to observe body language or ask questions as they read through the document. To ensure the readability of the text instructors may decide to submit the lecture notes to an online service such as Gunning Fogg, SMOG, or Flesch-Kincaid systems, which will assess a document’s ease of reading. To make the text more accessible, it is also helpful to group the writing into short paragraphs and use headings, italics, colors and other indicators that help students along in the reading process without overwhelming them (Ko & Rossen, 2010).

Table 23.1 Sample Course Planning Template for one Chapter in a Cognitive Psychology Course

Objectives for Chapter

  • Identify key theories of attention (reflective summary)

  • Illustrate knowledge of experiments conducted to assess attention (lab report)

  • Analyze the implications of limited attentional resources in everyday life (group discussion)

Instructor-Generated Content, Communications, and Feedback

  1. 1. Narrated PowerPoint slides

  2. 2. Detailed lecture notes

  3. 3. Weekly announcements of assignments

  4. 4. Office Hours via chat

  5. 5. Comments on discussion board exercise

  6. 6. Feedback on reflective summary (track changes in Word document)

  7. 7. Feedback on lab report (automated by instructor for self-assessment)

Class Interactions & Activities

  1. 1. Watch video clip about “Inattentional Blindness” on YouTube

  2. 2. Class discussion about cell phone distraction (Parker-Poke article and video clip)

  3. 3. Respond to fellow students and instructor posts on Class Discussion

Readings & Web Resources

  1. 1. Chapter 3 (Attention) in textbook

  2. 2. Parker-Pope, T. (2009, October 22). What clown on a unicycle? Studying cellphone distraction. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Assessments (Graded Assignments, Exams, Projects, etc.)

  1. 1. Reflective Summary

  2. 2. Stroop Task Lab Report

  3. 3. Group Discussion Post

  4. 4. Group Discussion Response Template adapted from Ko & Rossen, 2010

Another option for delivering lectures is to use narrated slides and audio or videotaping. Narrated slide presentations can be effective for providing students with more information than what is presented on each slide similar to what they would experience in a traditional classroom. Depending on the class, audio alone or audio combined with other visual information can be effective teaching tools as well. This type of technology can also be used by instructors to introduce themselves to the class or to give instructions for an assignment. For example, some online programs feature videotaped lectures that have been converted into streaming video files. Although this is a great option, it is important to consider whether the majority of students have access to high-speed Internet connections, because it might be difficult to access videos otherwise. As an alternative to streaming information via a Web server, instructors may leverage applications designed for offline listening and viewing such as podcasts. A podcast, for example, allows instructors to keep a “playlist” of audio or video files on a distributer’s server as a Web feed so users can simply download the podcast to their computer or portable media device (i.e., iPod or iPhone) and listen to it at their convenience —and without the need for a continuous Internet connection.

Similar to face-to-face settings, online instructors will want to maintain students’ attention by using a variety of teaching methods. Discussions, interactions, and other forms of communication can be great tools to not only enhance students’ learning but also to create a sense of community (Bender, 2012). For example, an instructor could provide students with a prompt (e.g., a journal article or article in the popular media) and ask them to have a discussion about the topic with their classmates. This may be done in synchronous mode (i.e., in real time) or asynchronous (not-in-real time), depending on what best fits the class. Conducting a discussion in real-time more closely resembles a real classroom experience, whereas a discussion that is conducted via posting comments on a discussion board allows more flexibility in timing, which may be helpful if students are in different time zones or have different schedules. For either type of discussion, students should be given adequate preparation time by announcing the topic to them ahead of time and publicizing the rules for the conduct of the interaction (e.g., Stavredes, 2011).

Other examples of class activities include group-oriented work and student presentations. Just as in a traditional classroom, group activities must be well organized and properly paced to create the desired learning outcomes. These types of activities require a significant amount of time on the students’ part, and instructors must continuously monitor and evaluate individual contributions. Examples of group projects include asking students to summarize some aspect of course readings or activity, which they have to present (i.e., post online) to the rest of the class. This activity not only helps students analyze and synthesize the topic of study at a deeper level but also permits students to feel involved in the larger class while only having to maintain the interaction and focus of a smaller group (Ko & Rossen, 2010). Other examples of group projects include scenarios and case studies, peer editing and review, or group research activities (Ko & Rossen, 2010).

Another important aspect of course development is to decide what types of learning outcome assessments to use for a particular class. One of the most popular ways to assess learning is to give students quizzes and exams, which can be created or sometimes even uploaded into Blackboard or Moodle (online course-management applications). Similar to traditional classes, a combination of high- and low-stakes testing is most effective in gauging students’ learning. Some instructors also allow students to self-assess their learning via quizzes online. It is up to the instructor to use such low-stakes testing for their own evaluation of the student’s learning or whether they only record that the student has accessed the self-assessment quiz.

One important consideration when it comes to testing is, of course, security. Most online testing programs provide adequate security controls such as allowing student to access exams only at a (p. 280) specific time, requiring a password to access the test, and setting a time limit for completing the exam. Even so, there is always the possibility of fraud and cheating. Stephens, Young, and Calabrese (2007) found that students who used digital cheating classified this form of cheating to be less severe than conventional cheating in a classroom. To reduce the occurrence of digital cheating, some considerations are to limit the time students have to take the test (thus restricting their ability to look up information), choosing questions that are directly related to in-class activities, and lastly, not relying on testing as sole method of learning evaluation. Instead, it is better to use a variety of assignments to gauge students’ learning (Ko & Rossen, 2010). This is true for both face-to-face and online courses as research has shown that there was no significant difference between digital and conventional cheating; that is, students who cheat in an online class also do so in a face-to-face classroom setting (Stephens, Young, & Calabrese, 2007).

Other methods of evaluation include written assignments, such as papers and reports, which can be submitted to the instructor electronically. One method to assess student learning but also keep students on track with course work is to require frequent reflective writing pieces based on the readings. Frequent assessment of learning allows an instructor to assess students’ understanding of the material and to provide them with feedback to correct misconceptions if needed (Yandell & Bailey, 2011). In addition to high-stakes testing such as exams, instructors may also choose to assign a longer paper (e.g., Boettcher & Conrad, 2010).

The Effective Use of Technology in the Online Classroom

From a certain perspective, online learning is about technology or, to be more specific, technology-enabled learning. In a classroom setting, different technology tools or aides can greatly enhance the learning experience, but there is inevitably a tipping point where relying on these tools too much begins to hinder learning and the classroom experience suffers. Students’ cognitive processes do not differentiate between classroom and online settings, and, therefore, instructors must remember, when conducting an online course, the focal point is the learning experience a tool creates and not the tool itself. It is important to remember that effective learning is not a result of how the information is delivered but rather whether the to-be-learned information was processed at a deeper level. The technology tools reviewed in the following paragraphs are organized in such a way as to convey how they can be used to achieve very specific goals: to share content, to increase communication with students, to elicit active engagement from students and increase collaborative learning among students.

The bedrock of any online course is an online course-management application such as Blackboard or Moodle, which provides faculty and students with a central online destination for accessing course content (i.e., syllabi, lectures, readings, etc.), administering tests/exams, and posting assignments. The latest versions of applications such as Blackboard even offer functionality for students and instructors to interact through online discussion boards and e-mail. The development of Blackboard and similar applications has accelerated the transformation of online courses and programs at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, and will provide the basic framework required for developing an online course. But the question of how to best replicate the delivery of information and ignite the learning process remains pressing.

Most instructors leverage presentation tools such as PowerPoint or Keynote. These software applications include a standard (i.e., easy to use) feature that enables instructors to add a voice recording to each slide, and thus begin to bring the power of a classroom lecture into an online environment. Lecture files can then be uploaded directly onto Blackboard or, in the event a university has not purchased Blackboard, shared via online presentation services such as SlideShare and Smashwords. SlideShare is a free online hosting service, which allows individuals to share presentations created in PowerPoint, Open Office and Keynote, whereas Smashwords (also a free online service) allows instructors to create an eBook from a standard Microsoft Word document.

To assist with transforming presentations from the typical sequential flow of slides into a more dynamic presentation, tools such as Prezi allow users to group topics into clusters and plug-in images, website links, videos, or voice messages to communicate a topic. Many instructors will find the capabilities of Prezi to be a powerful mechanism for bypassing static “slideware” in favor of presentations featuring integrating rich media.

Any professor equipped with a webcam, screencasting software, and a YouTube account has all the tools necessary to transform online learning from boring and dry to dynamic and personal. Webcams, for example, empower instructors to add a social presence to students’ learning experience—even (p. 281) when you never meet your students face to face. Many laptop computers have integrated webcams or they can be purchased inexpensively at electronic stores or online. Webcams can be used to record minilectures, to send personalized video e-mails (e.g., EyeJot), and to connect with students via synchronous Web conferencing and communication tools (e.g., Skype, VoiceThread, Google+). A microphone is another tool that allows instructors to communicate with students online, which may be more appropriate than video (remember video files can often be much larger than audio files).

Screencasting software allows instructors to capture (via video) their computer’s screen. The uses of screencasting in teaching are endless. Instructors can post how-to videos, lectures, an orientation or even a tour of an online class. If access to a premium screencasting tool, such as Camtasia or Screenflow, is not possible, instructors can consider downloading free versions on the Internet including Screencast-o-matic or Jing. Animato is another easy-to-use Web-based tool that will allow instructors to create videos from images, text, video, and audio recordings (free and premium versions of the software are available on the Internet). Online hosting services allow access to video content from anywhere (again, video files tend to be large, which makes it difficult to e-mail them) and are thus a great resource for online courses. Free hosting services, for example, are provided by YouTube or Wistia. Finally, a convenient way to store documents online and share with a simple link is to create a free account at Box or a cloud-based storage and back-up system such as Dropbox. Box and Dropbox allow users to store files in the cloud and make them accessible to others from any computer. The content of each folder is synchronized so that it appears to be the same folder regardless of which computer is used to view it. For more information on emerging technologies and their use in the classroom also refer to Best Practices for Technology-Enhanced Teaching & Learning: Connecting to Psychology and the Social Sciences edited by Dunn, Wilson, Freeman, & Stowell (2011) and Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies by Pacansky-Brock (2013).

How to Make a Course Manageable for Students

As good of a learning experience as these tools can create, and as good as an instructor develops his or her skills in this new setting, online learning environments are still prone to many of the challenges which plague traditional classrooms. Student dropout rates have emerged as a major issue in online learning (Nagel, Blignaut, & Cronjé, 2009). For many, not having to physically go onto a campus and into a classroom increases the likelihood they will fall behind and eventually drop the course. Also, let us not forget that although the online student profile is evolving, the vast majority of online students have full-time commitments either in the form of a career or parenting—or both! In an online setting, educators can easily underestimate how much time students have to spend on readings and assignments. To make a course manageable, instructors should carefully construct the assignments and time them so students are able to complete them in a reasonable amount of time (again, keeping in mind the online student profile). Spreading out due dates and assessments will go a long way toward keeping students motivated and thus moving in a positive direction—remember online students must learn in isolation.

It is also important for instructors to make clear at all times what students are expected to do next. Helping students understand what is expected of them can typically be accomplished by providing students with a detailed course schedule, which lists individual assignments and their respective due dates. In the classroom, students often benefit from having a regular rhythm of study so they can establish a routine, and online students have proven to be no different. For example, students might benefit if they are required to always complete a brief summary reflecting on the chapter first, then reviewing the lecture and detailed notes prior to having to complete other assignments such as online discussions and papers.

Because of the wide range of characteristics and needs that make up the online population, it is crucial to develop approaches that support learners and facilitate their ability to persist and learn. Based on Bean and Metzner’s (1985) Persistence Model, students’ persistence to complete a course depends on the following factors:

  1. 1. Academic variables such as study habits and course availability.

  2. 2. Background variables including age, educational goals, ethnicity, and prior grade point average (GPA).

  3. 3. Environmental variables such as finances, hours of employment, family responsibilities, outside encouragement.

  4. 4. Psychological variables such as stress, self-confidence, and motivation.

(p. 282) Rovai (2003) also points out that nontraditional students must overcome several other obstacles to succeed in an online environment. In addition to the aforementioned factors, nontraditional students also often have to acquire computer literacy skills required to succeed in an online environment. Further, Rovai (2003) points out that external factors, such as hours of employment, greater family responsibilities, job loss, or divorce can have a great impact on a learner’s persistence. Workman and Stenard (1996) also found that it is crucial for distance learners to be able identify with the institution and not feel like “outsiders,” even though they are not on campus.

To establish a sense of belonging, it is important to allow students to establish interpersonal relationships with peers, faculty, and staff as well as provide them with access to academic support services. If students experience trouble getting answers to their questions, and resolving issues becomes difficult, they may perceive an incompatibility with the institution and withdraw (Stavredes, 2011). For example, if learners begin a course and realize they cannot keep up with the academic workload, they may decide that this is not the right time for them to pursue an education. Likewise it is important to catch learners that are having difficulty meeting the academic demands of the material. Based on my own experience, at least some of the students who sign up for online courses do so because they have failed the more traditional classroom version of the same course. In doing so, many make a critical error by assuming that the online course is easier for no other reason than it is conducted online. These students quickly find themselves overwhelmed—unable to generate the greater motivation and self-regulation of learning skills that online courses demand. Even though this type of student scenario can be a challenge, instructional quality can be a positive predictor of student success (Artino, 2008). Identifying and reaching out to at-risk students before it is too late will allow the instructor to provide them with the resources necessary to succeed.

Connecting with Students in an Online Setting

Due to the importance of making students feel like they are part of the greater college or university community and maybe even more important, as valued members of the course, it is important that the instructor makes an effort to connect with their students and to allow students to get to know each other. Social presence establishes learners as individuals and allows learners to engage in a community of inquiry (Stavredes, 2011). Trust helps learners feel comfortable to express their ideas and opinions without the fear of being criticized by their instructor or peers. As the level of intellectual exchange increases, students also experience a greater sense of community (Stavredes, 2011). The ability to collaborate with others is not only a skill that is a must in today’s workforce but it has also been shown to enhance learning outcomes and reduce the potential for learner isolation (Palloff & Pratt, 2005).

Instructor presence in an online environment is crucial in establishing a community of inquiry. Connecting with students on a social level will have a great impact on their openness to learning (Apple, Reis-Bergan, Adams, & Saunders, 2011). In fact, instructor-to-learner interaction is an important component of learner satisfaction and the lack of it can negatively impact learner persistence (Stavredes, 2011). To aid in establishing an open line of communication with students, for example, instructors should consider sending an e-mail or video to all the students to welcome and acknowledge them at the beginning of the semester. This type of message could also include background information on the instructors, ranging from their professional experience and the number of online courses taught to random fun facts, any or all of which will allow students to better associate with the instructors.

Other factors that can contribute to low persistence include poor academic skills, difficulty level of concepts taught, and the pace and manageability of the course (Rovai, 2003). Thus, it cannot be underestimated how important it is for instructors to frequently interact with the students in their online classes. The goal is to develop a relationship with learners to encourage participation and knowledge construction. Generally speaking, diminishing learners’ feelings of isolation will help them persist and succeed in a course (Stavredes, 2011). To establish a relationship with students that encourages learning, instructors should continuously monitor students’ progress. It is also advisable that instructors be proactive with at-risk learners and send them personal correspondence as soon as instructors realize that students are struggling with the course work or missing assignments. Providing prompt and constructive feedback to students early on in the semester is also crucial. For example, students may find it helpful to see a grading rubric used to evaluate their work or formative feedback on how they can improve their performance (e.g., Bubb, 2012). All (p. 283) communication between an online instructor and students should encourage them to ask questions early on instead of struggling with assignments, which can ultimately lead them to withdraw from the course.

In an online environment it can be more difficult to create a sense of presence; however, without the awareness of other learners’ presence, it is nearly impossible to develop relationships with peers. Some learners may prefer not to interact with their peers; however, knowledge construction does not occur in isolation but rather comes from the intellectual interaction among peers (Lehman & Conceicao, 2010).

In order to facilitate student interaction, instructors may ask students to introduce themselves to their peers in an online discussion as one of the first assignments in the course. To encourage further collaboration among students, instructors can utilize a variety of assignments such as online discussions, group projects, and peer review. According to Brookfield and Preskill (2005), discussions are a great way to explore complex ideas and entertain multiple perspectives on an issue. To encourage discussion, it is best to stay away from closed-ended questions, which only allow for a few answers and no room for interpretation. Instead, instructors should use questions that have no one “correct” answer but can be answered in many different ways. Stavredes (2011) suggests that questions should be posed in the form of a problem statement because they require students to understand multiple perspectives on the issue and their responses will require them to take a position and discuss the implications of their reasoning. To encourage an active discussion, students should be required to not only post a response to an instructor’s prompt but to also reply to some of their classmates’ posts. Try to discourage students from simply replying, “Great idea,” “Interesting thoughts,” or “I like your reasoning,” but to create an atmosphere that encourages the collaborative creation of knowledge.

Team or group projects can also create a sense of community by encouraging students to work together. This is also a valuable skill as globalization is increasing the need for students to be prepared to effectively work with others at a distance. To ensure the success of group projects, instructors must make sure that all group members understand their role, the tasks they have been asked to complete and a clearly defined timeline. It is important to allow for some flexibility with these types of assignments because many learners chose online courses because they provide them with the necessary flexibility to also fulfill other responsibilities, such as jobs and taking care of family. Instructors should also frequently check in with the team, guiding the process if necessary and help resolve any issues as quickly as possible before they destroy team cohesion.

Lastly, peer review is an excellent learning strategy that involves collaboration. Even though learning from peers is a great resource, many students complain that they do not receive concrete feedback from their peers to help them improve the quality of their work. To circumvent this problem, peer review should be a prescribed process including specific questions that each reviewer needs to answer as he or she reviews a peer’s work. The criteria should be based on grading criteria for the assignment, as well as the basic structure and format of the assignment (e.g., does the paper adhere to correct APA formatting?).

There are many ways to increase students’ sense of belonging to a greater learning community, which has been shown to increase the likelihood that they persist in the online-classroom environment. In addition, some of the aforementioned methods also increase students’ ability to work well in groups and enhance their understanding of the course material.

Learning Outcomes

Becoming a master in the art and skill of teaching online is a journey that requires some patience and staying up to date with the latest cognitive research on teaching and learning. Best practices for teaching and learning is an ever-evolving field of study, which applies to both face-to-face and online classes. Because online education has only been around for about two decades, how we learn in an online setting is not fully understood yet. Many researchers have attempted to assess the effectiveness of online versus face-to-face classes, but no clear consensus has been found about whether they are equally effective.

A meta-analysis of studies assessing online education between 1990 and 2002 revealed that students performed better in online classes compared to face-to-face courses (Shachar & Neumann, 2003). Other research, however, suggests that students perform better on course material that was presented to them in a traditional lecture when compared to an online format presentation of the material. One study by Emerson and MacKay (2011) revealed that traditional learners outperformed online learners by 24 percent. This observation would suggest that online learning is not as positive of a change (p. 284) as previously thought. The question that remains is why the online presentation of material results in poorer learning outcomes. It is possible that it has less to do with the presentation but with the fact that students may not be taking the time to interpret the material at a deeper level. Jensen (2011) for example showed that only 61 percent of students enrolled in an online course accessed the online lecture, 19 percent reviewed the detailed notes, and only 3 percent of students actually listened to the audio recording of the lectures. This research suggests that the lack of accessing and engaging with the course material lead students to perform poorer on examinations rather than the fact that the course material is presented less effectively when delivered via an online method.

Taken together, the research assessing learning outcomes in online classes is inconclusive; however, the findings suggest that learning can be as effective in an online environment as in a face-to-face course as long as the instructor ensures that students keep up with the course materials and assignments. To keep students engaged, it is crucial that students use their peers as resources and learn from them as well as from the instructor.

Considerations for Planning an Online Course

As is the case with courses designed for a traditional classroom setting, preparing to teach an online course requires just as much planning. Always keep the following in mind:

  1. 1. Select course materials that are in line with the course level and student population. Keep in mind that you are not limited to a hard-copy textbook—explore options such as eBooks or other resources available on the Internet.

  2. 2. When creating the syllabus, carefully consider course structure (i.e., how will lectures be delivered, what type of assignments will be given, how will you communicate with students).

  3. 3. Clearly define your standards (i.e., expectations) in the syllabus and be sure to provide students with guidance about which resources are at their disposal to help them meet course goals.

  4. 4. Carefully plan what technologies to use in your class to facilitate student learning and to connect with your students without overwhelming them with too much information (i.e., will most students have continuous Internet, are the methods used easily accessible so students are more likely to take advantage of the resources).

  5. 5. In order to ensure optimal student retention, be sure to include assignments that allow students to connect with the instructor and their peers—encourage collaboration and build a sense of community (e.g., group projects, peer review, online discussions). Also, be sure to check in with students on their course progress early and often and provide information about academic support services, if necessary.


Teaching an online course can be a tremendous opportunity not only to learn new methods of teaching but also serve as an opportunity to enhance face-to-face classroom teaching skills. The profile of an online learner is rapidly changing as more and more colleges and universities expand their online programs, and students who once may have shied away from online classes increasingly embrace the flexibility of these programs and courses. Careful planning of online class lectures and effectively leveraging exciting new tools for delivering material into the online learning environment allows instructors to provide online learners with a first-rate education—one in which most students will benefit in exactly the same way that they would from face-to-face courses. It is important to remember that the goal of using the latest technologies is to create a significant learning experience rather than to overwhelm students with too many bells and whistles. To maintain students’ enthusiasm for learning, instructors must make courses manageable and create a learning environment that fosters learning through active communication among fellow students and themselves. As is the case with most everything in life, practice makes perfect, and with ever-changing possibilities provided by new technologies, online education is sure to evolve in the next few years, thereby establishing the online format to be a robust way to provide students with an education.


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