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Teaching Online: Some Best Practices

by Lee Rumbarger and Robert Volker-Morris

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Like any UO course, online courses should reflect the current state and best thinking of their disciplines; should be designed to reflect an appropriate level of student engagement per credit hour; and should present coherent objectives for student learning and achievement that are aligned with the activities and assignments of the course. (For example, if sharpening students’ critical thinking around, say, how canons or bodies of knowledge have formed and evolved, then assignments that are limited to recall-based quizzes exams are maybe misaligned.)

But as we develop and evaluate online courses, we look to set high standards for teaching and learning that maximize the particular potential of the online format. At “Inspiring Innovation: A Symposium about Teaching Online” that the Office of the Provost and Academic Affairs and TEP co-hosted in spring 2014, UO faculty presenters offered examples of online and hybrid courses that:

blurred boundaries between a seemingly isolated or private classroom and what UO visiting scholar Helen de Michiel called a “giant, networked and relational world”;

extended the life of the course—rather than being stuck in an X-week time-frame, the conversation and student work held the promise of longer life and impact;

revised and enhanced the genres students are able to employ to demonstrate their learning;

built on student expertise and curiosity;

created “safe” spaces for students to try out their voices in a university context;

and enhanced “social and emotional connectivity” between student-teacher, student, student, student-material, and student-academic discourse community.

The points below are meant to give UO faculty and curriculum committees ways to think about “quality” in online teaching.

(a) Online platforms may be particularly good at allowing faculty to build in regular occasions for students to interact with course material by, for example, answering built-in questions that enhance their active processing and retention of information or assess their competency before moving on.

Also, online platforms are good for engaging students with a range of ability and experience levels—faculty can consider including remedial modules and advanced “extra” materials and activities for excellent students, offering multiple pathways through the course content, issues, and questions.

The course might cycle between this rigorous and engaging presentation of material online and assignments that invite students to process, personalize and take ownership of the material. For example, students can easily post images, links, or video clips for the group’s scrutiny. Students might even be asked to create videos along these lines for future students using, say, simple screencasting applications—a project that would invite them to think critically and “generationally” about the course and what they needed themselves to be successful, and master content well enough to teach it. Linking, connecting, responding, applying methods widely, revising and creating are all possible—even intuitive—in online courses, and can underscore the vibrancy and relevance of the course.

(b) It is crucial that faculty members interact with students by offering regular occasions for private and public questions/conversation and timely formative feedback. Faculty can consider a broader range of communication platforms than the course site and email (Hanover 6)—for example, some UO faculty are experimenting with group messaging and voice and video conferencing. Moreover, faculty should consider their online “immediacy” and “teaching presence”: projecting personality in online environments is key to motivating students and boosting their affective attachment to—and ultimately their pursuit of leaning in—the course (Swan). Faculty might project that personal by “posting periodic course announcements, participating in discussion forums, sending individual student emails, holding office hours, etc. (Penn State’s ‘Faculty Competencies’ for Online Teaching’ PDF File)

(c) In the best online courses, students will be able to construct understanding together, challenge one another’s assumptions, ask questions, draw on relevant personal experiences, and afford each other the respect and interest that characterize the successful traditional classroom discussion. In fact, many students “perceive online discussion as more equitable and more democratic than traditional classroom discourse” (Swan). In asynchronous online discussions, participants have more time for reflection on peers’ posts before replying, which ideally “create[s] a certain mindfulness and a culture of reflection in online courses” (Swan). Faculty can facilitate class discussion online by articulating clear expectations for participation and the characteristics of good discussion, and modeling in depth and tone how they’d like students to engage with one another. A simple point: students should have the chance to introduce themselves to other members of the class. (Quality Matters Standards 1.8.)


(1) How does online instruction and learning facilitate this critical thinking and higher-order task equally with immediate face-to-face environments? 

(2) What specific benefits can be found by using online instructional and learning environments? 

(3) In what ways are the expectations for this level of higher-order knowledge construction communicated to students in an online environment?

Works Cited 

David, Alicia and Peyton Glore. “The Impact of Design and Aesthetics on Usability, Credibility, and Learning in an Online Environment. ”Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration.13.5(2010). Web.

Penn State. “Faculty Competencies for Online Teaching.”

Quality Matters Continuing and Professional Education Rubric Standards, 2013.

Swan, Karen. “Learning Effectiveness: What the Research Tells Us.” Elements of Quality Online Education, Practice and Direction. Eds. J. Bourne & J. C. Moore. Needham, MA: Sloan Center for Online Education, 2003. 13-45. Online.

University of Oregon. Academic Extension’s Course Evaluation Document