Introduction to Online Teaching and Learning

Contributed by:
Jonathan James
Online learning is the newest and most popular form of distance education today. Within the past decade, it has had a major impact on postsecondary education and the trend is only increasing.

In this article, we will explore what the experience of online learning is like for students and how it has changed the role of the instructor.
1. Introduction to Online Teaching and Learning Joshua Stern, Ph.D.
Introduction to Online Teaching and Learning
Online learning is the newest and most popular form of
distance education today. Within the past decade it has
had a major impact on postsecondary education and the
trend is only increasing.
In this workshop we will explore what the experience of
online learning is like for students and how it has
changed the role of the instructor.
What is Online Learning?
Online learning is education that takes place over the Internet. It is often referred to as “e-
learning” among other terms. However, online learning is just one type of “distance learning” -
the umbrella term for any learning that takes place across distance and not in a traditional
classroom. Distance learning has a long history and there are several types available today,
• Correspondence Courses: conducted through regular mail with little interaction.
• Telecourses: where content is delivered via radio or television broadcast.
• CD-ROM Courses: where the student interacts with static computer content.
• Online Learning: Internet-based courses offered synchronously and/or asynchronously.
• Mobile Learning: by means of devices such as cellular phones, PDAs and digital audio
players (iPods, MP3 players).
By far the most popular approach today is online learning. According to the Sloan Consortium,
online enrollments continue to grow at rates faster than for the broader student population and
institutes of higher education expect the rate of growth to continue increasing. Some of the key
• Over 1.9 million students were studying online in the fall of 2003.
• Schools expect the number of online students to grow to over 2.6 million by the fall of 2004.
• Schools expect online enrollment growth to accelerate — the expected average growth rate
for online students for 2004 is 24.8%, up from 19.8% in 2003.
• The majority of all schools (53.6%) agree that online education is critical to their long-term
• A majority of academic leaders believe that online learning quality is already equal to or
superior to face-to-face instruction. (The “no significant difference” phenomenon.)
2. Introduction to Online Teaching and Learning Joshua Stern, Ph.D.
How It Works
In years past, instructors had to create their “virtual classrooms” from scratch which was difficult
and often led to poor results. Today, an entire industry has emerged to do this for us. Course
Management System (CMS) software is utilized by just about all colleges today. CMS allow
instructors to design and deliver their courses within a flexible framework that includes a number
of different tools to enable learning and communication to occur.
Popular for-profit CMS include:
• Blackboard (
• WebCT (
• eCollege (
Low cost alternative and open source CMS include:
• Moodle (
• Angel (
Any of these CMS offer functionality which allows instructors to deliver course content, enable
communications, and conduct evaluations. The most common tools offered by CMS include:
Schedule For posting and viewing deadlines, events, etc.
Announcements For posting current information to all students.
Syllabus For creating and posting the course syllabus.
Modules For publishing and viewing course content in sections.
Assignments For posting, submitting, and grading student work.
Discussion Board For asynchronous discussions, group work, and collaboration.
Private Messages For private communication between students and/or the instructor.
Chat For real-time, synchronous conversation in written form.
Tests & Quizzes For authoring and administering exams, quizzes, surveys, etc.
Gradebook For posting and managing student grades.
A New Paradigm for Teaching and Learning
Online learning is catalyzing a pedagogical shift in how we teach and learn. There is a shift
away from top-down lecturing and passive students to a more interactive, collaborative
approach in which students and instructor co-create the learning process. The Instructor’s role
is changing from the “sage on the stage” to “the guide on the side.”
This point of view maintains that people actively construct new knowledge as they interact with
their environment. This is a student-centered approach in which students “co-create” their
3. Introduction to Online Teaching and Learning Joshua Stern, Ph.D.
learning experience. This approach empowers students as active learners instead of just
passive recipients absorbing information and reproducing it for standardized tests.
Derived from the work of Swiss philosopher, Jean Piaget, constructivism emphasizes:
• The learner as a unique individual.
• The relevence of the learner’s background and culture.
• Increased responsibility for learning belongs to the student.
• Motivation for learning comes from successful completion of challenging tasks.
• Instructors as facilitators helping learners develop their own understanding of content.
• Learning is an active, social process.
• The dynamic interaction between task, instructor and learner. Synergy!
Constructionism asserts that learning is particularly effective when constructing something for
others to experience. This can be anything from a spoken sentence or an internet posting, to
more complex things like a painting or a presentation. For example, you might read this page
several times and still forget it by tomorrow - but if you were asked to explain these ideas to
someone else in your own words, or produce a slideshow that explained these concepts, you
would gain a deeper understanding that is more integrated into your own ideas.
As an instructor, you focus on the experiences that would best generate learning from the
learner's point of view, rather than just publishing and assessing the information you think they
need to know. Each participant in a course can and should be a teacher as well as a learner.
Your job changes from being the sole source of knowledge, to being a guide and role model.
You connect with students in ways that address their own learning needs by moderating
discussions and activities in a way that collectively leads students towards the larger learning
goals of the class.
(Modified from: and
Benefits of Online Teaching and Learning
Why online distance learning and why now? Online distance learning meets the needs of an
ever-growing population of students who cannot or prefer not to participate in traditional
classroom settings. These learners include those unable to attend traditional classes, who
cannot find a particular class at their chosen institution, who live in remote locations, who work
full-time and can only study at or after work, and those who simply prefer to learn independently.
The minimum requirement for students to participate in an online course is access to a
computer, the Internet, and the motivation to succeed in a non-traditional classroom. Online
courses provide an excellent method of course delivery unbound by time or location allowing for
accessibility to instruction at anytime from anywhere. Learners find the online environment a
convenient way to fit education into their busy lives. The ability to access a course from any
computer with Internet access, 24 hours a day, seven days a week is a tremendous incentive
for many of today’s students.
Some of the main advantages of online learning include:
4. Introduction to Online Teaching and Learning Joshua Stern, Ph.D.
• Convenience: 24/7 access from any online computer; accommodates busy schedules; no
commuting, no searching for parking.
• Enhanced Learning: Research shows increased depth of understanding and retention of
course content; more meaningful discussions; emphasis on writing skills, technology skills,
and life skills like time management, independence, and self-discipline.
• Leveling of the Playing Field: Students can take more time to think and reflect before
communicating; shy students tend to thrive online; anonymity of the online environment.
• Interaction: Increased student-to-teacher and student-to-student interaction and discussion;
a more student-centered learning environment; less passive listening and more active
learning; a greater sense of connectedness, synergy.
• Innovative Teaching: Student-centered approaches; increased variety and creativity of
learning activities; address different learning styles; changes and improvements can
translate to on-ground courses as well
• Improved Administration: Time to examine student work more thoroughly; ability to
document and record online interactions; ability to manage grading online.
• Savings: Accommodate more students; increased student satisfaction = higher retention
and fewer repeats.
• Maximize Physical Resources: Lessen demand on limited campus infrastructure;
decrease congestion on campus and parking lots.
• Outreach: Give students options; reach new student markets; appeal to current students
thus increasing enrollments.
Online Learning FAQ
Those new to online learning are often unclear about what to expect. Below are some answers
to frequently asked questions about online classes.
Is an online class the same as a self-paced class?
Answer: No. While some online classes are similar to independent study, most online classes
are not self-paced classes. The due dates for documents and class participation reflect those of
a "regular" campus class. Homework, other activities, and online class participation must be
completed by preset dates and times.
How much time do I have to spend online?
Answer: You should plan to spend at least the same amount of time you would spend on a face-
to-face class. And probably more, at least at first, as you get oriented to the online CMS.
Do I have to log on to class at a particular time?
Answer: No. You will have deadlines by which to post your work, but when you complete that
5. Introduction to Online Teaching and Learning Joshua Stern, Ph.D.
work is up to you. You should try to do your work on a daily basis so as to avoid being
overburdened at the end of each unit.
Is taking a class online easier than a "regular" class?
Answer: No. The course content in an online class is usually identical to that of a face-to-face
class on the same topic. Some people think the workload is even more demanding than a
regular face-to-face class in that you have to be a self-directed learner, stay motivated, and stay
on top of your workload independently. It has been shown that the most successful online
students/teachers tend to share the following characteristics:
• Self-motivation/self-starter
• Good organization and time-management skills
• Familiar with computers and the Internet
• Resourceful and actively seek answers and solutions to questions and problems
What Internet skills would be helpful in an online class?
Answer: The most successful students have the following Internet skills:
• Familiarity with Web browsers and an email program.
• Some familiarity with Web-based interactions such as email, discussion boards, listservs,
and chat rooms.
• Proficiency with typing and word processing.
• Experience in successful Internet searches using a variety of search engines.
How is online teaching different from traditional classroom teaching?
Answer: The online model emphasizes an interactive learning environment, designed to
stimulate dialogue between instructor and students and among students themselves. The online
process requires both instructor and students to take active roles. The instructor will often act as
a facilitator, organizing activities that engage students directly rather than relying too heavily on
lectures and memorization.
When and where do classes take place?
Answer: We don't really "meet" in a real-time or physical face-to-face sense. Instead, we interact
regularly through the CMS and via email. Courses take place wherever your computer is: at
home, at work, on the road - anywhere you can connect to the Internet. Courses are typically
organized by week with specific due dates. The model is primarily asynchronous, which means
that within each week you and your students may log in whenever it is most convenient.
Generally, logging in four to five times per week is necessary to give timely feedback and
interact sufficiently with students. Although communication is primarily asynchronous, real-time
chat is also available.
How will I be able to communicate with my students?
Answer: A lot of instructors mistakenly assume that they'll feel isolated from their online
students. To their surprise, most instructors find that online courses actually provide a high
degree of personal contact, and many say that they get to know their online students much
better than their students in on-ground courses. This is because asynchronous, online courses
offer many more opportunities for reflection, in-depth discussion, and interaction than traditional
courses that meet only once or twice a week. Not only will you and your students communicate
6. Introduction to Online Teaching and Learning Joshua Stern, Ph.D.
directly, everyone in the class can be involved in group- and class-level discussions contributing
as much and as often as they want. Far from being an impediment to communication, the online
format facilitates and enhances communication and interaction in ways that would be impossible
in other situations.
(Adapted from: FAQ created by Dr. Marsha Conley, American River College and
Important Questions for New Online Instructors to Consider
• How can you accommodate different learning styles online?
• How might you convert the learning activities you use in the traditional classroom to the
online environment? Is it possible to use your materials “as is” or will you need to rethink
how your material is presented?
• Lecturing is the most common method of presenting content in college classrooms. Why is
lecturing a less productive method of teaching in the online environment?
• In the virtual classroom, lectures are short and few. With this being the case, where are
the students going to get the information they need to obtain the learning objectives?
• Are video, audio, and real-time activities a benefit in a text-based asynchronous online
course? Why or why not?
• How will you inform your students of online expectations and realities and help ensure
their success?
• What problems can you anticipate that students might have when beginning your
course? How might you smooth the way for your students?
Quiz: Is Online Teaching Right for Me?
The online instructor plays a vital role in developing and maintaining an effective online learning
environment and must possess a unique set of tools to perform successfully. Some instructors
from the traditional classroom environment will easily adapt to the online model, while others
may find the transition challenging. Reflect on your teaching style, circumstances and technical
skills to see if teaching online is right for you.
Computer skills
• Do you have (or are you willing to obtain) access to a computer and Internet connection at
home and/or at work?
• Are you willing to upgrade your computer equipment or purchase new software if needed?
• Do you know how to use email and access the Web using a browser?
• Can you download files from the Web and save them to your own computer?
• Can you attach a document to an email message?
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• Can you cut/copy and paste from one program into another?
Experience in the online learning environment and qualifications
• Have you ever taken an online course as a student (i.e. the ETUDES-NG training course)?
• Have you used Webpages to supplement your on-the ground course or seminar?
• Have you used online quizzes, a discussion board or chat room as part of your teaching?
Attitudes towards teaching and learning in the online environment
• Do you believe that high-quality learning can take place without interacting with your
students face-to-face?
• Do you believe lecturing is the best, or only, method for delivering education in your field?
• Do you feel that discussion is an effective teaching strategy for your subject matter?
• Do you believe it is important to structure activities so that students can learn from each
other via interactivity and collaborative learning?
• Do you believe increased learning can occur when work/life/knowledge experiences are
shared among peers?
• Do you think creating a sense of community amongst learners is a priority in your teaching?
Teaching style and habits needed to teach online
• Can you dedicate a significant number of hours per week (any time during the day or night)
to participate in the online teaching process?
• Are you willing to log on and contribute to your online classroom discussions and interact
with students online at least 4 times a week, and ideally more?
• Are you able to create schedules for yourself and stick to them? In other words, are you a
self-disciplined, independent worker?
• Are you flexible in dealing with students' needs (due dates, absences, make-up exams)?
• Are you comfortable in communicating almost entirely through writing (since online courses
are text-only environments)?
Training and commitment
• Are you willing to invest a significant amount of time and energy in preparation for teaching
your course online?
• Are you willing to spend time rethinking and redesigning your teaching materials to fit the
needs of the online environment?
• Are you willing to invest time in professional development to continue learning new online
teaching and/or technical skills in the future?
Experience in the online learning environment and qualifications
If you have had first-hand experience as an online student, you will likely have greater insight
into your own online students' needs and a better understanding of the unique requirements of
the online environment. Experience using the Internet and the Web to enhance your teaching in
the traditional classroom can be a good first step to teaching entirely online.
8. Introduction to Online Teaching and Learning Joshua Stern, Ph.D.
Attitudes towards teaching and learning in the online environment
An online instructor should be able to accept the value of facilitated learning as equal to the
traditional model. If a teacher feels the only way that true learning can take place is through the
traditional means of educating in a classroom, the person is generally not a good fit for the
online paradigm. This is OK, but we must be honest with ourselves. Both an accelerated
learning model and the online process depend on facilitative techniques for their success. The
online classroom requires new teaching strategies and instructional techniques; you should not
try to recreate the on-ground classroom in the online paradigm. The person leading a successful
online class must be a proponent of facilitative learning, and have confidence in the system in
order to make it work.
Teaching style and habits needed to teach online
The online facilitator should be open, concerned, flexible, and sincere. An online instructor must
be able to compensate for the lack of physical presence in the virtual classroom by creating a
supportive environment where all students feel comfortable participating and especially where
students know that their instructor is accessible. Failure to do this can alienate the class both
from each other and from the instructor and would make for a very weak learning environment.
Online students are as busy, or busier, than anyone else in today's hurried world. An online
instructor should be willing to give individual attention to students who may need extra help.
Being sensitive, open and flexible is mandatory for success in the online realm.
Seven Principles of Good Teaching
Based on considerable educational research, Chickering and Gamson (1987) outlined Seven
Standards of Good Practice for Undergraduate Education, principles that have been widely
accepted as measures for judging the effectiveness of classroom teaching. ETUDES-NG
incorporates elements in each of the seven areas, as demonstrated below:
Principle 1: Encourage student-faculty contact
Through Private Messages students and faculty can communicate. Among other things, this
allows instructors to be proactive by following up on students who are not participating in chats,
discussions, etc. Students and faculty can also communicate through the discussion forums.
Principle 2: Encourage student cooperation
The same areas of ETUDES-NG that allow for student-faculty contact can also be used for
student-to-student contact. Assignments can be created to take advantage of this. Furthermore,
the discussion forums can help foster group work and collaboration among students. Consider
incorporating peer reviews, project sharing, and thread-leaders to moderate discussions.
Student collaboration leads to a sense of community and higher learning outcomes.
Principle 3: Encourage active learning
Instructors can take advantage of the rich interactivity on the Web by designing assignments
around appropriate Websites. When students come to these sites, they make choices, and they
learn from their choices. Active learning also takes place when students work cooperatively.
Give students more control, leadership roles, and options in what assignments to complete.
Leave the center stage and transform yourself into a guide on the side.
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Principle 4: Give prompt feedback
In ETUDES-NG, students can see results of their tests and view solutions to graded
assignments immediately after submission. Instructors can and should promptly respond to
student questions. ETUDES-NG allows you to provide both acknowledgement and information
Principle 5: Emphasize time on task
For example, give students something specific to respond to in each module via the
discussions. Build in a reward system of points for each post and reply to the discussion forums.
In other words, make posting and responding mandatory. Create a structure that can be
followed, broken down week by week or unit by unit, allowing for acceleration of pace.
Principle 6: Communicate high expectations
In your syllabus you should include course goals and performance objectives. You might include
model assignment submissions that can serve as examples for students to follow. The bottom
line is that you must be explicit and clear in communicating your expectations to students.
Principle 7: Respect diverse talents and ways of learning
Create assignments that offer students options. Giving students choices in their learning
experience increases satisfaction and retention. Consider giving students options as to what
format to submit assignments or projects. For example, they might design a Webpage, write an
essay, or develop a PowerPoint presentation. There is no reason why all students should
submit the exact same homework or participate in one discussion topic. Variety is the spice of
life and your online class; teach to the various learning styles of your students.
Supplemental Resources
Confessions of an E-Dropout
What went wrong? As the instructor, what could you have done to change the situation?
Strategies for Learning at a Distance
What Makes a Successful Online Student?
Tips for Online Success
The Core Rules of Netiquette
Distance Learning History
Growth in Distance Education Programs and Implications for Federal Education Policy
The Future of Online Learning
10. Introduction to Online Teaching and Learning Joshua Stern, Ph.D.
Read Steven Downes’ predictions and see if they are true today.
Thirty-Two Trends Affecting Distance Learning
Online Pedagogy Links
Online/On-ground: What's the Same?
(My) Three Principles of effective Online Pedagogy
Online Pedagogy and Best Practices
Tips and Tricks for Teaching Online: How to Teach Like a Pro!
The Role of the Online Instructor/Facilitator