Professor teaching online.


A fully online course conducts all learning activity in an online environment, with no face-to-face (F2F) contact. Students and the instructor login and access the course in a learning management system (e.g. UM Learn) to read course materials, participate in discussions and course activities, submit assignments, and check assignment grades.

When teaching an online course, many of the same principles of excellent and effective teaching in F2F courses apply to online courses as well. Some of the similarities include:

  1. Expectations must be clear for learners.
  2. Lines of communication must be used regularly.
  3. Quality interaction between students is the sign of a successful class.
  4. What students do with the content is more important that the content itself.
  5. The ability to motivate student interest is as important as the instructor’s knowledge of the content.
  6. Quality teaching considers the students as an individual, not just the class as a collective.
  7. Formative feedback is important to develop skills.
  8. Showing students that you care about them makes all the difference.

Despite the similarities, online courses do present challenges that F2F courses do not. Some of these challenges include:

  1. F2F learners know the drill. Online learners may not.
    Through elementary, high school, and post-secondary schooling, we know how to behave in a F2F classroom. For online learning, the social rules, class procedures, and expectations are less clear. The instructor must make sure that online students are clear of what is expected of them in order to avoid confusion and frustration.
  2. Online learners will quit more quickly.
    In a F2F classroom, students are likely to wait out the first week or two if the course expectations and instructions are unclear. Online students will likely walk away from the course, assuming that online learning is a bad form of education or that they do not have the skills or personal style to handle it.
  3. Online learners require more interaction with the instructor.
    In a F2F classroom, usually a few students ask and answer questions. The other students often sit back to observe and listen to the responses. Since online students cannot always watch the interaction of others, the instructor should be prepared to answer plenty of questions in online courses.
  4. Online learning can lack feedback for both students and instructors.
    In online courses, it is challenging for the instructor to know if students understand the material and if teaching strategies are working. Conversely, students are often unsure if they are working enough or catching all of the concepts in the course.
  5. Online instructors must take some technical responsibility.
    Instructors need to be prepared for students to turn to them for technical help regarding the learning management system and other technology tools used in the course.
  6. Online learning should be broken into smaller pieces.
    Online students can easily “walk out” of a course (i.e. click to another browser) and have a limited attention span for studying at a computer screen. When designing online courses, it is important to retain students’ attention by breaking the content into chunks that take fifteen to twenty minutes to process, with videos generally under five minutes.

Source: Miami University. Key differences between online and face-to-face teaching. Retrieved from:

Strategies for teaching online

The following section outlines strategies to overcome the challenge presented in the previous section to be an effective online instructor.

First Week Activities

  1. Create a “Week 0” Week
    • The number of students in your online course who have never taken an online course and/or used UM Learn before may surprise you. By creating a “Week 0” week, you will be orientating your students to online learning, the course requirements and policies, and UM Learn before jumping into the content. To get your students to complete the activities in the “Week 0” week, assign a few marks or bonus marks for completing the required activities. Some of the items to include in the “Week 0” week include:
    1. Course Syllabus
      • To get online students to read the syllabus, provide a list of questions about the syllabus as a scavenger hunt exercise.
    2. UM Learn and Other Technologies
      • It is important for online students to have time to navigate the technology tools that will be used in a course prior to having to use them for course activities and assessments. Provide support documentation for your students to review in the form of written instructions and/or tutorial videos.
      • Make it clear to the students what they should do in the event of technical difficulties. When should students contact you? When should students contact the IST Service Desk?
    3. Post and Respond to Introductions
      • Introductions serve as an icebreaker, build trust and community, and give students practice posting and responding within the discussion forum. Ask students to post their introductions and respond to others in the course. Take the time to post your introduction as the instructor as well.
    4. Profile Picture and Notifications
      • A generic avatar image appears in UM Learn beside each user as their default profile picture. It is nice to put a face to a name for both the instructor and students online, in particular for posts in the discussion forum. Ask students to change their profile picture with a picture of themselves or of their favourite hobby or travel destination.
      • Students can enable different notifications in UM Learn to receive up-to-date information about the course. For example, students can receive e-mail notifications when their grades have been released and when new postings have been made in the discussion forums.
      • For more information on changing profile pictures and notifications, book a UM Learn consult at The Centre.
  2. Create a Learning Community
    • Building community in the online environment increases the likelihood of student success as it helps them connect to the course materials and to one another. Strategies to create a learning community include:
      1. Icebreakers
        • As previously mentioned, ask your students to post their introductions, which can include information such as their geographical location, program of study, occupation, reason for taking the course, hobby, proudest accomplishment, etc.
        • For instructors, provide information in your introductory post such as your professional background and interest in the course topics.
      2. Netiquette
        • Netiquette refers to protocols for communication when using technology. Establish the tone of the community by discussing netiquette expectations with your students and by modelling appropriate and respectful discussion forum replies yourself. An example of netiquette guidelines can be found at:
      3. “Water Cooler” and “Questions & Comments” Forums
        • Community building in F2F classes often occurs before or after class, when students and the instructor chat about topics such as current events or common interests. In an online course, the instructor can build a similar space for students to socialize by creating a “Water Cooler” discussion board.
        • To keep the “Water Cooler” discussion forum free from questions about the course content and assignments, create a separate “Questions & Comments” forum for those items. The advantage of a “Questions & Comments” forum is that other students may have similar questions and the entire class will benefit from reading the instructor’s responses.
        • For both the “Water Cooler” and “Questions & Comments” forums, the instructor should be prepared to monitor these forums on an ongoing basis to answer questions and ensure the appropriateness of the conversations.
      4. Study Buddy
        • Encourage students to collaborate with another student or to form small study groups to periodically meet (either online or F2F) to review course content and their assignments before submitting them to the instructor.
      5. Promote University Events and Student Services
        • Online courses can feel isolated from the wider university campus community. Students need to be reminded that they are a part of a large campus culture. Post announcements about events happening on campus. In your syllabus, provide information about university student supports (Schedule A) and encourage your students to utilize these resources.
  3. Guiding Online Students
    • What does it mean to be a successful online learner? It is important to discuss this question with your students at the beginning of the term and provide them with strategies to ensure their success in the course. Some items to discuss include:
      1. Characteristics of Successful Online Learners
        • Research shows that successful online learners possess the following characteristics and skills: independent, self-motivated, self-disciplined, manage time effectively, and they communicate their questions and/or challenges to the instructor. Share these characteristics and skills with your students. Initiate a conversation online about the tips and techniques your students use: How do they stay self-disciplined studying online? How do they manage their time?
        • If you have taught the course in the past, share tips and techniques used by former students. Also, discuss areas in the course where students have experienced difficulties in the past and strategies to circumvent these issues.
      2. Student-Centered vs. Teacher-Centered Approach to Teaching
        • In the traditional teacher-centered approach to teaching, the teacher was the authority or expert, often lecturing with little to no participation from the students. The shift now to a student-centered approach means that the students and teacher share ownership of the class, with both parties interacting equally. The teacher acts more as a facilitator, with students expected to engage in group work, collaboration, and communication.
        • Share with your students your role as a facilitator in the course and their role as active participants. Your role as a facilitator will change as the term evolves and it is important for students to know this as well. At the beginning of the course, you will likely have a heavy presence online as you are answering questions, motivating students, and establishing community and participation. Once students become more comfortable and take increased ownership of the course, you should have a continued yet less prominent presence.
      3. Course Expectations
        • Students need a clear understanding of what is expected of them in a course. It is recommended that your syllabus contain two expectation sections:
          1. What will you expect from your students?
            • It is helpful to communicate in a narrative or bullet point format what you expect of students in the class and your rationales for these expectations. Do you expect students to login to UM Learn on a daily basis? Do you expect participation in the discussion forums? Are there penalties for submitting assignments late?
          2. What can your students expect from you?
            • Conversely, include a statement of what your student can expect of you. When will you return assignments? How often will you be providing feedback? Will you be using a variety of teaching strategies to facilitate student learning?
        • Direct students to these expectations at the beginning of the course when you discuss the syllabus. Remind students of these expectations throughout the term if necessary.


  • Faculty Focus. Five ways to build community in online classrooms. Retrieved from:
  • Nilson, L., Goodson, Ludwika A., & ProQuest. (2018). Online teaching at its best: Merging instructional design with teaching and learning research / Linda B. Nilson, Ludwika A. Goodson. (First ed.).
  • Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Ongoing communication throughout the term

Regular communication is an important component of ensuring successful online learning experiences. The following strategies are recommended for ongoing communication with students:

Individual Student Communication
  • Before the start of a semester, create a calendar of when you will reach out via e-mail to each student individually. After the first week, reintroduce yourself and let them know that you are available to them. Before and after assessments are great opportunities to connect with students to remind them of your office hours (in person or virtual) and methods of how to contact you.
Replacement Strings
Intelligent Agents
Infrequent Course Activity E-mail
  • As previously mentioned, intelligent agents can be set up to send automated notifications to students when they have not logged into the course or accessed course materials after a specified amount of time. Besides these automated messages, reach out via e-mail to students who have been not actively engaged in the course. Make the message motivational and supportive to encourage them to return to and contribute to the course.
Weekly Summaries
  • To help students stay organized and motivated online, send a weekly e-mails or post in the announcement area of UM Learn a message that includes: a summary of the week’s activities, highlight how students’ contributions related to the key topic and ideas of the week, and explain what students will encounter in the upcoming week.
  • Faculty Focus. Five ways to build community in online classrooms. Retrieved from:
  • Nilson, L., Goodson, Ludwika A., & ProQuest. (2018). Online teaching at its best: Merging instructional design with teaching and learning research / Linda B. Nilson, Ludwika A. Goodson. (First ed.).
  • Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Facilitating active learning online: discussion forums

One of the most commonly used technology tools in online course is discussion forums. Discussion forums promote collaboration and offer students room to explore topics, issues, and questions. As you are facilitating the discussion forums, consider the following suggestions to make the most of the tool:

Size of Discussion Forum Groups
  • Depending on the number of students in your course, organize students into smaller discussion groups, no more than 10 students per group. Smaller discussion groups can create more focused discussions between students and are more manageable for students and the instructor to follow the flow of the conversation.
  • For more information on setting up discussion forum groups, book a UM Learn consult at The Centre.
Netiquette and Forum Participation Expectations
  • As previously mentioned, netiquette guidelines should be discussed at the onset of the course to ensure respectful and appropriate communication between students and the instructor.
  • In order to get the buy-in from your students to participate in the discussion forum, make your expectations for their participation clear. It may be beneficial to assign marks for the forums and provide students with a rubric on how they will be graded. An example of a discussion forum rubric is:
Titles and Signatures
  • Ask students to use effective titles for their posts that convey the main message of the post. In addition, ask student to include their names at the bottom of each post. Both of these strategies help the reader who is viewing the post.
Instructor Responses to Posts
  • For the first discussion forum, make an effort to acknowledge the responses of all students. For subsequent forums, wait to provide your response to postings as responding too quickly may decrease the number of student exchanges.
Handling Inappropriate Posts and Dominating or Inactive Students
  • Be prepared to prevent and respond to disruptive or offensive posts. You may decide to remove the post, but ensure that you have explained why and have privately communicated with the student.
  • You may experience students in the course who are dominating the discussion forums or who are not participating in the activity. Be prepared to reach out to both types of students to voice your concerns and provide strategies to overcome the issue.
  • Faculty Focus. Five ways to build community in online classrooms. Retrieved from:
  • Nilson, L., Goodson, Ludwika A., & ProQuest. (2018). Online teaching at its best: Merging instructional design with teaching and learning research / Linda B. Nilson, Ludwika A. Goodson. (First ed.).
  • Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Asking the right follow-up questions in the discussion forums

Good discussion forum questions can create engagement and deepen student learning. Likewise, asking the right follow-up questions can make the discussion forums dynamic and effective. Consider these question prompts when responding to students in the forums:

  • Prompts
    • I have been monitoring the discussion and have not seen any posts, so I wanted to give you a little more information to get you started. Consider the following elements as you compose your discussion response this week [list elements). For example . . .
    • Consider the following scenario [to put the discussion in a context) . . .
    • Let me give you a more concrete example . . .
    • From my experience, an example to help you understand the concept is . . .
  • Elaboration
    • You have a great start on the discussion this week. Can you elaborate on your thoughts and ideas and consider the following in your response [list areas where learner has not responded fully to the discussion question]?
  • Clarification
    • I appreciate your comments about . . .
    • Can you clarify your response so we can clearly understand your thoughts and ideas?
    • Can you provide an illustration or example?
    • Can you state this in a different way?
    • I appreciate your comment. However, I am unclear how this relates to the discussion question. Can you provide more information to help us see the connection to the topic we are discussing this week?
  • Weaving
    • I really appreciate the multiple perspectives on the issue we are discussing this week. John, Sue, and Nancy believe . . . While Paul, Jerry, and Carrie believe . . How do you reconcile the different views?
    • Is there compelling evidence to support one view over the other?
    • Are there other ways of viewing this issue that have not been considered?
    • One aspect of the readings that has not been discussed is . . . What impact does this have?
  • Perspectives
    • Consider the following alternative scenario . . . How would this influence your view of the issue?
    • According to . . . there is another side to this issue. They cite . . . as evidence for their perspective. How does this information fit with your perspective on the issue?
    • Is there another way of looking at this perspective from a different lens? What if you were faced with . . .? What would you do if . . . occurred? How would you feel if . . .?
    • From my experience, I have found . . .
  • Inferences and Assumptions
    • Can you discuss the specific inferences and assumptions you are making from this perspective?
    • For this to be true, then . . . would also have to be true. Have you considered this?
    • For this to be true, then you must believe that . . .
    • What evidence do you have to support the inferences and assumptions you are making?
    • What inferences and assumptions does the author make to lead to his conclusions?

Feedback and assessment

Feedback provides students with information for how to continue to improve their performance in a course. The following principles of giving feedback to students should be considered when teaching online:


  • Create rubrics for assessments to outline the marking criteria and include the rubrics with the assessment instructions.
  • For more information on creating rubrics, consult Grading with Rubrics.

Constructive Feedback

  • Provide prompt, ongoing, and informative feedback to students. Target the feedback to tell students what they are doing well and how to improve their performance on upcoming assessments.
  • For more information on effective feedback, consult Providing Feedback to Students.

Response Times

  • Set up a timeframe of when you will respond e-mails and give feedback on assessments. Common timeframes include 24 to 48 hours for e-mail and one to two weeks for assessments. Include these timeframes in your syllabus.

Multiple Forms of Feedback

  • Provide feedback to students in multiple forms if possible. Examples include written comments in the rubric, adding comments or track changes in students’ assignment files, and recording audio or video in UM Learn to give verbal feedback.

Multiple Forms of Feedback

  • Provide feedback to students in multiple forms if possible. Examples include written comments in the rubric, adding comments or track changes in students’ assignment files, and recording audio or video in UM Learn to give verbal feedback.


  • If you are using quizzes in UM Learn, pre-set automatic responses to give feedback on correct or incorrect responses. For open-ended questions, set up automatic responses to say: “If your response includes..., you are on the right track. If not, review...”

Student feedback

An important aspect of teaching is periodically collecting student feedback about the course. The instructor reviews the feedback and immediately adjusts the course and their teaching if there is a general consensus about an issue in the class.

At the University of Manitoba, students complete a formal evaluation (SEEQs) of a course at the end of a term. However, it is recommended that instructors administer an anonymous student evaluation a few times throughout their course. This type of student feedback has obvious advantages over a formal evaluation at the end of the term because students currently in the course can benefit directly from the feedback provided.

In online courses, use the survey tool in UM Learn to collect anonymous feedback. Your questionnaire ideally has a combination of questions answered on a Likert scale and open-ended questions which allow students to elaborate in more detail. Some examples of open-ended questions that can be asked are: “What do you like the best about the course?”, “What do you like the least?”, “What changes would you make to the course?”.