Tag Archives: online teaching

How can we create online learning environments that are as dynamic, collaborative and successful as the best face-to-face classrooms? Is it even possible? My own experience in online graduate teaching over the past two decades suggests an emphatic “yes”. Or, should I say, an emphatic “yes, but…”.

Just as there are multiple and diverse classroom-based teaching approaches (some more successful than others in engaging learners and mobilizing knowledge transfer), there are as many ways and means of online instructional approaches. All students, regardless of the learning platform, engage best when they experience high instructional immediacy. That is, a sense of warmth, caring, connectedness, support and positive regard in the learning environment.

1. Post a positive and supportive welcome message to greet students the first time they log into the course, and each week thereafter

2. Share online bios (pictures are a bonus – students and instructor) to facilitate self-introductions

3. If you haven’t already, include short (< 5 minutes) “conversational” videos introducing weekly course topics and offering tips and key learning to personalize each week’s focus

4. Encourage students to find “peer learning buddies” in the class to foster collaboration and collegiality

5. Have early and ongoing online, discussion board conversations about process, meaning “how it feels”; versus course content, meaning “what we’re learning” – especially near the beginning of the course. Reflecting on process fosters a sense of shared place and community. Here are a couple of sample questions I’ve used:

  • What are you looking forward to in this course, and what is one thing you are concerned about?
  • How can we challenge each-other in ways that foster debate and dialogue but still be respectful and affirming?
  • What is it like for you being in this course and connecting together online?
  • How can I (professor) help maximize your learning and value from this course? And how can you help one another?

6. Offer targeted motivational communications at points in the course where motivation may be flagging (e.g., around Week 6, and towards the final couple of weeks of the course) 

7. Use intentional word choices in online communications with students (such as via class emails, discussion board posts, and course announcements). These can be subtle, and a conversational tone helps convey the sense of community and connection that we are trying to build.

Here are a couple of examples:

“The focus of this course is…”“Our course will focus on…”
“You will be required to…”“We’ll be working together to accomplish…”
“Students’ feedback has indicated…”“The conversation in our group this week has highlighted…”

8. End the course with an explicit call to action – How does the learning in this course fit into the bigger picture of students’ learning trajectories and career goals? (here’s a video example from a few years ago – this was a social work addiction treatment course I taught at the University of Toronto).

9. Students often expect “24/7” availability and communication, and sometimes even more so when the course is online. That’s not realistic! Help manage expectations by being explicit with students about how often you check into the course, and the expected response time for student questions.

10. Be patient with yourself. You didn’t become an awesome classroom teacher overnight, and it will take time to be as awesome online. Let students know we are all learning together.

As students – and faculty – have had to pivot in orienting to rich digital communication and sharing, online teaching aligns with a new, shared, reality for all of us. The skills of fostering community in digital environments map closely to professional (and personal) applications far beyond the classroom. We’ve collectively experienced how digital inclusion, networking and collaboration are as essential as oxygen.

This post was adapted from:




Six ways to make your online course even more awesome


I love classroom teaching. It’s hard to beat the opportunity to connect with a group of learners face-to-face. But just as there are many ways and experiences of classroom teaching, online teaching is every bit as variable and demands some unique strategies to create engaging and transformative learning environments. Plus, anyone who has ever designed and taught an online course can attest to how time-intensive online teaching can be. How can we structure a positive and engaging course climate while also finding ways to make more efficient use of our time as faculty?

A few months ago I came across a delightful little book by artist Austin Kleon, titled Show your Work. Kleon’s basic premise is that our internal creative process can be even more helpful and engaging than the polished, finished product of our work. In that spirit, here are my top six ‘trade secrets’ of online teaching, gleaned from 12+ years as faculty for a Masters-level online social work course.




The most important things that students want to know are: what the expectations are, how to access the course, where to get help if they need it, and how they can succeed. I make a point of addressing these questions by mobilizing multiple communication channels: A detailed “Welcome” email to all registered students sent out approximately one month before the course start date; “Welcome” announcement (the first thing they’ll see when they access the course for the first time); “Welcome” post in the small group discussion forums; “Welcome” video uploaded to the course materials repository; and an outline of “Frequently Asked Questions” in the Course Syllabus itself. People access and attend to information selectively – this way I make sure that the important information cuts through the “static” of students’ other, competing priorities, and I also get fewer panicked emails and phone calls in the first weeks of the course.



Institutional Learning Management Systems tend not to be the most intuitive or visually appealing. I create folders for each week’s content, populated with the same kinds of materials in the exact same sequence:


This offers a sense of continuity to the online classroom – analogous to holding a face-to-face course in the same room every week.



We live in an online culture of continuous and immersive sharing and collaboration. The trouble is, as course faculty, I’m not able to be accessible 24/7. It’s important to be explicit about how often I check in to the course (typically 6 days per week in the first two weeks of the course, and 3-4 days per week thereafter). I also let students know that I don’t always respond to emails on week ends. I do make a point of responding to emails/phone calls the same day or within 24 hours.

Even better, I ask students to share their questions in the small group discussion forums in a new thread titled “Question for Marilyn”. This accomplishes three things: (a) Other students can benefit from seeing the question and my response; (b) This cuts down on my having to respond over and over to the same question from different individuals; (c) If I only have a few minutes to dip into the course, I can quickly see questions and get to them as a first priority.



Incorporating a short video of myself at the beginning of each “class” (weekly module) helps to establish instructional immediacy, a key component of effective online teaching and learning. We’re not talking high production values, but just helping students to put a face and personality to my name helps foster a sense of connectedness and engagement.

It’s also good to mix things up and harness the rich array of web based applications and resources that are out there: videos, websites, blogs, news aggregators, and more. I also encourage students to find and share their online discoveries.


1 Online Teaching Trade Secrets PUB

This took me a shockingly long time to figure out. I am embarrassed to say that it wasn’t until 2012 that I began to personally archive all of my postings in the group discussion forums, and I now use these as a base from which to continuously adapt and reframe year over year. Although I refresh and update the course content every year, many of the same issues, discussion points, questions and reflections come up. Having a resource archive to draw from has immeasurably enriched my own contributions to our online conversations.



This is no big secret, but paying close attention to the affective dimension is key to learning and teaching. The majority of online courses at this time are still largely text-based, so I pay special attention to the nuances and emotional tone in all of my communications with students, whether via email or in the course discussion board. I also encourage students to reach out to me by phone or video chat in real time when they get stuck or more complex issues arise.


Check out the complete slide deck here.


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