What is Online Teaching?

Online teaching typically refers to courses that are delivered completely online, meaning there are no physical or on-campus class sessions. Online courses can be designed for a handful of enrolled students or can be made open and accessible to a wide variety of participants. Instructors may choose to teach an online course because they want to take their teaching beyond the confines of the physical classroom. Other instructors may choose to do so because they want students to benefit from the online environment. Online teaching gives students unlimited access to resources and the ability to collaborate and connect with each other at any time of day. It also gives educators the ability to teach online classes from home.


1) Developing and Teaching an Online Course
2) Planning and Designing an Online Course
3) Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Online Teaching
4) Online Assessments
5) 7 Best Practices in Online Teaching
6) Conclusion

Developing and Teaching an Online Course

Preparing for online teaching is not as simple as taking materials from a traditional course and putting them online. Educators engaging in online teaching for the first time will need to plan their approach thoughtfully, even full-time experienced educators. This starts with identifying learning objectives and then building educational activities to support them. Rather than make wholesale use of course content from previous classes, materials should be repurposed or adapted by taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of online learning environments. Organizing course content into units, with submodules, key concept reviews and unit tests—along with a tailored and consistent content release schedule—will help ensure students remain on track to achieve desired learning outcomes.

Online Curriculum Development

In online teaching, curriculum development is defined as the step-by-step process used to create positive improvements in the courses offered by a school, college or university. As new discoveries are made, they have to be incorporated into the online education curricula. Innovative teaching techniques and effective online teaching strategies are constantly being developed and refined in order to improve the student learning experience.

Current online curriculum models can be divided into two broad categories—the product model and the process model. The product model focuses primarily on results. Grades are the primary objective, with more emphasis placed on achieving desired objectives at the summation of the course rather than on the learning process itself. The process model, however, is more open-ended and focuses on how learning progresses over the course of a semester. Both models are important when it comes to developing a holistic and effective curriculum for online teaching.

There are three types of online curriculum design: subject-centered, learner-centered and problem-centered.

    • Subject-centered curriculum design revolves around a particular subject matter or discipline, such as mathematics, literature or biology. This type of curriculum design tends to focus on the subject matter being taught online, rather than the individual student.
      Educators create lists of topics and specific examples of how they should be studied, which are then mapped to the most effective online learning activity or method. This approach is most popular in large university or college classes taught online, where teachers focus on a particular subject or discipline in their classes.
    • Learner-centered curriculum design prioritizes student needs, interests and goals. It acknowledges that students are individuals and have different learning needs and therefore should not, in all cases, be subject to a standardized curriculum. This approach aims to empower learners to shape their education through choices and relies heavily on asynchronous online teaching and learning. This can be complex for large class sizes and is more suitable for smaller, seminar-style courses.
      Differentiated instruction and learning plans provide an opportunity to select assignments, teaching and learning experiences or activities online. This form of curriculum design is highly effective at engaging and motivating students, particularly in online teaching and learning environments by providing students with greater choice and flexibility. However, the drawback to this form of curriculum design is that it can create pressure on the educator to source learning materials online that are highly specific to each student’s personal learning needs. This can be challenging due to teaching time constraints.
    • Problem-centered curriculum design teaches students how to examine and analyze problems and develop solutions, largely using online simulations. This is considered an authentic form of learning because students are exposed to real-life issues, helping students develop skills that are transferable to the real world.
      Problem-centered curriculum design has been shown to increase the relevance of the curriculum and encourages creativity, innovation and collaboration in the online classroom. However, one shortcoming of this format is that it does not always consider individual learning styles and requires a great deal of collaboration between students.

By considering all three types of curriculum design before you begin planning, instructors can choose the types that are best suited to their students and the learning objectives for their course.

Planning and Designing an Online Course

Planning for Online Teaching

An important step in bringing your online course to life is the actual implementation. This includes aligning course materials to learning goals and in accordance with your online teaching philosophy. There are a number of things to consider during the decision-making process.

First, it is important to understand the audience for your online course and who will be participating in supporting the delivery of modules, labs and other learning activities. Recognizing that learners may vary widely in their background, knowledge and skills is essential in order to accommodate these differences in your course design. Secondly, it is imperative to have specific learning goals in mind. An effective online pedagogy means carefully considering what you expect your students to know and be able to do at the conclusion of your course. Next, consider the different types of content your course requires. Decide how students will engage with that content and with each other. Also consider which assessment types best support the measurement of learning objectives for your students. Here are a number of helpful methods that can be used to guide the planning and development of your online teaching curriculum.

Backward Design

Backward design is often used in online teaching to design learning experiences and instructional techniques to meet specific learning goals. Backward design begins with identifying the objectives of a unit or course—what students are expected to learn and be able to do—and then working “backwards” to create lessons that achieve those desired goals. In online teaching, the educational goals for a course or unit are often closely aligned with a given institution’s learning standards. These are concisely written descriptions of what learners are expected to understand and be able to do at a specific stage of their education. In the context of online teaching, this includes the expectation that students have mastered certain technology tools and platforms to meet these goals.

There are many benefits to backward design. Starting with the end goal in mind helps educators design a sequence of assessments, readings, course materials and group activities that are more likely to result in learners achieving the academic goals of a given course or unit—that is, actually learning what they were expected to learn.

Beginning the planning process with the end goal in mind is often a counterintuitive process. However, backward design gives educators a structure they can follow when creating their curriculum, as well as planning their instructional process. Using a backward design approach also helps educators better align the different elements of their course by methodically integrating learning goals, activities and assessments at every step.

Managing the Logistics of Online Teaching

Even though planning for an online class may start in a similar way as an on-campus or face-to-face course, there are several important differences that those teaching online should keep in mind. First, it is important to consider how technology will influence the way you conduct your online teaching. If you would like to use an interactive lecture format, you will need to find ways to engage students in an online environment. Chat channels, discussion forums, blog postings and online office hours are a few ways for online teachers to connect with learners. Those engaging in online teaching will also need to consider how the use of virtual classroom technology will impact student learning. Do your students require specific technical knowledge or computer functionality such as a webcam? How will they interact in the online environment? What will you do to make your online classroom inclusive to all students?

When transitioning to online teaching, educators also need to address technical issues. It is important to plan all of your components for an online course before the first day of class. Start early and seek collaboration and support from your colleagues, when possible. Many institutions have Centres for Teaching and Learning with experienced instructional designers who are able to help manage the transition for instructors and their students.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Online Teaching

Synchronous Online Teaching

Synchronous online teaching occurs in real-time through video conferencing platforms like Zoom, Go-to-Meeting and YouTube Live. When used with an online teaching platform or learning management system, synchronous online teaching allows educators to continue many of the same learning activities found in an in-person classroom. Learners can access lecture slides, respond to interactive questions and engage with discussion threads with their peers.

Delivering online teaching information and presentations in real-time creates a sense of speed and intimacy that helps increase student engagement. This allows educators to respond directly to student questions and discussions, provide feedback and adjust online teaching to ensure students are comprehending course material.

To ensure synchronous online teaching is effective, it is important to have the proper technology tools and platforms in place. Ideally, video conferencing solutions should be used for delivering online lecture content, as well as an active learning platform or learning management system to support assessments, readings, live discussions and interactive questions. With large class sizes, having a remote teaching assistant is especially helpful in alerting instructors to any technical or experiential issues that may occur when using technology tools and platforms. Online teaching assistants can also provide support by responding to discussion threads directly or gathering commonly asked questions requiring further review and clarification.

Similar to a physical classroom, it is important to balance content delivery with interactive learning activities, as well as building in time for review into the lecture schedule. A best practice is for course information to be presented in ten-minute chunks, followed by blocks dedicated for reflection exercises and interactive questions and discussions to keep students engaged.

In the same way that the answers to in-class discussion questions inform how comprehensively course material is covered, it is important to be able to understand where students are struggling. This includes using low stakes quizzes and discussion questions to ensure students are able to achieve online teaching objectives. Synchronous online teaching provides opportunities to apply concepts and collaborate, helping to deepen learning. Real-time interaction is also particularly useful when it comes to delivering complex concepts that require immediate feedback or clarification to keep students on track.

Asynchronous Online Teaching

Asynchronous online teaching uses many of the same technology tools and platforms, with the main difference being student learning is self-paced. With asynchronous online teaching, educators deliver course content and assignments remotely using a combination of solutions like Zoom to record and post lectures online as well as learning management platforms to centralize assignments and other learning resources. Learners interact with digital courseware, assignments and their peers through discussion channels. Asynchronous online teaching is more convenient for students who may have children or other dependents as well as inflexible job hours. As well, not every student can afford or has easy access to the internet. The ability to learn on an individual schedule gives learners the flexibility they need to find time where they can engage with online course material. The benefit of this online teaching method is being able to utilize active learning techniques without the need for participants to be active at the same time.

Asynchronous online teaching is particularly useful when it is difficult for your students to maintain a specific schedule. Accessing materials, readings, assignments, quizzes and lecture recordings in a single place allows students to engage with course material at their own pace. There are many simple ways to drive engagement even if much of the learning is self-directed, such as using discussion forums, integrating questions into assigned readings to test comprehension and using multimedia elements like video to dimensionalize learning. Asynchronous online teaching also provides the opportunity to promote peer collaboration, creating specific assignments that require students to work with one another or review others’ work outside the confines of a class schedule.

Asynchronous learning requires online educators to take time to revisit learning objectives for the semester. Identifying whether there are components that can be recorded for students to view on their own schedule versus what information should be delivered live or asynchronously is an integral part of the design process. Giving thought to where students can access readings, lecture materials, assignments and instructions can help develop a more effective learning plan and identify any potential gaps that may exist in course instruction.

Without the benefit of live interaction, it’s especially important to communicate expectations and reminders and address student questions in a timely fashion. Regular, helpful and empathetic communication is an essential tool for reducing the apathy and sense of isolation many students feel when learning remotely.

Online Assessments

When teaching online courses, there are two primary types of assessments: open-book tests and remotely proctored exams. There are a number of benefits to each, but the effectiveness of both is determined by how well they are designed and implemented into online teaching.

Remote Open-Book Exams

Online teaching provides the opportunity to look at different options beyond the traditional summative assessment. Open-book exams offer a great deal of flexibility, making it an ideal option for instructors or institutions that rely on asynchronous learning.

An open-book assessment that is strategically designed provides interesting opportunities to test skills beyond rote memorization, such as problem-solving and critical thinking. Open-book exams are especially effective when they focus on using synthesis, analysis and evaluation to assess what students know, according to the Center for Teaching at Learning at UC Berkeley. The ability to intersperse questions with digital reference materials like images, video and audio clips also allow for more creativity and freedom when constructing an exam in relation to traditional in-class tests.

Developing interactive digital documents with pictures and videos embedded alongside test questions creates a more dynamic assessment experience for students. Using multimedia and other reference content allows learners to discuss and assess opinions given to them within the assessment or analyze a diagram and its findings. Depending on the learning platform, open-book assessments can also include a variety of different question types, including matching, sorting, fill-in-the-blank, long-form answer and click-on-target (with multiple targets) questions.

Proctored Tests and Exams

In many cases, such as courses required for accreditation, open-book assessments are simply not an option. In these instances, there are a number of platforms that offer secure proctored tests and exams. Students can take on their own computers, at a pre-set time and from any location. Advanced ID verification, the ability to secure browser settings and the use of artificial intelligence to monitor students have helped assuage concerns over academic integrity.

Using a variety of question types—multiple choice, word answer, fill in the blank, matching and long answer—instructors can provide students with an assessment that tests their knowledge as well as their analysis and communication skills. For these types of assessments, student performance can be automatically graded upon submission, making the turnaround time for student feedback much faster than manual grading.

7 Best Practices in Online Teaching

1) Bring who you are into the online classroom: One of the key benefits of traditional, face-to-face teaching is being able to share your passion with your students. Many educators use the performative aspect of teaching to their advantage, feeding off the energy in the classroom to deliver their lectures. However, it is easy for unique teaching characteristics—humor, emphasis, body language, facial expressions—to get lost in translation when a student can’t see or hear you. The predominant means of online communication is text, which can quickly become demotivating and uninteresting for students. It is necessary and inevitable that some components of your online course will be delivered through written communications. Assignment instructions, emails to students and weekly course-wide announcements can all be tailored to your unique voice and style:

  • Record yourself: audio or video recordings are a great way to bring your whole self to your students in addition to lecture videos (if you choose to use this functionality). Students need to know you in order to engage in learning online and showing them that you are human with a short video greeting at the beginning of your course is a great way to set the right tone.
  • Express your support: It’s important to infuse your writing with warmth when teaching online classes. As digital natives, Gen Z students are highly adept at sensing the tone of written digital communications. When reminding students about upcoming assignment deadlines, for example, don’t write, “A number of you have not completed the readings necessary for the assignment due later this week. Please note that the assignment is worth 40% of your grade.” Instead, write “Thanks for your hard work so far this semester. Small reminder to complete the specified readings before you start this week’s assignment. Please let me know what questions you have or if you need any help. Thanks all!”

2) Be present and responsive on your online course site: Your presence is so important in teaching online college courses because it encourages bonding as the class evolves as a group and develops intellectual and personal connections. Thoughtful and consistent daily presence shows the students that the online educator cares about them and their questions and concerns, even if they are a part-time educator and busy with other responsibilities. It also shows that you are generally present for them to do the mentoring, guiding and challenging that online teaching is all about. Schedule a few hours of time each week to be visibly engaged and present in your online class. Here are a few ways to interact with your students:

  • Hold online office hours or virtual ‘coffee chats,’ to get to know your students on a more personal level.
  • Answer questions regularly in your course’s online discussion forum.
  • Post a weekly announcement to recap the previous week’s learnings or introduce the coming week’s content.

3) Use a variety of large-group, small-group and individual learning experiences: Online teaching works best when a variety of learning experiences and activities are offered. Online courses are more enjoyable and effective when learners are given the opportunity to work through course concepts and assignments with their fellow students. However, some students learn and work most effectively on their own. Incorporating options and opportunities for students to work together and individually is beneficial for accommodating different types of learners. Small groups are particularly effective in online teaching when learners are working on complex case studies or scenarios for the first time. It is also important to have activities that involve the whole class such as discussion boards or events with invited experts for creating a sense of community in an online course.

4) Ask for informal feedback on your online teaching: Early surveys or informal discussions are effective in getting students to provide feedback on what is working well in an online course. It is also a chance to solicit suggestions and ideas on what might help learners have a better online course experience. This early feedback should be done in week three or four of a semester so time is available to make corrections and modifications while the course is ongoing. A simple e-mail or discussion thread asking a few of these questions works well:

  • What’s working so far?
  • How could your online learning experience be improved?
  • What would you like help with?

5) Think like a student: Teaching online means that the learning environment loses the built-in sense of community that comes more naturally to a traditional classroom environment. This can lead to feelings of isolation and disengagement and demands a different kind of support than teaching in person.

Envisioning how your students will experience the class, having never learned this content before, helps prepare for these potential challenges. Did you give straightforward instructions for your extension policy? Have you supplied a detailed breakdown of how assignments will be graded? Are learning objectives and curriculum objectives explicitly tied to online teaching and learning activities? Students should ideally understand exactly what you are teaching online and what is expected of them as a result. Being intentional about course design is essential to ensuring students interact with course content the way that instructors intend. Here are a few ways to create a sense of community in the classroom:

  • Use a discussion board thread to have students share tidbits about their interests inside and outside of the classroom
  • Ask students to post pictures of their pets or what they’ve been watching on television (and be sure to share as well!)
  • Play music at the beginning of each lecture video

6) Organize your content logically: When teaching online, the design and sequence of content and learning activities must be methodical, intuitive and systematic. Help students move through content and learning activities easily, so that their attention remains focused on learning the material. If they are required to leave a lecture module and use another drop-down menu or folder to watch a required video, that can be distracting—or frustrating if it’s complicated to find. When students use a lot of cognitive resources just trying to figure out where to go to access resources, they have less mental energy left for learning the content itself. This can be a bigger challenge for students who are already unmotivated in the first place. Instead, try to order materials and activities in a sequence that is straightforward and easy to navigate for students.

7) Ground online teaching in reality: A variety of examples and explanations can help learners grasp course concepts in a way that makes the most sense to them. Examples are perhaps even more crucial in online teaching, since students don’t always have the opportunity to ideate with instructors or peers in the moment to clarify a course concept or missed detail. Online learners benefit from multiple explanations of difficult concepts and being prescriptive when it comes to the kind of work you want to see. Modelling behaviors is a good way to lead by example. For instance, use a friendly yet professional tone when writing discussion posts and assignment instructions. Demonstrate respect for diverse opinions and respect differences in learning. When you show students what you expect, they are likely to be more confident in their ability to make online learning successful. This positively impacts their motivation to engage meaningfully with course concepts, and participate in learning activities.


Online teaching can be quite different than teaching in a classroom. Teaching online requires specific competencies and skills associated with effective online course delivery and facilitation. However, it is clear that the ability to teach effectively in online environments is becoming more of a necessity than a nice-to-have in the higher education space. The good news is that there are many resources available as well as tools and platforms to support educators in making this shift. By combining the power of experience with the right technology, instructors can pivot their teaching practices online, increasing flexibility for students and accommodating the diverse needs of today’s learners.

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