Online Teacher’s Guide

Online Teacher’s Guide

Table of Contents



Be Practical

Be Prepared

Get Personal

Time management
Need to know: disclosing the information
Variety (as many modes as possible)
Teaching the technologies
I Say Again: Repeat, repeat, repeat
Anticipate those who forge ahead . . .
and those who lag behind
Students with disabilities
When technology fails
Departmental and agency support (or the lack thereof)
Making yourself real
Making yourself available
Setting limits

Combating Burnout

and Quick Tips

A Word of Warning

Distance teaching is not for everyone, and possession of a terminal degree does not mean that one is qualified to supervise a distance student.

A reminder about time management and limits
Continuing education
Blogs (separate page)
MOOs (separate page)
Project Achieve’s Teacher Guide
Web pages


I’ve been teaching fully online classes and workshops for both teachers and students for over seven years as of this writing, and hybrid classes before that. I’ve been fortunate to have something most beginning online and distance teachers don’t have: a good mentor or two. Thanks to Dr. Jason Nolan and Dr. Sally Fowler, I’ve come further far less painfully than had I begun the journey without their support. They were there to warn me of potential quagmires before I stumbled into them, they helped organize online and distance pedagogies into logical building blocks, and even made themselves available to ride herd and catch strays when I held my own first online workshop, then later my first distance academic course. Most importantly, they gave me room to make my own mistakes even as they turned the spotlight on any that would have been detrimental to either myself or my students.

Those experiences and the new ones that continue to introduce themselves on a daily basis have made me strongly opinionated about the question of online and distance learning, terribly adamant about a number of its aspects, and passionate about proper training and support for distance teachers and online programs. It distresses me unutterably to see teachers tossed out into the online environment with no preparation and no support, assuming that they’ll function just as they did in their face-to-face classes, and that the same mentality one uses to approach the administration and execution of a face-to-face course or program can be directly applied to a distance course or program. Under those circumstances and at best, the program won’t grow but will rather limp along, maintaining the university’s status quo for having an online presence, and students and teacher will come out of a course feeling like it was more a chore than a learning experience, having gained nothing in the process. At worst, course, instructor, and students will fail miserably; the instructor will judge online learning as a doomed fiasco in no way comparable to face-to-face learning and impossibly difficult to conduct, the course will disappear from the Department’s program, and students will be forever turned away from any new learning experiences in that field of study or online. It’s a formula for failure, and the damage to both the student and the teacher can be irreconcilable.

With all that in mind, I’ve designed this Online Teacher’s Guide as a quick and dirty handbook of “if I knew then what I know now” hints and tricks, with a following section of resources and links to the cheat sheets I use with my own students. In other words, this is a practical guide designed to help distance teachers keep their sanity as they delve into the radically different world of online teaching. Keep in mind that this Guide is geared toward those online courses that tend to rely more heavily on either non-interactive technologies, or on interactive technologies that are text-based (e.g., MOOs and computer conferencing) rather than those who have the luxury and added benefits of using real-time video and audio conferencing tools.

Please note that while you’re welcome to use any materials you find here, my one requirement is that you properly cite your source (i.e., me), and let me know what you’re using in accordance with the copyright statement on the front of the web site. In the meantime, it is my earnest hope that you find this resource useful, and that you’ll feel free to comment or raise questions if you see anything you think needs further elaboration or which you feel I’ve overlooked.

Getting Started—An Introduction

Whether you’re picking up after someone else or about to start your own first online course, there are a few things you need to do before you ever hit that dialup icon or “say” your first word to your students.

First and foremost, you’ll need to determine your goals. Precisely what is the course supposed to accomplish as far as your academic organization is concerned? What—precisely—do you want your students to come away with? And last, what—again, precisely—do you want to achieve for yourself? Obviously, you’ll want to be sure all those goals are not only compatible, but that they work together. If they don’t, then you need to rethink your priorities. Consider your course’s mission, and its reason for existence. If, for instance, the course is a freshman composition class, are your students going to learn what the university expects them to learn in order to pass their CLAST exams and succeed in their writing assignments for other university courses? If not, then while the course you’re designing may be outstanding, you may be designing the wrong course, so to speak.

In order to avoid the potential conflict, sit down and make a list of the goals and expected achievements for those three areas (your personal goals; student objectives; and the agency’s objectives). Be detailed; get very specific. Don’t waste your own time by being too general.

Once you have your list and you’ve considered each area for compatibility with the other two and your overall mission, your next step will be to consider how you’re going to accomplish those goals. While lesson planning for an online course is basically the same as the process you used for your face-to-face courses, you’ll be unusual if you don’t find yourself exploring new possibilities or creating new limits as a result of the technologies and the lack of face-to-face interaction. It’s a time of negotiation, and you’ll have to watch that you don’t go too far in either direction. Instead, what assignments do you have in mind and what technologies to you want to use? It is absolutely imperative that you consider the latter in light of the former. Your technology must support your course rather than the course support the technology. Far too many beginning teachers fall in love with a tool and then impose it upon their course without really considering how well it fits their objectives. In other words, it doesn’t matter how cool you think that MOO or blog tool is—if it doesn’t meet your course objective (and do so better than another tool), then you’re using it for the wrong reasons. Gut check your motives.

Once you’ve got a solid handle on the course and you have your lesson plans, assignments, and activities organized, you’re ready to start work. There is, however, a shift in both methodology and mentality that must happen in order for you, the course, and your students to succeed, and now is a good time to make sure you’ve considered some things you would normally not need to worry about in a f2f environment. This, I’m afraid, is where most beginning teachers find themselves in trouble for lack of mentoring or proper training. To that end, I’ve organized the body of this Guide into areas that I hope will address the bulk of those things: practical matters; preparedness notes; personal involvement; self-preservation; and some secondary teaching resources. To be honest, most of the issues are common sense once you have some experience under your belt, but there’s a bit of a Catch-22 in the system: You won’t know those things until you have the experience, and you’re liable to take a few falls before you get the experience you need.

A Cautionary Note

Just as you need to make some mental adjustments before you begin teaching, so too will your students. First and foremost, they’ll need to understand that this is an online class, rather than a face-to-face one. Many aren’t quite prepared for that concept; they’ve been participating in hybrid classes long enough to assume that “online” means “mostly online,” and it doesn’t occur to them that the class will never have any face-to-face meetings. Of course, it doesn’t help if the registration information in their course bulletins and schedules doesn’t emphasize that fact, so if you have the power to make certain that what they see when they register is a reflection of the reality of the course, do so. It’ll save you both a bit of frustration later.

In conjunction with the understanding that the course is fully online, you need to know that your students can do certain basic functions. They need to be able to connect to the Internet, handle their e-mail, and be familiar with at least Netscape or Internet Explorer. Those, of course, are minimums, and while most students can manage that much, you’ll find a few who aren’t entirely sure about it. More importantly, you’ll find many who can’t do any more than that. It is extremely helpful if, when the students register, they receive a statement indicating the course’s basic requirements, and that they be required to acknowledge those requirements before they register (even if it’s only a series of checkboxes during the registration process).

Likewise, you’ll find it helpful to have a sense of each student’s computer background and online experience. If your registration process doesn’t allow for that for whatever reason, let me encourage you to get the information on your own. Create your own form or simply send a form e-mail to each student as they register. Use the opportunity to make that first contact with your students so that they’ll begin to have a sense of the person behind the text. Specifically, find out what system they’re using (their own or the university’s), what platform, which browsers, which e-mail software. Find out whether they’ve had any prior online class experience, and what chat software they’re familiar with, even whether they’ve built their own web site. The more you know, the better sense you’ll have of the class’s overall standing.

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