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New to Teaching Online? Avoid Reinventing the Wheel: Interview Results From Experienced Online Instructors

Faculty member at deskDuring the COVID-19 pandemic, remote education has become increasingly relevant for large numbers of instructors, students, and higher education professionals. Many have found remote teaching to be daunting, and have wondered how to provide equivalent learning opportunities to students without the face-to-face contact, as well as resources, offered in classroom settings. However, professionals in online higher education have been finding solutions that address the needs of learners for decades. In 2018-19, my research team interviewed 33 instructors who had been teaching online courses, in diverse disciplines, at Oregon State University for 10 years or more (click here for information about the larger study). One of the questions we asked them was, “What advice do you have for new online instructors?” The following is a summary of their responses, with quotation marks around the specific wording that instructors used:


Consider the online medium. Instructors frequently advised new online educators to leverage the online medium. For example, instructors recommended that new online educators should not try to simply recreate their face-to-face class in an online format. One instructor described online learning as a “different thing” than face-to-face learning, and suggested that in order to teach online effectively, instructors need to “think a little bit differently about what it is you’re doing,” because as another instructor described, “you’re changing the medium of delivery, and you need to use that medium to your advantage.” They recommended that new online instructors think through what they would like to teach, and use the resources available to them to “figure out” how best to teach those things online.


Learn from others. Several instructors advised new online educators to avoid “reinventing the wheel.” They said that while it can be “easy to be isolated when you’re teaching online,” it is important to “communicate a lot with other people that are doing this work.” For example, some of the instructors had formed groups with other online instructors, where they could share their specific experiences and questions about teaching online and responding to students. Others recommended taking part in mentoring, as many of the instructors in the study did not have that opportunity when they first started teaching online over a decade ago. For example, one instructor said, “Don’t try to go through what I went through trying to figure it out,” and went on to suggest learning from others who have already been working in online learning.

While some instructors did not initially utilize resources available to them when they started teaching online, they said they regretted it, and recommended “taking advantage of” any resources available for new online instructors. For example, they recommended attending training and workshops about online pedagogy and technology use, as well as developing relationships with online learning professionals. The instructors also recommended resources provided by Quality Matters. Similar resources for online instructors in higher education include Online Learning Consortium (OLC), EDUCAUSE, and these crowdsourced resources provided by UPCEA.  


Make your presence known. Another common piece of advice from the instructors was related to online presence. One instructor said “make the students feel like you’re there… otherwise, it might as well be a robot.” To elaborate on this point, instructors suggested communicating with students “frequently and regularly,” addressing students by name, responding quickly to students’ questions, ideas, and discussion points, and building trust with students by letting them know that the instructor is “there to hear them and what their concerns are.” Not only is this good practice, but it is required from a compliance standpoint. Although communication between instructors and students may function differently in an online environment compared to face-to-face instruction, instructors emphasized that frequent instructor-student communication is just, if not more, important in online courses.

Instructors also recommended communicating with students using multiple methods. For example, some suggested communicating in text and video, and some had implemented telephone conversations, virtual office hours, and face-to-face meetings with their online students. However, other instructors recommended communicating with students in ways that leave a “paper trail;” for example, conducting all communication within the learning management system. Therefore, they advised new online educators to “figure out their mode(s) of communication,” early when teaching online.


Consider and support your students. Instructors advised new online educators to consider online students’ specific needs. For example, many online students juggle multiple responsibilities, such as full-time jobs and parenting responsibilities. Possibly due to their busy schedules, several instructors mentioned that sometimes students can “slip away” from logging on to online courses and turning in assignments. They recommended that instructors regularly reach out to students, reminding them of course responsibilities, continually “inviting them into the course.”

While some instructors said that online students can differ in some ways from face-to-face students, instructors also recommended that new online educators avoid making assumptions about online students. For example, online students can come to class with varied levels of preparation to learn online. They recommended focusing on what can be offered to each student to help them succeed, and giving “as much choice and leeway to your students as possible” when it comes to approaching course requirements and deadlines.

Instructors also recommended considering the student perspective when designing and implementing online teaching. For example, some recommended that instructors take an online course if they have the chance, or “look at a course from the eyes of being a student.” Instructors also mentioned paying special attention to the accessibility of content, as online classes can serve students with disabilities, as well as students in various living conditions. To help with this process, they recommended regularly soliciting feedback from students regarding course timeline, deadlines, and teaching methods.


Build an online community. Instructors stressed the importance of building relationships between the instructor and the students, as well as facilitating dialogue amongst the students. As one instructor said, “The students need to feel engaged and connected to you as an instructor, and to the other students.” Therefore, instructors recommended developing assignments that encourage students to interact  with each other, and recommended that new online instructors do additional reading about building online communities (if you would like to get started, you can start here).


Faculty member at laptopBe aware of the time and effort it takes to teach online effectively. Instructors highlighted that there is “a lot of upfront work” involved in developing online courses that are organized and accessible. Even if the courses are already developed, instructors said that it took them time to learn to use the online tools and learning management system(s), as well as to develop personal processes such as creating email templates. Therefore, instructors recommended that new online educators plan time before the term to navigate the course, processes, and online environment.

Once the term starts, many instructors stated that online teaching “takes a lot more time than you think” on a daily and weekly basis. For example, when comparing online with face-to-face teaching, one instructor said, “I think there is this perception that online teaching is somehow easier or less time intensive… and that’s not been my experience.” Therefore, instructors recommended that new online educators set aside as much, or more, time for online course responsibilities as they would teaching face-to-face. To help with time management, one instructor recommended planning days of the week and times to log in to the course in advance.


Believe in your ability to teach online. While instructors acknowledged that some skepticism still surrounds online education, several stated that they have found online pedagogy to be effective. Additionally, they advised new online educators to assume they can effectively teach their content areas online, even if they are unsure. For example, one instructor said that “it may not be obvious how to teach it in a way, whatever the discipline is, but I think most things can be taught pretty well online with some creativity.” While some uncertainty may be normal, especially when new to online teaching, instructors suggested that believing in the ability to teach online can lead to better outcomes.


Focus on what you love about online teaching. Lastly, instructors advised new online educators to “enjoy the experience” of teaching in the online medium. The instructors in our study varied on their teaching preferences, with some preferring online teaching, and some preferring face-to-face teaching. Even if instructors preferred teaching face-to-face, they recommended focusing on what is enjoyable about teaching online. For example, one instructor said, “if you are doing this, there has to be something you love about doing this. Focus on that.” Whether the “this” is educating in general, the content area being taught, or online education specifically, experienced online instructors recommended that new online educators focus on what makes them passionate about teaching online.



Rebecca Arlene Thomas, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Scholar
Ecampus Research Unit, Oregon State University
[email protected]


Research Unit

About the Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit: The Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit responds to and forecasts the needs and challenges of the online education field through conducting original research; fostering strategic collaborations; and creating evidence-based resources and tools that contribute to effective online teaching, learning and program administration. The OSU Ecampus Research Unit is part of Oregon State Ecampus, the university’s top-ranked online education provider. Learn more at ecampus.oregonstate.edu/research.


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