(V1) Fundamentals of Teaching Online: An Orientation Guide for Instructors

This guide is to help those who are new to teaching online at PSU or want to refresh their skill set. This guide is specifically written for the “Online – No Scheduled Meetings” course modality. If you are teaching in another course modality, you may find that some of the sections of this guide may or may not be relevant to you. Refer to the Course Delivery Methods for each type of modality taught at PSU. If you’re looking for a condensed version of this guide, scan the Course Management Timeline

You might find it helpful to familiarize yourself with the language used from these resources as they are the foundational principles of this guide. If you find that this guide does not contain the information you need, contact the OAI Support Desk.

The following is a glossary of commonly used websites at PSU: 

  • PSU Odin account: Official PSU login for all campus services
  • myPSU: A centralized place for student and faculty resources 
  • Banweb: Course roster and where final grades are submitted
  • Gmail: Official PSU email
  • Canvas: Where course materials are stored
  • Kaltura Media Space: Where PSU curated videos are held

Before the Term Starts

Get to Know the PSU Community

PSU is unique in part because of its demographics. PSU was founded to serve veterans from WWII. These insights might help you support students and encourage them to persist in their studies. 

Start Your Term Right

  • Identify tasks that should be performed daily, weekly, or throughout the term. 
  • Identify and address (a) the expectations you should make explicit and (b) where and how to communicate these expectations. 
  • Send a welcome email with info about accessing the course and request students complete a pre-term survey. Use an email template if you need additional ideas.

For more ideas, visit Start Your Term Right: Essential Student Communications.

Get up to Speed with the Technology

  • Verify your technology needs and contact the library if you need to borrow any items from the library to teach your course. 
  • Get up to speed with the technology in the course by enrolling in the Canvas course, Growing with Canvas. Students report that a challenge to their success is the instructor’s lack of familiarity with the required course technology.
  • Import course materials from an existing Canvas course shell.
  • If you have publisher integrations or specialist technology, consider how they can be integrated within your Canvas course shell.
  • A helpful tool is the Student View feature within Canvas.
  • If your course contains video content, verify that the videos have closed captions since this helps students follow along, take notes, and reinforce concepts.
  • Within Canvas, there are abilities to lock modules, and these should be used carefully and with intention since students report gatekeeping issues as a barrier to their learning. 

When you are finished setting up your course, publish the course.

Department Administration

  • Your department should process your teaching contract. The first date of your teaching contract is usually two weeks before the term begins. 
  • Canvas is PSU’s learning management system. Getting access to a live Canvas shell: Typically, you will be enrolled into your live shell during week 7 of the previous term. Contact the OAI Support Desk if you are not enrolled by week 8 of the previous term.
  • Verify the process of receiving a Teaching Assistant (TA) from your department (if applicable). 
  • You may receive an email from the Disability Resource Center (DRC) that one or more of your students has an accommodation. Review the email carefully to understand and implement the accommodation request.
  • Even though this is an online course, place a copy of your textbook on course reserve at the library if possible for students on campus. 
  • Most departments require at least one office hour appointment per week during the term. Schedule these in Canvas via Zoom and communicate them with an announcement, in your syllabus, or, if appropriate, on the Canvas course homepage. PSU instructors report that students don’t take advantage of online office hours and low attendance rates of online office hours are a common issue. Consider these recommendations
  • Confirm with your department the limits of items you can change in your course, such as the syllabus, assignments, learning outcomes, recommended/required texts, etc.
    • Communicate your response times (through the syllabus, on a Canvas homepage, or within an introductory discussion post) and your preferred communication method, and stay consistent throughout the term. Model your expected communication style in all course interaction/communication channels.
    • If you’re able to edit the syllabus, other suggested items to cover include: 
      • A course outline since students request a detailed course summary in one place (a simple overview at the course outset to help plan).
      • Clearly stated course grading policies, including consequences of late submissions.
      • Building an Effective Syllabus and OAI Syllabus Template for additional ideas. 
      • Ensure that your course materials are appropriate for the modality. Students want course materials to be designed for the modality.
    • Double-check that your due dates within Canvas match the syllabus. Use the Announcements tool to inform your students when a timed response is required. Giving a proper lead time ensures an opportunity to prepare and accommodate. Within the syllabus should be the overall course goals. Use the Announcements/Modules tool to share weekly goals to help students see/connect work to course objectives and know how to prioritize/conceptualize concepts.

First Week of the Term

Social Presence: Build a Learning Community

  • Introductions can help establish a social presence – that is, someone is “real” and “there.” When introducing yourself to your students, you could include things about your professional lives (e.g., teaching philosophies, links to articles you have written, presentations you have delivered, your blogs) and your personal lives (e.g., pictures of your pets, vacations, hobbies). This can be done via text or digital formats such as video or audio via  Zoom
  • Within your course, if allowed, provide activities that are intended to build a sense of class community, support open communication, promote regular and substantive interaction, and establish trust (e.g., student introduction videos, ice-breaker activities, Course Bulletin Board via a discussion forum, weekly Office Hour(s), and dedicated discussion forums).
  • Allow your students to orient to the course page: 
    • Create a course orientation video with a short syllabus overview, including course objectives, required readings, interaction guidelines, expectations, and due dates. 

Waitlist Management

Current Canvas functionality assigns waitlisted students a view-only “Observing: nobody” role in their course(s). This allows waitlisted students the opportunity to only view course content, but not interact or otherwise engage in Canvas course activities until they are formally registered. Once registered, students will automatically gain full access to the course. If students are not registered by the end of week two, they will be automatically removed from the course.

Throughout the Term

Establish and Maintain Instructor Presence in Your Online Course

Instructors play an important role in creating social and teaching presence (Ladyshewsky, 2013). Being present in your online course is key to keeping students engaged, leading to overall student success. Student-instructor interaction is one of the strongest predictors of student learning and may be the primary variable for predicting online course learning outcomes (Arbaugh et al., 2009). Here are a few ways to stay connected to your students and help them feel like part of your learning community.

  • Develop a communication plan and respond promptly.
    • Let your students know the best method to communicate with you, how soon you will get back to them, and if you will be available on the weekends. 
    • Let students know how long it will take for you to grade or provide feedback on their work, including work submitted late.
    • Notify students if there will be any delay in feedback, including assignments and grades.
  • Post regular announcements.
    • Provide the opportunity for interactions with students on a predictable schedule. For example, you can maintain regular contact with your students by scheduling three weekly announcements to offer consistent interaction and demonstrate active involvement throughout the course. The instructor might make the first announcement posting weekly instructor tips, the second for sharing additional course-related resources, and the third for upcoming assignment due dates.  
  • Share overall course goals (at course outset) and weekly goals to help students see/connect work to course objectives and know how to prioritize/conceptualize concepts.
  • Hold virtual office hours and use them effectively.
  • Monitor each student’s academic engagement and success. Identify students who may be struggling or disengaged, and proactively contact students by sending emails to check in with them and/or encouraging them to come to your virtual office hours. 
  • A community serves as an information exchange (Moller, 1998). Consider how the course provides students with opportunities in course interactions to share advice, information sources, and tools and inject knowledge from diverse sources of information with guidance from the instructor. The benefits of resource sharing:
    • Students become responsible for their learning.
    • Students and the instructor become equal participants within the community.
    • The full reservoir of existing knowledge and skills is utilized. 
    • Relationships within the community are strengthened as participants draw upon one another’s knowledge and skill (Stepich & Ertmer, 2003).
  • To keep students on track, the module orientation should include at least a short introduction to the module topic and indicate what materials need to be reviewed and what activities and assignments need to be completed. Remember to include due dates for every assignment and activity in the module. 
  • Schedule an optional session in Zoom (How to Host a Zoom Meeting) to do a live check-in with your students.
    • Allowing students to meet with you in real-time can help to build community in your course. Be sure to have some kind of interaction planned to keep students engaged.
  • Additionally, you’ll want to address the following during your course: 
    • Diagnose misperceptions and misconceptions. 
    • Identify conflict.
    • Summarize discussions.
    • Identify areas of agreement and disagreement.
    • Seek to reach consensus and understanding.
    • Encourage, acknowledge, and reinforce student contributions.
    • Draw in participants (Shea et al., 2006).
  • Students value videos that tie concepts together, even better if the video lectures are paired with discussions.
  • Midterm Check-In with Students
    • Consider creating a mid-term feedback survey with anonymous survey tools such as Canvas and Google Form around midterm. If you collect feedback, ensure you address it before the end of the term– you don’t have to implement all requested changes. Still, you should acknowledge the feedback you receive and provide transparency around any changes you are making in response to feedback.

Facilitate Online Student Interactions to Help Create a Learning Community

Group and peer-review assignments can support social, teaching, and cognitive presences in the online learning environment (SUNY Online Course Quality Review Rubric). Interactions among students are one of the cornerstones of the development of online learning communities (Rourke et al., 2001). They can enhance learning, increase knowledge comprehension, and acquire competent skills (McConnell, 2006). Instructors play a pivotal role in creating community and affecting learning outcomes and students’ knowledge construction (Barnes, 2016) in part because they design and scaffold peer interactions and collaboration assignments and activities (Stephens & Roberts, 2017).

Below are best practices you can follow when fostering student-to-student interaction and other recommended instructional strategies.

Feedback, Rubric, and Grading

Provide Meaningful Feedback in a Timely Manner

Instructor feedback catalyzes student learning in online environments (Ertmer et al., 2007). It improves student learning and increases instructor social presence because feedback gives students a feeling that someone is there who cares about their progress (Bonk & Khoo, 2014). However, PSU students report that instructors take too long to grade assignments. The feedback is too late to be useful, vague, unclear, and inconsistent. Lack of feedback is one of the reasons that students withdraw from online courses (Ertmer et al., 2007).  

Several principles should help guide your thinking as you consider how to provide meaningful feedback in a timely manner.

  • Improve the timeliness of feedback: An instructor can give meaningful feedback in a timely manner, including announcements on how grading is progressing, reasons for delayed grading, and general feedback to the entire class explaining when to expect individual feedback.
  • Set deadlines strategically: Many students who take online courses work full-time and do their homework over the weekend. If you don’t want to deal with last-minute questions on Sunday evening, you shouldn’t make the assignments due on Sunday at midnight (Darby & Lang, 2019).
  • Have real-time, just-in-time conversations: When students struggle with a particular concept or need individualized support, consider making a phone call or scheduling an optional synchronous in Zoom to do a live check-in with your students (Darby et al., 2019). 
  • Ensure that the feedback is meaningful and effective: Not all feedback leads to performance improvement. Feedback can improve student learning where it is (Vardi, 2013): 
  1. Clear, direct, and prescriptive
  2. Focused on the deep, meaningful aspects of the task, such as the content, level of analysis, and its structuring in the text.
  3. Short, targeted global feedback that:
    1. Explains the grade by relating the standards in the rubric to
      1. the specifics of the task and
      2. what they did in the assignment
      3. e.g. “You have described in your own words what the company has done in the local community. This description meets the “pass” standard of performance.”
    2. Explains what they needed to have done to get to reach the next grade level (e.g. “To move up to the credit pass level, you need to have researched beyond the company’s websites and news reports to look at data which would allow you to analyze what they did, for example …”).
    3. Explain what they need to do to get to the next higher performance level in the subsequent assignment (‘To produce a good proposal for this company, I suggest you check … and analyze …. This will help you come up with a better strategy’).
  4. Linked to the structure of the text with content (e.g., “You identified some interesting positives and negatives with the company’s performance. The quality of your analysis would have benefited from another section, following on from the positives and negatives, that compared the underlying reasons for the difference in performance”).
  5. Do not overemphasize surface features (e.g., grammar, spelling, referencing conventions)
  6. DO not correct everything in the text.
  7. DO not make general comments that could apply to any written task.

Rubrics

Grading

Students want to know what their progress is in a course. A well-designed and up-to-date gradebook allows students to check in on their progress continuously throughout the term.

Plagiarism

Occasionally, you may experience some forms of plagiarism, particularly if your course uses Turnitin. Check with your Department to understand how academic integrity is handled.

End of Term

Wrapping Up Your Course

For more ideas, visit Wrapping Up: End of Term Procedures.

Planning for Future Course Offerings

  • Review FAQs and consider whether these questions will likely come up again in future terms. If so, create short video or text-based responses to share ahead of time with future students. Consider creating assignment-specific, topic-specific, or course-wide FAQ documentation as appropriate. 
  • Review the course for student assessments and note areas of continuous improvement.
  • You should receive a copy of your course evaluations after the term ends. Review them for common themes and areas to consider adjusting in future offerings, and contact your department about any feedback you want to implement. 
  • Seek mentorship within your department and inquire about connecting with other colleagues.
  • Review the OAI workshop schedule for any future offerings.

References

  • Arbaugh, J. B., Godfrey, M. R., Johnson, M., Pollack, B. L., Niendorf, B., & Wresch, W. (2009). Research in online and blended learning in the business disciplines: Key findings and possible future directions. The Internet and Higher Education, 12(2), 71-87.
  • Bonk, C. J., & Khoo, E. (2014). Adding some TEC-VARIETY: 100+ activities for motivating and retaining learners online (pp. 1-368). OpenWorldBooks. com and Amazon CreateSpace.
  • Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small teaching online: Applying learning science in online classes. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Ertmer, P. A., Richardson, J. C., Belland, B., Camin, D., Connolly, P., Coulthard, G., … & Mong, C. (2007). Using peer feedback to enhance the quality of student online postings: An exploratory study. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(2), 412-433.
  • Kilgore, W. (2016). Where’s the teacher? Defining the role of instructor presence in social presence and cognition in online education. Humanizing online teaching and learning.
  • Ladyshewsky, R. (2013). Instructor presence in online courses and student satisfaction. The International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 7(1), 1-23.
  • McConnell, D. (2006). EBOOK: E-Learning Groups and Communities. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).
  • Moller, L. (1998). Designing communities of learners for asynchronous distance education. Educational technology research and development, 46(4), 115-122.
  • Rourke, L., Anderson, T., Garrison, D. R., & Archer, W. (1999). Assessing social presence in asynchronous text-based computer conferencing. The Journal of Distance Education/Revue de l’ducation Distance, 14(2), 50-71.
  • Shea, P., Li, C. S., & Pickett, A. (2006). A study of teaching presence and student sense of learning community in fully online and web-enhanced college courses. The Internet and higher education, 9(3), 175-190.
  • Stephens, G. E., & Roberts, K. L. (2017). Facilitating collaboration in online groups. Journal of Educators Online, 14(1), n1.
  • Stepich, D. A., & Ertmer, P. A. (2003). Building community as a critical element of online course design. Educational Technology, 33-43.
  • SUNY Online Course Quality Review Rubric – OSCQR (n.d.). Retrieved from https://oscqr.suny.edu/ 
  • Vardi, I. (2013). Effectively feeding forward from one written assessment task to the next. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 38(5), 599-610.