In an earlier post, I summarised nine steps in developing quality online courses. In this and subsequent posts I will discuss in more detail each of these steps.

In this post, I will be discussing the first and by far the most important step: deciding how you want to teach online.


This post is focused on guidance to instructors or faculty who are new to teaching online, or who have had a poor experience of teaching online because they were not following what I call best practices (which will be covered to some extent in these posts). These posts then are really to get you started.

If you are an experienced and successful online teacher, then you may want to look at another post, ‘Designing online learning for the 21st century‘, which might be considered the next step or level in online course design. However, in this and following posts on this topic the focus is on getting started or on checking whether best practice is being followed in your existing courses.

What do I mean by ‘quality’ online learning?

This question could form the basis for a whole book, never mind an introduction to a single 800 word post. However, for the purposes of this exercise, I am going to define quality online learning very narrowly. It is outcomes based:

 By quality, I mean ‘Reaching the same level or better with an online course as for an equivalent face-to-face course.’ This has two quantitative critical performance indicators:

    • completion rates will be at least as good if not better for the online version
    • grades or measures of learning will be at least as good if not better for the online version.

On a qualitative level, I would suggest one other criterion: quality online learning will lead to new, different and more relevant learning outcomes that are better served by online learning. This criterion though is covered more by the ‘second level’ of online course design discussed in Designing online learning for the 21st century.

Here, let’s just focus on ensuring that your online course will be at least as good as a face-to-face version by the quantitative criteria suggested above.

Why do you need to change the way you teach when you move online?

I am going to suggest that you need to re-think the way you teach when you go online – not just moving your face-to-face teaching over to an online version, but re-designing the teaching to fit the requirements of online learners.

Teaching well online has many of the same requirements as teaching well face-to-face: for instance, clear learning outcomes, assessments that test for the desired learning outcomes and differentiate between different levels of achievement, etc. However, there are also different requirements, because the context in which learners (and you as an instructor) are working will be different.

I like to make the comparison between driving a car and piloting a small plane. Both are means of transport, and both require a number of similar skills, such as reasonable eye/hand co-ordination, a good sense of direction, an ability to read maps, and a basic understanding of the technology behind each means of transport. But flying requires other skills as well, such as an ability to master up and down as well as backwards, forwards and side to side, and new skills, such as landing and take-off, as well as learning a host of different rules and regulations. You also need to react differently in similar situations. For instance when driving a car we tend to slow down when we see a dangerous situation arising; if you go too slow you just stop. In flying however, if you go too slow you stall and crash. Not surprisingly, flying also needs longer training than driving.

I make this point because it is tempting for face-to-face instructors merely to move their method of classroom teaching online, such as using lecture capture for students to download recorded classroom lectures at home, or using web conferencing to deliver live lectures over the internet. However there is a lot of evidence to suggest that doing this does not lead to good results for online learners. (See for instance, Figlio, Rush and Yin, 2010).

One reason is that it fails to take account of a key requirement for most online learners: flexibility. A synchronous web cast may be scheduled at times when online students are working, for instance, or students often need to be able to work in short bursts of time, and can’t concentrate well for 50-60 minutes on a lecture, even when recorded. More importantly, online learning allows us to deliver content or information in ways that lead to better learning than through a one hour lecture.

There are also the different needs of online students. There is a good deal of research to show that online students need to feel that the instructor is ‘present’ online, i.e. interacting with students in discussion forums, directing them to recent relevant articles or events, and responding promptly to questions (see for instance, Richardson and Swan, 2003). Restricted ‘office hours’ or hanging around after an online lecture to ask a question do not provide the flexibility of contact that online students need.

Thus it is important to design online teaching in such a way that it best suits online learners. Fortunately, there has been a lot of experience and research that have identified the key design principles for successful online teaching. This is what these nine steps are all about.

How do you want to teach online?

This question really asks you to consider your basic teaching philosophy. What is my role as an instructor? Do I take an objectivist view, that knowledge is finite and defined, that I am an expert in the subject matter who knows more than the students, and thus my job is to ensure that I transfer as effectively as possible that information or knowledge to the student?

Or do I see learning as individual development focused around developing in learners skills and the ability to question, analyse and apply information or knowledge? Do I see myself more as a guide or facilitator of learning for students?

Or maybe you would like to teach in the latter way, but you are faced in classroom teaching with a class of 200 students which forces you to fall back on a more didactic form of teaching. Or maybe you would like to combine both approaches but can’t because of the restrictions of timetables and curriculum.

You can design online courses to teach in any of these ways, but moving your class online gives you an opportunity to rethink your teaching, perhaps to be able to tackle some of the limitations of classroom teaching, and to renew your approach to teaching. For instance, by moving a great deal of the content online, maybe you can free up more time for interaction with students, in large or smaller groups, either in class or online, and at the same time reduce the number of lectures to large classes. For instance, some instructors have redesigned large lecture classes of 200 students, by breaking down the class into 10 groups, moving much of the lecture material online, and then the instructor spending at least one week with each of the 10 groups in online discussion, interaction and group activities, thus getting more interaction with all the students.

Or maybe by putting the theory and readings online, by using simple simulations and videos of experiments to better prepare students for lab classes, and by getting students to write up experiments online, perhaps you can reduce the amount of time students need to spend in the lab on straightforward experiments, and free up some of their time for other lab work that really requires their presence and hands-on use of equipment, which in the past has always felt rushed.

Moving your course online opens up a range of possibilities for teaching that may not be possible in the confines of a scheduled three credit weekly semester of lectures. It may not mean doing everything online, but focusing the campus experience on what can only be done on campus. Alternatively, it may enable you to totally rethink the curriculum, to exploit some of the benefits of online learning, such as getting students to find, analyse and apply information for themselves. Thus if you are thinking about going online, take the opportunity before you start teaching the course or program to think about how you’d really like to be teaching, and whether this can be accommodated in an online environment. It’s not a decision you have to make immediately though. We will see that as you work through the steps, it will become easier to make this decision. The important point is to be open to doing things differently.

Of all the nine steps, this is definitely the most important. However, you can be sure of one thing. If you merely put your lecture notes up on the web, or record your 50 minute lectures for downloading, then you are almost certain to have lower student completion rates and poorer grades than for your face-to-face class.

Suggested activity

1. Can you write down your philosophy of teaching – how you’d really like to teach your subject, if you weren’t constrained?

2. What are the main problems you are facing at the moment with your classroom teaching?

3. Now think whether, by moving a course online, with the increased flexibility of access for learners, and the resources available over the Internet, you could teach in new ways that better fit your philosophy of teaching. What would that look like?

Next step

In the next step (Step 2) I will discuss the question of what kind of online course you should be teaching, and how best to decide that. Also in some of the later steps, I will suggest how you can get help in deciding how you want to teach online.


Figlio, D., Rush, N. and Yin, L. (2010) Is it Live or is it Internet? Experimental Estimates of the Effects of Online Instruction on Student Learning Cambridge MA: National Bureau of Economic Research

Richardson, J. C., & Swan, K. (2003). Examining social presence in online courses in relation to students’ perceived learning and satisfaction. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7 (1), 68-8 8.



    • Hi Tony

      I am currently teaching grade five in a face to face classroom in Nanaimo, BC. I have become very interested in the concept of online teaching and have enrolled in the education Technology program at Vancover Island Universty. I currently use online resources like Khan academy to enhance my teaching. After reading step 1, I really need to rethink the way I’m using technology in my f2f classrom. Have I merely just moved my method of classroom teaching online? This is something I need to answer before I an move forward.

  1. Hi Tony,

    I am a Grade 8-12 language teacher in Nanaimo, B.C., and I’m currently taking my masters on online learning and leadership at Vancouver Island University. In the above article you discuss using elements of online learning in a face to face university settings and the benefits it could reap. Do you feel that the same model could be effective at the high school or elementary school level?

    Thanks Justin Mark

    • Good question, Mark.

      I’m hesitant to suggest that what works in post-secondary will also work in k-12 (my wife’s a k-12 teacher, and constantly berates about this, mainly because universities have more resources than schools!) Certainly at the elementary level I would focus much more on face-to-face socializing of students, and inter-personal communication. Computer activities would be there but limited and carefully selected. As students progress through high school, though, I think more time can be spent online, and indeed, BC has an extensive online curriculum for Grades 10-12 (although not all the courses offered are of high quality). So for Grades 10-12, I think most of what I’ve written in the Nine Steps will apply.

      Lastly, teaching languages online is a special case and needs skills specific to that topic, in addition to the general principles I’ve tried to cover in the nine steps. This also applies to a small number of other subjects (e.g. engineering).

  2. Hi Tony
    I am a student in Vancouver Island University’s Online Learning and Teaching Graduate Diploma program. Just wondering if you can suggest any other free video based learning sites like Khan Academy. I am a big fan of blended learning environments but I am just getting started with the idea and I would love some feedback in this regard. I think the idea of using online resources as a supplement or even replacement for teacher lecture opens up the teacher to better serve the human needs of students and to act as a learning guide rather than a distributor of knowledge. Thanks for your time.

  3. I have recently started the OLTD program at VIU and have already started to question how I want to teach online. I am one of those teachers that had a poor experience teaching DL (6 months) so it is very important to me that the next time I teach in an online setting it will be the way I envision it to be.

    I liked your comparison of driving a car and flying a plane is the same as moving from f2f teaching to online teaching. While I have the knowledge and skills to teach f2f I need to somehow morph those so they are conducive to an online learning environment. I’m hoping with my past experience in DL and my work in the OLTD program will aid in this transition.

    Thanks reminding all of your readers to consider how we want to teach online. It is so easy for one to become trapped in a f2f model as an online teacher.

    Tracy Cameron

  4. This step has given me lots to think about. I thought that I could just jump into doing a bunch of activities on-line and that was it. I am fascinated with the idea of really looking at my philosophy of teaching and how that can fit/work with on-line learning and my face to face classroom. I now realize that it is very important that I make sure I do my due diligence with regards to how and what I want to accomplish within my classroom to incorporated on-line learning effectively.
    Jane C

  5. Hi Tony,
    After reading this point it reiterated the fact that technology is a tool, and we need to consider the reasons for using the tool. If the only reason you are using technology is for technology sake, then perhaps it is not the best use of your or your students’ time.

  6. Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 1: Decide how you want to teach online
    I am a high school photography teacher who would like to move my content online to make my face to face teaching all about interacting with students. I find that students want to engage, but they want to do it on their time schedule. Allowing them the flexibility to access activities and resources online, in theory, would better prepare them for classroom lab work and field trip shoots. My question is, at a high school level, how do I decide what online practices will work? What preparation is needed to make a switch to online teaching with students who are new to the culture and expectations? I have over 90 students, how do I manage the online course and what will the workload look like?
    You posts have given real good basis to start and my homework is to find out what my online teaching will look like for myself and my students!
    Thank you,
    Jean Kloppenburg

    • Hi, Jean

      I feel a bit like you, overwhelmed with work from VIU students! So apologies for the delay in replying.

      Not sure I can help you with your question, as deciding on how you want to teach is a personal decision, and will develop and change over time. It’s easier to answer when you have more experience.

      At this stage, you should look into the different theories of teaching and learning, such as behaviourism, cognitive learning, and constructivism and see which of these is most likely to work for you and your students, and under what conditions. This will then help in deciding what is best done online and what in class, although there are other factors also to take into account (see Designing online learning for the 21st century)

      Hope that helps

  7. Hi Tony,
    I am a high school teacher in Nanaimo and a student with VIU’s Online Learning and Teaching Program. In my practice I have been slowly introducing online learning in my regular f2f teaching. I have progressed to students’ blogging about their learning and I have also had students creating their own blogs using WordPress. The problem(s) I have encountered is not only the technology issues at my school, but the fact that some students don’t “buy-in” to this model. At times it is a struggle to get students to use technology—how do we move beyond students’ reluctance and in some cases, unwillingness to make us of these tools?

    • Hi, Michelle

      Apologies for the delay in replying but I’m somewhat overwhelmed with comments from VIU students.

      Great that you are slowly but steadily introducing your students to online learning.

      I can’t help with the technology infrastructure issues, but student reluctance to use the the technology is often related to whether or not it’s going to help them with their grades. If it’s seen as just ‘extra’ work, without any immediate benefits, they will be reluctant to use it.

      One way to motivate them might be to get them to create e-portfolios of their work, which is then graded. If you’re using WordPress, this shouldn’t be difficult as the students can edit and move their work into the e-portfolio space. Thus the assessment is directly related to their use of technology. This may not work for you, given your technology difficulties, but there may be other ways to make the online work appear more ‘relevant’ to the students.



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