Teaching and Learning Online

Teaching and Learning Online
Teaching and Learning Online
Communication, Community, and Assessment
A Handbook for UMass Faculty
Editors: Mya Poe, Research Associate for Assessment
Mar tha L. A. Stassen Director of Assessment
Office of Academic Planning and Assessment
University of Massachusetts Amherst
This handbook is a joint project of the Center for Teaching, Office of Academic Planning and Assessment, the
Center for Computer-Based Instructional Technology, and Continuing Education. Publication was supported by
a Professional Development Grant in Instructional Technology and Distance Learning from the University of
Massachusetts President's Office and the Office of Academic Planning and Assessment.
Contributing Authors
Senior Online Fellows
Robert Feldman, Professor, Psychology (Amherst)
Donna Zucker, Assistant Professor, School of Nursing (Amherst)
Online Fellows
Keith Carver, Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering (Amherst)
Nancy Cohen, Department Head, Nutrition (Amherst)
Dennis Hanno, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Matters, Isenberg School of Management (Amherst)
John Jessoe, Director, Distance Leaning and Video Production Center (Boston)
David Lewis, Professor, Manufacturing and Management Information Systems (Lowell)
John Leong, Professor, Molecular Genetics and Microbiology (Worcester)
Brian Miller, Lecturer, Hotel Restaurant & Travel Administration (Amherst)
Susan Pasquale, Director of Curriculum and Faculty Development in the Department of Medical Education (Worcester)
Mark Schlesinger, Professor, Communication and Theater Arts (Boston)
Tim Shea, Associate Professor Marketing/BIS Development (Dartmouth)
Greg Stone, Director of Internet Developing (Dartmouth)
Steve Tello, Associate Director of Distance Learning (Lowell)
Project Support (Amherst)
Kevin Aiken, Director of Continuing Education
Tracy Cantwell, Center for Teaching
Vicky Getis, Senior Research Fellow, Computer Science
Dave Hart, Executive Director of the Center for Computer-Based Instructional Technology
Mya Poe, Research Associate for Assessment, Office of Academic Planning and Assessment
Mei-Yau Shih, Coordinator of Teaching Technologies, Center for Teaching
Martha L. A. Stassen, Director of Assessment, Office of Academic Planning and Assessment
The contributing authors are grateful for the many UMass colleagues who provided their suggestions on earlier versions of this
handbook. We’d also like to acknowledge the contributions of colleagues at other institutions of higher education whose work is
referenced throughout this handbook.
Chapter 1: Teaching in Online Learning Environments: Overview
• What is Online Learning?
• Advantages of Learning Online
• Advantages of Teaching Online
• Challenges of Teaching Online
• Common Questions .
• Common Terms.
Chapter 2: Teaching an Online Course
• Preparing to Teach Online .
• Preparing Students to Learn Online .
• Common Questions .
• Appendix: Student Guide to Conventions of Online Communication
Chapter 3: Teaching and Learning Challenges
• Structuring an Online Course
Course Organization
Communication .
• Creating Community .
Student-to-Student Interaction .
Faculty-to-Student interaction
Tone .
• Pedagogical Focus: Facilitating Discussions .
Chapter 4: Assessing Student Learning
• What is Assessment?
• Evaluating Student Performance for Grading Purposes
• Assessing Whether the Course is “Working” .
Chapter 5: Resources .
• Troubleshooting Student Issues
• Troubleshooting Technological Issues
• Electronic Resources and References.
• UMass Resources .
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
We are very pleased to welcome you to the first edition of Teaching and Learning
Online: A Handbook for UMass Faculty. Whether you are totally inexperienced in
online instruction or are relatively savvy about it, we think you will find the answers to
many questions about how to create and manage a state-of-the-art online course.
This guide was developed by a group of UMass faculty and staff who participated in a
year-long Online Fellows program supported by a Professional Development Grant in
Instructional Technology from the UMass President’s Office. The participants, who
represented all UMass campuses and various disciplines, were already currently
teaching online courses. The Online Fellows Program was developed through the joint
efforts of the Center for Teaching, the Office of Academic Planning and Assessment,
the Center for Computer-Based Instructional Technology, and Continuing Education.
Teaching and Learning Online is designed to guide you through the decisions that you
will need to make if you teach online. It reflects the joint experience and wisdom of
the Online Fellows, UMass faculty like yourself who up until a few years ago had no
experience in teaching online. We have tried to make the guide straightforward and
inviting, raising and answering the basic questions that novice online instructors would
be contemplating.
Of course, no guide is able to cover every aspect of online teaching. There are several
areas that we have not addressed, including specific technical issues (e.g., course
management systems), legal issues involving intellectual property, and compensation
What we hope we have accomplished, though, is to provide you with a guide to the
major pedagogical and assessment issues associated with teaching an online course.
All of the Online Fellows have found teaching online to be a rewarding and invigorating
experience, and we hope this guide eases your transition into the world of online
Donna Zucker
Robert S. Feldman
Senior Online Fellows
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Teaching in Online Learning
Environments: Overview
• What is Online Learning?
• Advantages of Learning Online
• Advantages of Teaching Online
• Challenges of Teaching Online
• Common Questions
• Common Terms
This chapter outlines some of the advantages and challenges in teaching and learning
in an online environment.
What is Online Learning?
The term online learning (or, as it is sometimes called, distance learning) includes a
number of computer-assisted instruction methods. For the purposes of this handbook:
What is online
Online teaching and learning is faculty-delivered instruction via the Internet.
Online instruction includes real-time (synchronous) and anytime, anywhere
(asynchronous) interactions.
Two parallel processes take place in an online environment:
1. Students become more active, reflective learners.
2. Students and teachers engage in learning through the use of technology and
become more familiar with technology by using it.
Online learning is most effective when delivered by teachers experienced in their
subject matter. The best way to maintain the connection between online education
and the values of traditional education is through ensuring that online learning is
“delivered” by teachers, fully qualified and interested in teaching online in a web-based
environment (Feenberg 1998).
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Approaches to Online Learning
Two approaches to online learning have emerged: synchronous and asynchronous
learning. Synchronous learning is instruction and collaboration in “real time” via the
Internet. It typically involves tools, such as:
live chat
audio and video conferencing
data and application sharing
shared whiteboard
virtual "hand raising"
joint viewing of multimedia presentations and online slide shows
Asynchronous learning methods use the time-delayed capabilities of the Internet.
It typically involves tools, such as:
threaded discussion
newsgroups and bulletin boards
file attachments
Asynchronous courses are still instructor-facilitated but are not conducted in real time,
which means that students and teacher can engage in course-related activities at their
convenience rather than during specifically coordinated class sessions. In
asynchronous courses, learning does not need to be scheduled in the same way as
synchronous learning, allowing students and instructors the benefits of anytime,
anywhere learning.
Adapted from Mark, Tony. “Web based Learning Primer.” http://www.c2t2.ca/landonline/primer.html
Course Software
Rather than creating your online course from scratch, a number of software programs
are now available that make it easy to develop an online course. These programs
include features such as threaded discussions and document sharing and predesigned design layouts to make the course design process easier. Check with the
campus technology specialists to learn more about the preferred software for online
learning in your department.
Advantages of Learning Online
Online learning offers a variety of educational opportunities:
Student-centered learning
The variety of online tools draw on individual learning styles and help students become
more versatile learners.
Collaborative learning
Online group work allows students to become more active participants in the learning
process. Contributing input requires that students comprehend what is being
discussed, organize their thinking coherently, and express that thinking with carefully
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
constructed language.
Easy access to global resources
Students can easily access online databases and subject experts in the online
Experiential learning through multimedia presentations
New technologies can be used to engage and motivate students. Technology can also
be used to support students in their learning activities.
Accessible for non-traditional students
Online delivery of programs and courses makes participation possible for students who
experience geographic and time barriers in gaining access to higher education.
Draws on student interest in online learning
Many students are interested in online learning. In a recent survey conducted by the
Office of Academic Planning and Assessment at UMass Amherst, more than 50% of
students surveyed said that they were “very interested” or “somewhat interested” in
taking an online course.
Advantages of Teaching Online
Teaching online courses can:
Offer the opportunity to think about teaching in new ways
Online teaching can allow you to experiment with techniques only available in online
environments, such as threaded discussions and webliographies.
Provide ideas and techniques to implement in traditional courses
Online email discussions, a frequently-used practice in online learning, can be
incorporated into traditional courses to facilitate group work. Other techniques, such
as web-based course calendars and sample papers posted on the Internet (with
student permission) can easily be incorporated into a traditional course.
Expand the reach of the curriculum
Online teaching can expand existing curriculum to students on a regional, national,
and international level.
Professional satisfaction
Teaching online can be an enormously rewarding experience for teachers. Teachers
often cite the diversity of students in online courses as one of the most rewarding
aspects of teaching online.
Instructor convenience
Teaching online can offer teachers conveniences not available in traditional classroom
settings; for example, at-home office hours and flexible work schedules.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Challenges of Teaching Online
“Faculty involved in
[online learning] find
themselves acting as
a combination of
content experts,
learning process
design experts,
motivators, mentors,
and interpreters. In
short, technology can
leverage faculty time,
but it cannot replace
human contact
without significant
quality losses.”
Massy, William.
“Distance Education:
Guidelines for Good
Practice.” AFT, May
2002, p. 16
According to a recent American Federation of Teachers report on distance learning,
faculty must be prepared to meet the special requirements of teaching at a distance.
Some of the challenges for instructors of teaching online include:
• Familiarity with the online environment
• Capacity to use the medium to its advantage
• Being available to students on an extended basis electronically
• Providing quick responses and feedback to students
Massy, William. “Distance Education: Guidelines for Good Practice.” AFT, May 2002
Yet, the proponents of online learning argue that these obstacles can be overcome by
employing such techniques as the following:
Become familiar with the technology used in your online course
Long before your course starts, become familiar with the technology used in your
online course, including hardware and software, and spend some time exploring their
options. An online course requires a high level of computing power and reliable
telecommunications infrastructure. Make sure you have access to both.
Use the online medium to your advantage
The online environment is essentially a space for written communication. This is both
a limitation and a potential of online learning. Written communication can be more
time consuming, but “the ability to sit and think as one composes a question or
comment also can raise the quality of discussion.” Additionally, shy students who
have trouble participating in a classroom discussion often feel more comfortable in an
online classroom. Online classrooms can be developed with this fact in mind to take
advantage of these considerations.
Massy, William. “Distance Education: Guidelines for Good Practice.” AFT, May 2002, p. 9
and “Teaching at an Internet Distance: the Pedagogy of Online Teaching and Learning.” The
Report of a 1998-1999 University of Illinois Faculty Seminar.
Keep connected with students
Use the technology of the online environment to help you keep in touch with students.
Communicate frequently with students, both individually and as a group. A main part of
this handbook focuses on how to connect with students. While keeping connected
with students can be a challenge, the online environment offers a number of interesting
pedagogical opportunities.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Common Questions
What is an online course?
An online course is offered in part or wholly via the Internet.
Who can teach an online course?
Faculty members as well as graduate students may teach online courses at UMass.
Will an online course echo a course I have already prepared?
It can, but be aware that many changes will be necessary for the course to "work"
online. You may find it professionally stimulating to create an entire course anew.
Why would I want to teach an online course?
Do you want to experiment? Do you want to travel during the semester, have other
scheduling complications, or want the convenience of working from home? Are you
interested in reaching students whom you might not otherwise have a chance to
teach? These are some of the reasons why instructors choose to teach online.
Where are online courses taught?
Anywhere. Most courses are taught entirely online and students and professors never
or only rarely meet face-to-face. Other courses are taught with a strong on-campus
When are online courses taught?
UMass has many options for teaching online. Interested teachers can contact their
own departments or the Division of Continuing Education.
How do I learn to teach an online course?
The best place to start learning how to teach online is in this handbook. Other places
to look for information include your department, online teaching tools such as eCollege
or Blackboard, the consultants at Continuing Education, or the instructional
technologist at your campus. Also, colleagues who have taught online courses can be
an invaluable resource. You can also gain experience with the online learning
environment by developing a course homepage for your own classroom-based course.
Common Terms
Following are some common terms used in online courses:
lurking—reading threaded discussion responses without posting a response.
Students who lurk in online courses are like silent students in traditional courses;
they listen but do not speak. In online situations where you do not know how
many people are “listening,” lurking can be problematic if others do not know you
are present.
threaded discussion—an asynchronous discussion. In threaded discussions
students may post responses to a prompt at any time. Threaded discussions
allow students to work at their own pace, allow the teacher to respond more
thoughtfully since all the responses are not posted simultaneously, and are easier
to coordinate than expecting all students to be online at the same time.
webliography—an online bibliography of web-related resources. Often online
teachers will use a web-based bibliography to help students identity appropriate
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Internet resources.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Teaching an Online Course
• Preparing to Teach Online
• Preparing Students to Learn Online
• Common Questions
• Appendix: Student Guide: Conventions of Communicating Online
This chapter outlines the Online Fellows’ recommendations for preparing to teach and
learn online. These recommendations offer advice to those instructors who may be
relatively new at designing and teaching online courses. Also, they serve as a
reminder that participating in an online learning environment may be a new experience
for many students.
Preparing to Teach Online
As you plan your online course, it is helpful to remember that in any environment
“good teaching is good teaching” (Ragan 1998). Experienced online instructors stress
that teaching online is less about the mechanics of distance education and “more
about what makes for an effective educational experience, regardless of where or when
it is delivered” (Ragan 1998).
Qualities of
online teachers
They provide a safe climate for their students by providing reassurance and support to
new online learners.
They invite student input regarding the goals and agenda for the course.
They give frequent individualized feedback, using a variety of communication tools.
They help students connect with one another.
Ladon, E. H. (April 18,2002) “High Touch in a High Tech World: Strategies for Individualizing Online
Learning.”. eCollege.com's eNewsletter http://www.ecollege.com/educator/Resources_edvoice.html
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
“Distance education
instructors must plan
ahead, be highly
organized, and
communicate with
learners in new ways.
They need to be
accessible to
students, work in
teams when
appropriate, and play
the role of facilitator
or mentor in their
interactions with
Ragan, L.C. “Good
Teaching is Good
Teaching: An Emerging
Set of Guiding Principles
and Practices for the
Design and Development
of Distance Education”
Many teachers have found the Principles of Good Practice in
Undergraduate Education to be a useful framework for thinking about how to
enhance student learning in their classes.
Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education:
1. Encourages contact between students and faculty, especially
contact focused on the academic agenda.
2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students, i.e.,
teaching students to work productively with others.
3. Encourages active learning, i.e., doing and thinking about the
learning process.
4. Gives prompt feedback and helps students understand how to
5. Emphasizes time on task by providing repeated useful, productive,
guided practice.
6. Communicates high expectations and encourages students to have
high self-expectations.
7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning and engenders
respect of intellectual diversity.
Adapted from Gamson, Z. and Chickering, A. “Seven Principles for Good
Practice in Undergraduate Education.” AAHE Bulletin, March 1987, pp. 5-10.
An additional good practice that does not appear on this list, but that many
experienced online instructors mention as being essential to successful teaching, is:
8. Includes a well-organized course, the structure of which is clearly
communicated to students.
Use these eight best practices as a framework for thinking about your online course.
Of course, it is also important to acknowledge that some aspects of good teaching,
such as faculty-student contact and cooperation among students, are particularly
challenging to accomplish in an online environment. This handbook provides
recommendations on how to accomplish these goals, despite the complications that
may exist.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Preparing Students to Learn Online
Differences in
Keep the main
content format of your
online course
accessible for the
student with the least
technological savvy.
Students new to online learning may initially find this kind of learning disorienting
without the physical classroom space and guidance from the physical presence of a
teacher. Other students may initially misperceive learning online as “easier” than
learning in a physical classroom space. In reality, students often find the workload in
an online course heavier because they must cover course material on their own and
type their discussion comments.
There are a number of suggestions for how to help prepare students for online learning:
Clarify computer skills/terminology
• Provide guidelines that detail the minimum technological requirements needed for
the course (both in terms of hardware and technical expertise).
At the beginning of the semester, provide a detailed worksheet with instructions on
how to complete the technical tasks required for completing course work. For
example, while it may be clear to you how to post a message for many students,
such tasks are new. Also, while some students may be familiar with one online
environment, do not assume that they are familiar with all online environments.
Some examples of information to provide include:
- Where to find information online
- How to post a message and homework assignments
- How to access course readings and take online exams
Describe how to seek help immediately when having trouble
Explain online conventions for tone, such as using ALL CAPS for emphasis. Set
rules for using abbreviations and emoticons (or “smileys,” signals of emotions that
look like faces on their sides).
Provide a tutorial on computer basics.
� Tip: If you cannot provide a tutorial on computer basics, try working with a
local community college to schedule a series of computer orientations. One
Online Fellow scheduled five 2-hour computer orientations at a local
community college to help her students learn computer basics. The college’s
IT staff setup 15 computers with updated browsers and word processing.
Students learned basic computer operation as well as word processing skills.
The final tutorial was dedicated to navigating library databases and the World
Wide Web. The collaborative effort helped ensure student success for those
students unfamiliar with online learning.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
“If you are stepping
into an online
class for the first
time, you don’t
consider the class
time and
homework involved
in an online
- Chuck, student from
a UMass online
course talking about
under-estimating the
amount of time an
online course can
Explain the differences in learning online versus learning in a traditional
• Emphasize the amount of time needed for taking an online class and the
importance of working independently. Because all class discussions are written,
students must be prepared for the amount of time needed to type their comments.
A 3-credit online course can easily require more than six hours of time, especially
for students who type slowly.
Emphasize the extensiveness of reading and writing in an online course. Because
all class assignments are provided in written format with no opportunity for class
questions, teachers detail class assignments thoroughly in online courses.
Consequently, students must become careful readers in order to ensure that they
understand the assignment.
To help students understand the communication differences of learning online,
provide a detailed worksheet with instructions on communication guidelines.
� Tip: See the Appendix: Conventions for Communicating Online to this chapter
for an example.
� Tip: One instructor uses the following explanation to clarify to her students the
definition of a threaded discussion post:
An American Federation
of Teachers survey has
found that not all
students do equally well
in online classrooms.
Highly motivated
students with strong
written communication
skills tend to have more
success. On the other
hand, students who are
particularly dependent on
visual and verbal cues
tend to do less well in
online classrooms.
Massy, William. “Distance
Education: Guidelines for
Good Practice.” AFT, May
How much to post, and what makes a "good" post?
These are hard questions to answer because discussions are organic,
developing and evolving depending upon what is said by whom. . . In general,
posting only once is not enough to really engage in a discussion. I am
expecting probably 3-6 posts depending upon the amount of time I've allotted
for the discussion and how in-depth your posts are. . . What I expect and
hope to see is a dialogue evolving, with give and take, back and forth,
questions asked and ideas explored like in a face-to-face class discussion. .
. So as you post be cognizant that you are engaging in a discussion. Do not
post long pages of responses--probably a couple of paragraphs at most,
sometimes a sentence or two can be effective, especially if you're asking a
Address students’ concerns on cyber-culture anxiety
• Encourage questions and comments about technology.
Use a survey to assess student technical knowledge at the beginning of the
� Tip: See the Pre/Post Survey example in this chapter for ways to assess
student technical knowledge.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Clarify expectations
• Post guidelines for participation on the class homepage. For example, explain to
students how many days each week they should login to the course website. In
online courses, it is not uncommon to expect students to login every week day.
Give a detailed, conspicuous course outline. Because you must clarify course
expectations only in writing, make sure that you give students enough detail to
complete class assignments. Even simple assignments like a journal need
detailed explanations.
� Tip: One instructor uses the following explanation for the weekly journal
exercise. She posts this explanation in every unit to remind students
weekly of the assignment:
Your journal (click on the journal tab at the top of the screen to access)
is the place for you to keep thinking about, wrestling with, exploring the
issues we've discussed online. Feel free to add your own day-to-day
observations about issues related to our course. Your journal is only read
by me. I will never comment on your observations; I only check to see if
you've completed the assignment.
Length: 1-2 paragraphs
Due: Every Friday by midnight EST (graded pass/fail, i.e., either you did it
or not)
Set clear expectations with regard to student performance/activity. Help students
understand expectations for the course and encourage them to ask questions.
One way to help students understand course expectations is to post examples of
model assignments. You can post examples of model assignments from other
webpages or upload sample papers. Most online course software programs allow
you to easily upload files, such as MS Word and Excel documents.
Remind students frequently of course expectations.
� Tip: During the semester, one instructor posted reminders to keep
students up-to-date with the course material. Following is an example of
one such reminder:
Have you read your James McBride?
If you haven't started reading The Color of Water, you better get reading!
It's almost Monday and the weekly exercise is due Wednesday. Look for
the threaded discussion posting on Monday morning.
Hope you had a great weekend! I look forward to getting your response
papers on Monday night!
Explain the time-frame in which emails will be answered. For example, on
Monday, Wednesday, and Friday only, or within 2 business days of receipt.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Emphasize courtesy to fellow students. Because students can not see verbal or
visual clues from other speakers, encourage them to be tactful in their responses
or include parenthetical clues for humor (<that was a joke!>) or emotion (<sigh>).
� Tip: One instructor describes courtesy to her students with the following
Our online discussions will be class discussions, meaning the same
respect we would show each other in an actual classroom, we will also
show in a virtual classroom. In fact, because the online environment is
primarily a verbal environment where we communicate through writing, it
lacks the physical and auditory clues that accompany face-to-face
discussion, which may lead to more misunderstandings, particularly when
a person is using humor. But being polite and respectful does not mean
that you can't disagree or question each other's interpretations of our
texts. But be sure to do so in a polite way, rather than "I think you're
wrong and here's why" write instead, "Sally, I think you are saying Y
[paraphrase what person wrote], but I wonder if there isn't another way to
look at that same incident. The way I see it, X really happened . . ." etc.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Pre/Post Survey
Many Online Fellows find it helpful to assess student computer experience at the beginning
of the semester. By ascertaining what students know about computers and their use, you
can tailor course expectations accordingly.
Computer Diagnostic Survey
1. Do you already know how to use word processing software on a computer?
2. Do you already know how to use email?
3. Do you currently have an email account?
4. If so, what is your email address?
5. Do you already know how to browse the World Wide Web?
If yes, what browser do you use?
6. Do you own or have access to a computer at your current residence?
7. If so, can you use the Internet from your current residence?
8. Do you know how to use a Mac?
9. Do you know how to use a PC?
10. Which system do you prefer?
Adapted from “Student Ed Tech Survey,” Teaching Effectiveness Program, University of
Pre-Course Survey
In addition to questions about computer experience, you can also ask questions
such as:
1. Is this your first online course?
If so, what are your expectations about learning online?
If not, what other courses have you taken online? What did you like best/least
about that experience?
2. Why did you choose to take an online course?
3. What are you looking forward to the most?
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Common Questions
Class Size
Many sources stress
that quality teaching
online requires smaller
student/faculty ratios
than in traditional
How do I plan a course?
It is important to give yourself plenty of start-up time for your online course. Allow
yourself time to experiment with different syllabi. Consider asking a colleague if you
can “lurk” in their online course, so you can witness first-hand how an online course
develops over the semester. Chapter 3: Teaching and Learning Challenges includes
advice from the Online Fellows on planning your course.
What support will I need?
Each campus employs an instructional technologist. See Chapter 5: Resources for
more information about contacting the campus instructional technology specialist.
How do I determine the ideal enrollment for my course?
When determining the ideal enrollment for your course, consider what you realistically
can accomplish given your subject matter, the nature of assignments, and types of
assessment. Many sources stress that quality teaching online requires smaller
student/faculty ratios than in traditional classes. For example, a typical literature
course with an enrollment of 24 might be limited to 15-18 in an online course.
According to the faculty report from the University of Illinois:
Online, attentiveness must be tangible, and may involve more
effort than in a face-to-face setting. These considerations imply an
inherent limitation of online class size; size is determined by the
amount of effort required to form a “community of learners.”
“Teaching at an Internet Distance: the Pedagogy of Online Teaching and
Learning.” The Report of a 1998-1999 University of Illinois Faculty Seminar.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Chapter Appendix: Student Guide to Conventions of
Online Communication
In order to participate in this course, you must obtain access to a computer with a connection to the World Wide
• Realize that typed messages lack the vocal and nonverbal cues that normally carry a lot of meaning in a faceto-face conversation. Without this supporting context, satire or sarcasm can come across as meanness. Try
using "emoticons" (also called “Smileys”) to make your emotional intent more obvious (e.g., make it clear
when you're joking ;-).
• Avoid criticizing people's spelling. Typos are more accepted on the Internet, so sending a message pointing
out all the spelling errors or grammatical mistakes in someone's messages may be counterproductive.
• Even so, spell-check your own messages and quickly review them for punctuation and grammar.
• DON'T USE ALL CAPITAL LETTERS! Occasional capitals are OK for emphasis, but typing in all caps is the
Internet equivalent of shouting (plus messages in all caps are hard to read).
• Avoid using all lowercase letters. It's viewed as mumbling.
• Avoid using text features like boldface, italics, underlining, or diacritical marks---many online systems won't
display them.
• _Underscored Text_ indicates underline or italic.
• *asterisks* are used in place of bold text.
• Be brief and to the point. People expect brevity and won't read lengthy messages. Plus, it's harder to read
words on a computer monitor than on paper.
• Have backup copies of files and email messages.
Subject Lines
• Keep subject lines short.
• Make subject lines informative (e.g., don't title messages “FYI,” “Important,” or anything else that doesn't
indicate the content of the message).
• Quote the original message when you reply. It may not be apparent to everyone else who you're replying to or
what you're replying about.
• Lines of text with brackets
> preceding them are used to denote a
> quote from a previous message.
• Unless you are explicitly given permission, don't publicly post email sent to you in private.
• Recognize that instant delivery of email does not guarantee an instant response. Don't “dun” people for
responses before an acceptable amount of time has elapsed.
• If you are sending information from another source, pay attention to whether the material is copyrighted
(copyright laws apply to email, too). Cite sources.
• If a message is particularly important, you might want to compose several drafts of it in a word processor and
spell-check it.
• Avoid leaving your email account open when you leave your computer. Anyone could sit down at your
keyboard and send out any libelous, offensive, or embarrassing message under your name.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Appendix: Student Guide cont’d
• Do not “spam” (send unsolicited generic email).
• Do not reply to spam, even to demand that they stop emailing you.
• If you really must distribute a message to many people, do not paste all the names into the “CC” field of
your email program (where people can see everyone else's email addresses). Always use “BCC” (blind
carbon copy) instead.
• Do not send huge attachments.
• When you're replying to a message that has an attachment, do not include the attachment again.
• Avoid sending attached files that lack filename extensions (that's because some computers won't be able to
open them).
• If you're not sure whether your audience has the correct software to open an attachment, try converting it to
an HTML document so it can be opened in a browser. If the document is large, you could post the document
on the Web in HTML format and email the URL instead of the file.
• Do not flame! Flaming refers to derogatory, abusive, threatening, sarcastic, rude, or otherwise mean-spirited
messages directed at people.
• If a message provokes a negative emotional response, put it away for a while, then reread it and see if you're
misinterpreting it. If you don't understand a particular item, ask the sender for clarification before replying to
an incorrect conclusion.
• Messages are not secure. Remember, it's very easy for someone else to forward messages you thought
were confidential. Think of email and bulletin board messages as postcards rather than letters.
• Apologize. If there's been a misunderstanding or miscommunication, you can often nip a flame war in the
bud by a brief apology.
Lurk before you leap. Lurking is visiting without participating. While it's rude to make a habit of lurking, a
little lurking can acquaint you with rules and procedures, help you get the “lay of the land,” and prevent
Avoid posting non-informative messages on bulletin boards. Chat is more like a telephone, so saying “Me,
too!” or “I don't know” is accepted. But on bulletin boards, people don't like to read postings that aren't
Remember that chat rooms are "logged" (i.e., a record is kept of conversations).
Do not disrupt chat rooms by pasting large blocks of text into the input box (thus causing the screen to
scroll faster than other users are able to type) or otherwise act in a manner that negatively affects other
users' ability to engage in real time exchanges.
If you are having a conversation that is off the main topic, please move to another chat room.
If you are a fast typist, please pause occasionally to let slower typists contribute to the discussion.
Excerpted from Bramucci, Robert. Cal State Fullerton. http://fdc.fullerton.edu/learning/student_web_site_handout.htm
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Teaching and Learning
• Structuring an Online Course
• Creating Community
• Facilitating Discussions
Experienced online instructors often emphasize that the issues addressed in an online
environment are similar to those faced by instructors in traditional classes. However,
given the unfamiliar learning environment and the particular obstacles that face
instructors developing virtual classes, some pedagogical challenges are made
particularly difficult.
Three primary challenges are associated with online teaching:
Effectively structuring online courses
Creating community in virtual classrooms
Facilitating and encouraging online discussions
As you read through the following recommendations for addressing each of these three
themes, you will notice the variety of ways they relate to the Principles of Good
Practice described in Chapter 2.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Structuring an Online Course
Course Planning
Course Organization
Experienced online instructors and students alike emphasize the need to have a
clearly structured and well-planned course when teaching and learning online.
Structuring the course effectively means planning the course well in advance of when it
is being taught, thinking through the organizational structures and qualities that will
help students learn, and understanding that the online environment presents a number
of communication challenges.
Course Planning
Designing a course always takes a great deal of time and thought. That is no different
with online courses. At the same time, the online environment offers particular
obstacles and opportunities for both instructors and students. As you think through
the course elements, pay particular attention to the course components that may
serve as stumbling blocks to student learning online. One particular tension that
emerges is the need to have a clear and organized structure, while allowing flexibility
for making adaptations mid-stream.
Develop your course before the semester begins
Often new faculty discover that developing online courses is time-consuming and
that transitioning a successful traditional course to an online setting can be
difficult. Experienced online instructors suggest developing your course well in
advance and with a clear, concise objectives statement. The better prepared you
are, the better your online teaching experience will be.
Allow flexibility in your course design
Although it is important to make course expectations and due dates clear, it is
also important to build in flexibility to your schedule. Building flexibility into your
course structure will allow you to compensate for unexpected technological
problems as well as give you opportunities to respond to student feedback.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Course Organization
Students in online courses are in particular need of a clear organizational structure.
Keep in mind that each student is experiencing the course on his or her own – without
the opportunity to turn immediately to a neighbor if confused or unclear about
something in the course. In addition, students in online courses do not have the
imposed structure of attending class at a consistent time and place each week they
do not have the traditional “markers” of handing in papers in class or coming to the
classroom to take a test. For all these reasons, it’s important to think carefully about
how to appropriately organize your course to encourage student participation and
facilitate student learning.
Teaching Tip:
24-Hour Goal
Provide feedback to
students within 24
hours, excluding
weekends and
holidays. Timely
feedback makes
students feel that the
instructor is attentive.
Chunk the syllabus into sections
Divide the course syllabus into discrete segments, organized by topic. Selfcontained segments can be used to assess student mastery of that unit before
moving forward in the course.
� Tip: Use an “Assignments” page for course assignments. On that page,
outline each assignment in a paragraph, explaining its purpose in helping
students, and provide explanations and guidelines for evaluation. See the
sample course homepage in this chapter for an example of organizing
your course this way.
Tip: Another way to divide the course is by time. One instructor uses the
following organization, in which each unit is labeled by week and author,
for her literature course. The following figures shows the first two weeks of
her course:
Course Home
Week 1: Kyoko Mori
Who is Kyoko Mori?
Reading Notes
Weekly Exercise
Threaded Discussion
Week 2: Esmeralda Santiago
Who is Esmeralda Santiago?
Reading Notes
Weekly Exercise
Threaded Discussion
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Break assignments into chunks with “touch points”
Because students work at their own pace (and procrastinate) in an online course,
it works best to develop guidelines that require students to come back to the
course website often. Chunking assignments helps students keep up with the
In addition, use “touch points” at which point students do something–write in a
journal, send an email, enter into a discussion–to help chunk course content and
give the course more structure.
� Tip: A literature instructor chunked one unit as follows:
1) BACKGROUND INFORMATION: Before you begin to read Their Eyes
Were Watching God (TEWWG), please read the background information
that I have provided.
2) READ CHAPTERS 1-10 (pp. 1-99) and write a two-page, single-spaced
reading response that you will put in your Journal on the course homepage
journal link. This response will be more informal than an essay, and is
due by MIDNIGHT, JULY 23.
TIMES (more than two) by noon, July 26.
Provide due dates for assignments
Each assignment should have a clear due date and time (for example, “midnight
EST on July 8”). In addition, multiple due dates every week keep students on track
with course requirements.
Provide multiple opportunities for graded activities
Assess students on writing assignments, standard test formats, and class
participation. The online course format offers a number of opportunities for graded
written assignments, including threaded discussions, papers, web research, and
online exercises. Multiple measurement points will stimulate students to become
involved in multiple activities and keep them participating in class.
Give credit for participating in online discussions
Give students credit for the substantive learning that students provide for each
other through online discussions. In many online courses, these discussions are
essential for advancing the course goals. By assigning credit for participation in
online discussions, instructors can deter “lurking,” where students listen to the
conversation but do not participate.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
In considering how you communicate with students about course goals and your
expectations, it is again important to remember that students experience your course
on their own and will come to the course with varying levels of technical expertise.
Place important information in a variety of places, and repeat it often, in order to
enhance the chances that students will pay attention to it.
Teaching Tip:
Rules for Online
Give students a clear overall understanding of the course structure
Students need a clear message of the “vision” of the course so provide them a sense
of the overall landscape of the course.
� Tip: Use a Table of Contents layout design to help first time online
students understand the structure of the course. The Table of Contents
style is similar to printed material. See the sample course homepage in
this chapter for an example of how to provide a sense of the overall
landscape of a course.
Structure online
discussion groups to
make them more
productive and focused.
Assign students to a
group and identify each
group with a name and
location online. Within
each group, identify a
group leader. Be explicit
about what each group
should discuss and in
what medium (email,
threaded discussion, or
offline) they should work.
Post course syllabus, policies, expectations, and objectives on the course
You will most likely not be available to respond immediately when students email
questions regarding assignments or due dates, so posting your syllabus on the
course homepage will eliminate confusion.
� Tip: Students will access the course homepage at any time of the day or
night. You can’t always be online to answer questions, so make the
assignments easy to find and easy to understand.
Setup a housekeeping clearinghouse section on your webpage
To cut down on the number of individual questions, set-up a housekeeping
clearinghouse section (sometimes called “Frequently Asked Questions”) on your
webpage where students can post a question and get answers about general
course information (e.g., how do I download the article, when is the next paper
due, etc.) Encourage students to go to this section of the course before asking
the instructor.
Use printed materials if a student requests
Have a printed workbook of course syllabus and other critical course information
available for students who request printed copies.
� Tip: For engineering courses with heavy math content, provide detailed
lecture notes, solutions, and other course materials in PDF format before
the lecture date or online access date. This will allow students to
download and print course material in advance.
Structure online discussions
Structure the course to capitalize on the threaded discussion format. Use existing
textbook material or website readings for “lecture” and guide students through
activities and threaded postings for active learning.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Remind students frequently of due dates
Use a technique like “Nag Notes” to remind students of due dates and other
� Tip: One Communication professor uses “nag notes” to remind his students of
due dates. For example:
I've posted the topics proposed thus far. Browse to PROJECTS/PAPER #1.
- For Wednesday, Read the Birkerts piece, “Into the Electronic Millennium.”
- For Monday, Read Postman's Chapter 1 and do the IT/HC in the News
Discussion Forum assignment.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
The following syllabus is taken from a UMass online course. This syllabus illustrates many of
the best practices explained in this chapter:
Course Homepage
The Table of Contents layout design helps first time online students by providing them a
schema similar to print media.
Information is chunked into discrete units.
There are multiple points of entry to information.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Creating Community
Student-to-Student Interaction
Faculty-to-Student Interaction
When learners interact with one another, with an instructor, and
with ideas, new information is acquired, interpreted, and made
meaningful. Such interactions form the foundation of a community
of learners. If students feel they are part of a community if
learners, they are more apt to be motivated to seek solutions to
their problems and succeed. The challenge for distance educators
is to develop strategies and techniques for establishing and
maintaining ‘learning communities’ among learners separated by
space and/or time.
- An Emerging Set of Guiding Principles and Practices for the Design and Development of
Distance Education. Available at www.outreach.psu.edu/de/ide
In an environment where instructors do not necessarily meet students face-to-face and
where students may never have an opportunity to meet their peers in a physical
classroom, developing a sense of community can be particularly challenging. At the
same time, a sense of a community–where students are able to work cooperatively
with peers on course material, have the opportunity for positive interaction with the
instructor, and where the learning environment is respectful and motivates students to
do their best–is key to a positive and successful learning experience.
This section provides a number of solutions for creating community in the online
classroom. The Online Fellows are quick to point out, however, that creating
community is a challenge, and classroom dynamics must be monitored throughout
the semester to ensure that students continue to engage thoughtfully in course
content and continue to work together productively.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Student-to-Student Interaction
As the Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education make clear, student
learning in any classroom is enhanced when students have the opportunity to connect
with each other about their academic work. For the online instructor, facilitating
student-to-student interaction is made particularly challenging because students do
not naturally have a chance to get to know each other before class or in face-to-face
conversations. Therefore, it is important to structure opportunities where students
“have” to interact with each other. It is also important, however, that the instructor
develop methods for monitoring the success of these interactions. The Online Fellows
offer the following recommendations:
“A sense of group
and community
among electronically
individuals can be
created by a
combination of
facilitation skills,
activities, and
conferences for
specific groups and
- “Teaching at an Internet
Distance: the Pedagogy
of Online Teaching and
Limit the size of discussion groups
Rather than having an entire class talk in one large group, break the class into
smaller discussion groups of four or five students. That way, students can get to
know each other in a more intimate way.
Allow students to post student-to-student communication (as well as
student-to-teacher) to get answers to questions
Encourage students to discuss among themselves. Do not respond to every
comment—interject and guide the discussion. Encourage students to introduce
themselves to the group at the beginning of the semester.
Pair each student with a “buddy” in the course
The buddy system gives students a source of support in the online classroom.
Some instructors match students with varying technological experience. Other
instructors prefer to match students who possess similar technological skills. Pair
students according to the goals of your course or the assignment.
Encourage peer response
Post student papers online and ask each student to select a partner to critique
each other’s work. Be sure that students know their paper will be posted.
Structure opportunities for personal interaction
Incorporate opportunities for students to tell you something about themselves in a
"student lounge” or meeting place. A “student lounge” can also be a place where
students can share with each other, meet each other virtually, and learn more
about each other without your presence. See the “Student Conference Center” at
the end of this chapter for an example of how to set up such a location on your
course website.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Faculty-to-Student Interaction
The Principles of Good Practice highlight the importance of faculty-student interaction
in promoting learning. The online environment is not necessarily conducive to this goal,
because neither the instructor nor the student can rely on regular face-to-face
interactions to reinforce one’s willingness to be helpful and approachable. Experienced
online instructors, however, have identified the following ways to help enhance facultystudent interactions:
In your written communication, present yourself as accessible to students
Students in an online course must feel that you are approachable. Often the
demands on teachers are greater in online courses, so it is important to explore
the variety of ways you can send a message of availability. One way to bridge the
distance between faculty and student is to address students by name. Praise
student-initiated contact.
� Tip: To make yourself seem approachable to students, try using a more
informal tone. For example, “Today, as you all are well aware, our class
officially begins. Please begin working on the assignments for July 15-21.
You have a couple of assignments due tonight (and kudos to those of you
who have already posted!)”
Schedule an in-person meeting of the entire class
If possible, meet with students in person for one session at the beginning of the
semester. Meeting in person helps students associate names with faces and can
be an effective, timely way to accomplish many of the administrative tasks central
to your course.
Generate frequent communication
Students need to have a sense the instructor is really “there,” not “missing in
action.” This means responding in a timely manner to individual questions or
issues that are raised in discussion groups. It also means making your presence
known by participating in online discussions, giving students regular feedback on
their work and their comments, and being flexible enough to make changes to the
course mid-stream based on student feedback.
Assign discussion group leaders or project team leaders to facilitate group
Assigning team leaders is one way to ensure that students receive ample
feedback. Make sure that the team leader disseminates information to every
member of the team. Part of the responsibility of the team leader should be to
report to you frequently on the progress of the team.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Remember that in the virtual classroom, neither the instructor nor the student has the
visual cues of face-to-face communication. This also means students have fewer
methods for determining whether their efforts are comparable to those of their peers
and for assessing how they are doing in the class. Students will use the cues that are
available (virtually all of them in writing) to help them understand the classroom
climate. Therefore, how the instructor shapes the course climate through written
comments and the tone of communications to students is particularly important.
“Word selection is
quite important.
There’s a big
difference between
‘ok’ and ‘GOOD
"Humanize" the course
Remember that although you are teaching online, you are still teaching real
people, so it helps if you and students can put names with faces. Develop a
portion of the course website to post pictures and brief bios of students.
Avoid general broadcast questions
An online course is not a collective but many individuals all reading messages
separately. So, a broadcast message like “Are you doing the reading?” is hard for
a student sitting at his/her own computer to interpret.
Consider the tone of your own responses to students
Attitude comes through in writing. Are you sounding impatient? Supportive? Praise
and model appropriate tone.
Use private email for sensitive communications
Use threaded discussions for group conversations. Use private emails to comment
on individual student contributions and criticism.
- Jenna, student in
UMass online course
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Student Conference
Purpose: Since interaction in the online environment is not as easily
guaranteed as would likely be the case in a face-to-face environment, a
virtual conference center provides a space for students to meet in a group
How to: Students click on a icon, such as the following, to enter the
conference center:
In the conference center, students post comments and findings after
completing activities related to the course content. Just as a conference
center has different rooms, segmented areas are created for students to
post messages related to the different topics of the course.
Results: At the end of the course, feedback from students consistently
suggests three positive outcomes of this forum:
• The conference room reduces student isolation.
• The conference room helps students keep on task. The structure,
and the expectation of posting dialogue decrease student
• Student learning is enhanced through the interaction between
students and students as well as students and instructor. Moreover,
the written record of the dialogue becomes a treasure chest of
content and examples for future iterations of the course.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Pedagogical Focus: Facilitating Discussions
Teaching Tip:
Controversial Topics
Controversial topics
encourage greater
student participation in
online discussions. One
Online Fellow, a
psychology professor,
uses the following
controversial question:
“Should a person who is
diagnosed with manic
depression but who is
successfully medicated
and symptom-less be
allowed to be President
of the United States?”
One of the ways many instructors work to engage students in their learning and
develop a sense of community is to encourage student discussion online. While
discussions can be a useful tool, they need careful thought and organization. Among
the things you need to consider when facilitating online discussions is how to do the
• Motivate students to participate
• Encourage substantive and relevant responses
• Determine the role of the instructor in guiding, moderating, and evaluating the
quality of student participation.
Structure discussions so that they are meaningful to students
Discussions in which students are simply asked to repeat course material do not
engage student response. Consequently, students come to see repetitive discussions
as unimportant to the learning experience. Engaging topics for online discussions
• Reacting to a controversial reading
• Feedback from an exercise performed at home
• A debate
• A case study
Make discussion participation “count” in grading policies
By assigning a portion of the final class grade for “discussion,” you can provide
students an incentive to actively participate in online discussions.
Use controversial topics to facilitate discussion
Controversial topics encourage greater student participation. The controversial topic
elicits divergent opinions and promotes critical thinking.
Divide students into discussion groups and change the discussion groups
during the semester
By dividing students into small discussion groups, the class will feel more intimate.
Students do not need to read all postings in order to participate effectively in online
discussions. By changing the composition of the groups over the semester, students
will get to know many members of the class overtime, get varied perspectives, and
learn how to navigate varied online conversation styles.
Make opportunities for interaction exciting
Invite guests (experts and other professionals) to participate in threaded discussions
or chat-rooms. Adding new insights will stimulate more discussion.
Ask students to facilitate online discussions
If a student asks a question, ask other students to respond. By assigning students as
discussion facilitators, more students will be involved in the discussion.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Assessing Student Learning
• What is Assessment?
• Evaluating Student Performance for Grading Purposes
• Assessing Whether the Course is “Working”
What is Assessment?
Assessment is the
systematic collection
and analysis of
information to improve
student learning.
The word “assessment” has taken on a variety of meanings within higher education.
The term can refer to:
• standardized measures imposed on institutions as part of increased pressure
for external accountability,
• the process faculty use to grade students’ course assignments, or
• activities designed to collect information on the success of a course, a
program, or a university curriculum.
The suggestions in this chapter focus on the latter two components of assessment:
What is
Testing/evaluating student performance and providing feedback to students for
grading purposes
Assessing whether the course itself is “working” for student learning:
what is going well, what isn’t, and how do you know?
This second definition of assessment – determining what’s “working” in the classroom
– is particularly important in the early stages of innovative course design (like online
courses) because assessment makes it possible to:
• Make informed improvements to current practices
• Document success to share with funding agencies, department chairs, etc.
At its best, assessment should be valuable to the teaching/learning process and not
another add-on or “make work” of little use to instructors. In fact, assessment activities
can be helpful in promoting all of the Principles of Good Practice (as you look through
the recommendations in this section, note how many of them directly address the
principles discussed in Chapter 2).
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Evaluating Student Performance for Grading
"I have learned that
providing a range of
opportunities beyond
traditional tests
permits students to
feel that their
strengths are being
- Robert Feldman,
Professor of Psychology
In assessing online learning, it is important to create a “mix” of assignments that cover
the multiple dimensions of learning that online courses can employ. Traditional tests
become a smaller part of the grade as you move towards encouraging student
interaction on group projects and other activities.
Different forms of assessment include:
• End of semester paper
• Weekly tests
• Group projects
• Case study analysis
• Journals
• Reading responses
• Chatroom responses
• Threaded discussions participation
Communicate expectations
As was suggested in the previous chapter, students in online courses are in particular
need of clear information about course requirements and instructor expectations.
Therefore, develop specific grading guidelines for course assignments and activities
ahead of time so students know in advance what is expected of them. For example,
articulate what are appropriate responses to questions in online discussions, what is a
substantive answer versus a superficial response, etc. Providing students with specific
examples of the kinds of work you are looking for is also helpful.
Teaching Tip:
In online
discussions, you
can offer immediate
feedback. A simple
“good job, Scott” or
“I haven’t heard from
you recently, Scott”
is helpful for
Keep track of student performance
The gradebook option in online software packages makes it possible to store all
information about students’ performance in one place. Many also make it possible for
students to look up their own progress on assignments.
Give prompt feedback
• At the start of the semester, clarify the type of feedback you will be giving
(regarding discussion participation, writing assignments, group work, etc.) so
students have a clearer sense of what to expect from you.
Students want feedback on assignments, but it is often difficult to provide much
feedback when you use a number of varied assignments throughout the semester.
One instructor uses a �,�+,�- system to provide a quick response to students.
A number of gradebook features have a comment section where the instructor can
give specific feedback to a student on an assignment that can only be seen by the
instructor and that student.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Teaching Tip:
The online classroom
provides a great
opportunity for
students to complete
research projects and
even tests
assessment reduces
the sense of
isolation in online
Design effective tests
• Be clear from the start about what is allowed and what is not permitted when
students take a test online (e.g., is the test “open book,” are there time limits on
how long they can take to complete the test, etc.).
Because it is difficult to ensure that students taking an online exam are not using
their books, some faculty encourage open book exams but place a time limit on
how long students have to complete the test. These instructors believe that if a
student knows where to go in the text book to get the information they need in a
timely fashion then that student has clearly done the reading, and the issue of
memorizing the information is less important. Some online course software allows
you to limit the time that students may view test questions and post test answers.
Unlike many traditional classes where students never see their completed exams
after they hand them in, students in online courses can usually go back and look
at the exam questions at a later date. While this can be a useful learning tool for
students, it can lead to additional questions from students about exam content or
the wording of a question.
Encourage active learning
• Help students become more reflective learners by asking them to set their goals
for the course at the beginning of the semester. At the end of the course, ask
them to return to their goals to reflect upon what they’ve accomplished.
The majority of students focus their academic effort on those elements of the
course that will affect their grade in the course. Be sure that your grading policies
reinforce the activities and assignments you value and that you take advantage of
learning activities that are particularly suited for an online course. For example, if
you want students to meaningfully participate in online discussions, be sure to
include participation as part of the grading scheme.
Evaluate participation in threaded discussions
• Require students to participate in specific numbers of threaded discussions.
Have interactive learning activities (e.g., threaded discussion) account for a high
percentage of the course grade.
Identify the qualities you look for in discussions and grade students according to
those criteria (See sample rubric on next page).
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Assessing Effectiveness of Student Participation in Online Discussions
Student Name:
and Initiative
Does not
respond to most
postings; rarely
Responds to
most postings
several days
after initial
limited initiative
Responds to
most postings
within a 24
hour period;
prompting to
responds to
postings in less
than 24 hours;
demonstrates good
Relevance of
Posts topics
which do not
relate to the
content; makes
short or
posts off topic;
most posts are
short in length
and offer no
further insight
into the topic
posts topics
that are related
to discussion
prompts further
discussion of
Consistently posts
topics related to
discussion topic;
cites additional
references related to
Within the
Does not
opinions or
ideas clearly;
no connection
to topic
Opinions and
ideas are stated
clearly with
occasional lack
of connection to
Expresses opinions
and ideas in a clear
and concise manner
with obvious
connection to topic
Contribution to
the Learning
Does not make
effort to
participate in
community as it
connection to
topic evidenced
in minimal
expression of
opinions or
reflection on
group'’ efforts;
marginal effort
to become
involved in the
attempts to
direct the
discussion and
to present
viewpoints for
by group;
interacts freely
Aware of needs of
frequently attempts
to motivate the
group discussion;
presents creative
approaches to topic
Adapted from Edelstein, Susan and Jason Edwards. “If You Build It, They Will Come: Building
Learning Communities Through Threaded Discussions.” Available at
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Assessing whether the course is “working”
Assessing whether your course is “working” provides feedback to understand what is
useful to students. Josh Bersin in “Measuring E-Learning Effectiveness: A Five-Step
Program for Success” offers a helpful framework for thinking about the kinds of
information you can use to determine your course’s success. Below we also provide
some specific assessment techniques.
Five Steps to Measure Effectiveness
1. Enrollment
Is the audience showing up?
If students are not enrolling in your course, then they might not know about the
course or do not know how to enroll in the course. If the course is an elective
course, the course may be named poorly or not located correctly in the catalog.
For more information
on minute papers and
muddiest points, as
well as other
assessment ideas, see
the Office of Academic
Planning and
Assessment’s CourseBased Review and
Handbook at
2. Activity
Are they making progress?
Typically, if the content is appropriate for the audience, students will progress at a
reasonable rate. You may find that students move quickly and then stop at a
particular point. Such information is valuable to help you assess the usability,
relevance and performance of the course content.
� Tip:Use minute papers or muddiest point exercises to provide feedback.
Minute papers and muddiest point exercises work even better in an online
environment because students can share them with each other, so
students see what other students are thinking about.
3. Completion
Did they finish?
Students who truly complete the course can provide valuable feedback. However,
many course software will “flag” a student “complete” even if that student has not
completed all the course assignments. Make sure that you can accurately track
which students have completed all the course work.
4. Scores
How well did a student score?
In online learning environments, you often can not gauge why a student has
scored highly on a quiz or assignment. Did they really learn the material or copy
from someone else? Multiple assessments will allow you measure incremental
progress towards the final learning goal, so you can measure what exactly a
student scored well on and where they have fallen short.
5. Feedback/Surveys
Did they like it?
Feedback is a vital part of online learning. Regular feedback will provide you
important details about the course content, assessments, and technology.
� Tip: Collect mid-semester feedback and alter the course according to
student suggestions.
� Tip: Survey students at the end of class about their progress. What
worked in the course and what didn’t?
Adapted from Bersin, Josh. “Measuring E-Learning’s Effectiveness: A Five-Step Program for
Success.” E-Learning. March 2002.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
• Troubleshooting Student Issues
• Troubleshooting Technological Issues
• Electronic Resources
• UMass Resources
Troubleshooting Student Issues
What do I need to do after I receive my course list?
Send students an email so students know how to contact you. A brief “Welcome”
email helps reduce the distance between you and your students.
What do I do about students who fall behind?
Decide prior to the start of the semester if students should progress through the
course material together or at their own pace. If a student deviates from your
deadlines, contact that student individually to determine what is causing the difficulty.
Troubleshooting Technological Issues
Have a backup plan
Because technology can fail, provide a contingency plan in case students cannot
access course materials. For example, provide printed copies of course material and
24-hour technical support, if available.
Provide technical support
Be able to answer common technological problems about your online course. In
addition, know where to direct students for more complicated questions. Always
assume that students have never participated in an online class before. Consider new
users of threaded discussions or online quizzing. Include simple, step-by-step
directions the first time you ask students to complete a task.
Avoid overemphasis of graphics to convey content
Use graphics to supplement text. Minimize use of large graphics so that the webpage
does not take a long time to load for users with older computers.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Make sure all website links work correctly
Before your class begins, test all the links on your homepage to ensure that they all
link correctly.
Teach students how to recover lost files and backup their work
Emphasize to students the importance of backing-up their work on multiple locations
(e.g., floppy disk and hard drive, zip drive and hard drive, etc.).
Make sure screen color combinations are legible
A simple light colored background with dark text is usually best for readability. In
addition, sans serif fonts, such as Arial, are more readable online.
Avoid over-use of special effects
Special effects (plug-ins, such as java applets) vary considerably across Internet
browsers. Some students’ computers may not have the capability to download special
Electronic Resources and References
A wealth of information about online teaching and learning is available on the Internet.
Some sources include the following:
Berge, Zane L. (2002, April 2). The Role of the Online Instructor/Facilitator. Available at
Bersin, Josh. (2002, March). Measuring E-Learning’s Effectiveness: A Five-Step
Program for Success. E-Learning.
Bramucci, Robert, Cal State Fullerton. Available at
De Vry, Janet R. and David G. Brown. (2000). A Framework for Redesigning a Course.
In Brown, D.G. (Ed.) Teaching with Technology. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing
Edelstein, Susan and Jason Edwards. If You Build It, They Will Come: Building
Learning Communities Through Threaded Discussions. Available at
Feenberg, A. (1998). “The Written World: On the Theory and Practice of Computer
Conferencing.” In Mason, R. and Kaye A. (Eds), Mindweave: Communication,
Computers, and Distance Education. Oxford: Permagon Press. (Excerpted at
An Emerging Set of Guiding Principles and Practices for the Design and Development
of Distance Education. Innovations in Distance Education. A Report of the Faculty
Initiative. Pennsylvania State University in collaboration with Lincoln University and
Cheyney University. Available at www.outreach.psu.edu/de/ide.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
Gamson, Z. and Chickering (1987, March), A. Seven Principles for Good Practice in
Undergraduate Education. AAHE Bulletin, pp. 5-10.
Ladon, E. H. (2002, April 18). High Touch in a High Tech World: Strategies for
Individualizing Online Learning. eNewsletter. eCollege.com. Available at
Mark, Tony. Web based Learning Primer. Available at
Massy, William (2002, May). Distance Education: Guidelines for Good Practice. AFT,
pp. 9, 16.
Mersotis, Jamie P. and Ronald A. Phipps. (1999, May/June). What’s the Difference?
Outcomes of Distance vs. Traditional Classroom-Based Learning. Change, p. 13-17.
Ragan, L.C. (1998). Good Teaching is Good Teaching: An Emerging Set of Guiding
Principles and Practices for the Design and Development of Distance Education.
DEOSNEWS (8), 12.
Teaching at an Internet Distance: the Pedagogy of Online Teaching and Learning. The
Report of a 1998-1999 University of Illinois Faculty Seminar. Available at
Teaching Effectiveness Program. “Student Ed Tech Survey.” University of Oregon.
Available at http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~tep/technology/diagnostic.html.
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
UMass Resources
(617) 287-7160
[email protected]
Current Online Courses
For a listing of current UMass online courses:
Campus Distance Learning Divisions
Division of Continuing Education
358 North Pleasant St.
(413) 545-0530
[email protected]
Corporate, Continuing, and Distance Education
203 Wheatley Hall
(617) 287-7900
[email protected]
UMass Dartmouth Online
(508) 999-8575 or (508) 999-9181
[email protected]
Continuing Studies and Corporate Education
(800) 480-3190
[email protected]
Office of Academic Planning and Assessment
362 Whitmore Administration Building
Martha L. A. Stassen, Director of Assessment
(413) 545-5146
[email protected]
Center For Teaching
301 Goodell Hall
Mei-Yau Shih, Coordinator of Teaching Technologies
(413) 545-1225
[email protected]
Teaching and Learning Online • University of Massachusetts
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