Best Practices and Expectations for Online Teaching

The online learning environment presents a unique set of challenges that requires clear definition of instructor performance. The following best practices identify the minimum level of interaction and management needed between students and instructors to maintain a quality online learning environment.

As a course instructor, it is anticipated that you will…

  1. Follow the established course start and end dates. When students register for your course, they expect that it will start and end as stated in LionPATH. Schedule adjustments may, however, be needed to meet deadlines for graduating students and others with special circumstances.
  2. Follow consistent guidelines for managing your online course. These guidelines identify tasks that should be performed on a daily, weekly, or semester basis. As you will see, the key to effectively managing an online course is to be consistently "present" in your online classroom. Regular contact with your students helps assure them that they are well-supported. As many seasoned online faculty can attest, the online classroom can become even more "personal" than the face-to-face one. Through regular communications with your students, observations of their discussions with one another in discussion forums, reading notes they share publicly with one another, and so on, you will likely be surprised at how you are able to connect with your students and learn about them as individuals in ways you had not envisioned!
  3. Monitor assignment submissions and communication with students to remind them of missed and/or upcoming deadlines. You can help ensure a successful learning experience by practicing proactive course management strategies. Good practice suggests posting a message or announcement to your class at least once a week, to tell students what you will be covering in the coming week and to remind them of any due dates. One tool to monitor student activity is the "recent activity" stream in Canvas.
  4. Early in the course, establish a regular schedule for when you will be logging in to the course and communicate this to students. Normally this is once per day. Many of the students studying via the World Campus are adult learners who have work and family responsibilities. These students tend to be more active in courses on weekends, so you may also wish to reserve time in your schedule to monitor courses at least once on weekends.
  5. If you will be unable to log into the course for several days or more (e.g., during professional travel), give prior notice to your students and to the administrative unit overseeing your course (e.g., your academic department for resident courses or your Dutton Institute learning designer for World Campus courses). Providing this information upfront will help to forestall many student inquiries.
    You should also consider finding coverage for your online course if you are going to be out of contact with students for more than a couple of days, especially if they are to be working on assignments while you are gone. If you will be away from the course in cases of personal emergency, you are asked to notify students and your learning designer as soon as possible.
  6. Provide feedback to student inquiries within one business day. In other words, be accessible! Because online learners must manage their time carefully, timely instructor feedback is especially important to them. Without it, they may not be able to make progress on their course work. If you cannot provide a detailed response within one business day, it is good practice to respond to the student within one business day to let them know when you will provide them a more detailed response. Remember, sometimes the fastest way to provide a response might be the telephone! Real-time communication can be particularly valuable if a student seems upset or anxious. A quick phone call from you can help refocus them in a positive direction.
  7. Provide timely and meaningful feedback on student work using clear and concise language. You have ideal "teachable moments" when providing feedback on student work in a timely fashion (i.e., soon after it is due so you can positively impact their next assignment). Simply telling a student "good job" or "needs work" does not give them the information they need to succeed. They need (and want!) more specifics. What was it that made the work good? (So they can do it again!) What needs more work and how can they improve the quality of their work? (Specifically!)
  8. Communicate to your students in advance when you will grade and return all assignments and exams. To self-regulate their time and learning, online students need to know when to expect to receive feedback from you. Please strive to grade assignments, complete with meaningful feedback, as promptly as possible. As a rule, it is reasonable to expect that student will receive their grades, including feedback, within one week of submitting an assignment, though this will depend on the nature of each assignment. If one anticipates that it will take longer than a week to return students' work, it is best to inform them in advance when their grades and feedback will be available. Doing so will forestall a lot of questions ...which often end up coming to the folks in our main office! It also is best to grade assignments in sequence (i.e., assignment 1, then assignment 2, and so on) so students can apply the feedback from one assignment to subsequent assignments.

    Note that the end of the semester poses a particular challenge; University policy stipulates that "Grades are to be posted 48 hours after the final exam or final assessment of the course." (Office of the Registrar: Grades). Your learning designer can assist you with any questions you might have with how to accomplish these grading goals.

  9. Provide a teaching and learning environment that supports academic freedom, as outlined in University Policy AC64. Penn State faculty are entitled to freedom in the online classroom in discussing their subjects. Students must also be free to express their opinions without fear of ridicule, intimidation, or retaliation by any instructor. Consistent with Policy AC64 "Faculty members are expected to present information fairly, and to set forth justly, the divergent opinions of other investigators that arise out of scholarly methodology and professionalism."
  10. Make sure you have immediate and predictable access to the same technology that is required for students in your course. Your course syllabus is an excellent place to communicate to your students the technology they must have in place to effectively participate in your online courses. You will want to make sure you are also using a computer system and network that can meet those technology requirements. World Campus courses typically list that information in the course catalog listing for the course. General World Campus technical requirements are posted online as part of the World Campus website.
  11. In accordance with University policy, post final course grades to LionPATH within two business days of the course end date and/or receipt of the final assignment/exam. If you think that you will not be able to meet that requirement due to the nature of your course assessments, please discuss this with the administrative unit overseeing your course.
  12. Encourage your students to complete your end-of-course survey (typically, the SEEQ). Penn State uses an online version of the SEEQ. At the end of the semester, the SEEQ system generates an email to students to announce the availability of their SEEQs. This message includes instructions on where to complete them and how long they are available. Automated email reminder messages are sent to students who have outstanding forms to complete. (For more information, see "Assessment of Teaching Frequently Asked Questions.")

    Research has shown that the strongest influence on whether a student completes an end-of-course survey is you, the instructor! Please send your students a note that encourages them to complete the survey (including a link to the SEEQ) and assures them that the information that will be used to improve the course is important.
  13. Contribute to the continual update and improvement of the course content. When teaching face-to-face, it is expected that an instructor is keeping the content of the course current and is routinely "tweaking" the course based on feedback from students, peers, and administrators. Teaching an online course is no different! Because your course is online, however, as you update your course content, learning activities, and assessments, you'll need to also pay attention to spelling and grammar, as well as copyright, usability, and accessibility best practices to ensure compliance with legal requirements and Penn State policy.