An abrupt shift to online courses doesn’t have to be overwhelming – there are some essential steps to having a positive online teaching experience

5 key components of successful online courses

An abrupt shift to online courses doesn’t have to be overwhelming – there are some essential steps to having a positive online teaching experience

Two months ago, nobody would have predicted that education at every level, from kindergarten through graduate programs, would either shut down or move online.

Most teachers don’t have prior experience or professional development in teaching online courses effectively. While it might seem like a simple transition to post slides or a recorded lecture online, teachers need to be intentional with course design to effectively mirror what students experienced in the classroom and make the transition as smooth and successful as possible.

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Synchronous over asynchronous

Online education is fairly synonymous with asynchronous learning. Most people assume the move to online courses means students are logging on to the learning management system to take reading quizzes tied to their assigned textbook chapters and posting in the discussion board in line with weekly modules as their schedules allow.

Synchronous courses, on the other hand, mean that the teachers and students are active and online at the same time. Teachers are used to teaching a live group of students and the students who are being pushed online signed up for the in-person course experience. To maximize the potential for the dynamism of an in-person course, your online courses should be synchronous.

Effective and engaging delivery methods

Delivery needs to be more than a teacher lecturing over a PowerPoint on screenshare, even for a synchronous course. Students learn in different ways, and slides tend to be text-heavy. Consider adding videos or interactive activities to help students grasp the content through various delivery methods.

While at home, students can be easily distracted, so try putting more visual stimulation into your slides. Visuals help the brain retain information and make it easier for students to recall the information later.

Opportunities for community engagement

Outside of content delivery, you need to engage the class as a community. In in-person courses, teachers typically pause to take questions from students and encourage them to interrupt if they have questions. Teachers get to do temperature checks and ask for volunteers to solve problems or poll through hand raises to see who feels like they’re following along.

In online courses, it’s easier for students to feel isolated and harder for them to feel comfortable asking for help without a sense of community with classmates or mutual respect with their teacher.

One big misconception about in-person courses is that engagement means raising your hand and volunteering in class, but students can be passively engaged too. With the right engagement strategies, you might even see more interaction with your students in an online setting than in an in-person class without technology.

Record your class sessions

If students only have the live lecture to get the information, they’ll become so focused on taking notes that they’ll miss out on the value and context of the content. On the other hand, when students can focus on consuming the lecture and know they can review the recording later, they’ll be able to pay better attention and only worry about taking notes on the vital content points in the moment.

It’s like the saying for writers: “If you’re writing for everyone, you’re writing for no one.” When students feel like they have to capture all of the information in their notes, they don’t learn how to parse out the signal from the noise and lose the high value takeaways.

Rethink the way you communicate

The ways we communicate verbally and in writing are usually very different. When communicating with your students digitally, keep your tone in mind and make sure you’re considering how the student might take your communications.

With online courses, you lose one-on-one conversations with students before and after class, in the hallways, and during office hours. You can try setting a minimum number of times a student must “meet” with you digitally. Students are less likely to reach out through technology than they are in person, but consistent engagement between students and their instructors is a leading contributor to creating a strong learning community that makes students feel engaged and like they belong.


Being forced to move to online courses unexpectedly isn’t easy for anyone, but that doesn’t mean teaching online will be less effective than teaching in person. At the end of the day, these five simple components can make a world of difference in online courses.

Educational institutions must quickly adapt to ensure students are receiving the quality education they signed up for. The execution of online learning today will define whether future students continue placing the same high value on education.

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