The Ten Commandments of online teaching

I suspect that nobody is yet quite certain on how prevalent online teaching will become, and whether it is always the same thing as elearning. We know that there exists a fair amount of online material now to record or complement classroom teaching. We know that there are materials available online that are, in essence, traditional classroom materials that have been uploaded and made available somewhere, but which were not really designed for online use. And we know that there are programmes that are now delivered fully online without any physical classroom dimension. Of course we also know that there have been some excellent early adopters in the academic community of online education in its various forms, but equally we know that there are some academics who still struggle to switch on a computer, never mind doing absolutely anything online.

In the meantime, Penn State University’s World Campus has produced what they are calling the Ten Principles of Effective Online Teaching, these being:

 • Show Up and Teach
• Practice Proactive Course Management Strategies
• Establish Patterns of Course Activities
• Plan for the Unplanned
• Response Requested and Expected
• Think Before You Write
• Help Maintain Forward Progress
• Safe and Secure
• Quality Counts
• (Double) Click a Mile on My Connection

The key ingredient of these principles is to be much clearer about what online education is about and what it is supposed to deliver:

‘What we know about teaching in the classroom, good or bad, may not translate well online with somewhat complicated technologies, new social orders, and media-rich resources. Without express guidance on what is expected of the online instructor, they are left to “figure it out,” leading to frustrated students and probably a less than desirable teaching experience.’

What is also clear from this document is that the role of the online teacher is, if anything, more demanding and complex than that of the teacher in the traditional classroom. In particular, the management of students and their interaction with the teacher and with each other is vital and not easy.

It is my suspicion that some universities are slipping into aspects of online education that may not be as fully grounded in pedagogy as would be ideal. Too often online courses are just traditional programmes, slightly (but not sufficiently) adapted. It may well be that online learning will become the norm. If this is so, it had better be properly planned and designed, and indeed properly resourced.

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15 Comments on “The Ten Commandments of online teaching”

  1. Jilly Says:

    “….but equally we know that there are some academics who still struggle to switch on a computer”. I appreciate the role of hyperbole in making a point, but this is a bit much, and only encourages some of those outside the profession to continue their ‘ivory tower’ rhetoric. Every single academic I know is chained to their computer thanks to the pressues of email, whatever their views on online teaching may be…


  2. “If this is so, it had better be properly planned and designed, and indeed properly resourced.”

    Does the evidence support this? Many planned and designed approaches have failed, yet many approaches using continuous improvement techniques have succeeded. In rapidly changing environments, agility is more important than design.

    While some institutions are waiting for the resources to come through and then spending time on their planning and design, the others will just get stuck in and ask the students how it can be improved.

    • anna notaro Says:

      isn’t consultation with students and others ‘stakeholders’, to use this horrible terminology ( what you call ‘agility’) also part of the process of planning and design?


      • Off topic a little, but why is ‘stakeholder’ horrible terminology?


      • Yes, consultation can be part of planning. You could also say it is planning to say “I plan to put this course online as quickly as possible without asking anyone else how I should do it and then ask the students how it could be improved”. However, planning in the public sector seems to consist of endless meetings and compromise and the use of inflexible systems that make it difficult to make changes later. I have spoken to one academic in Penn State who says he prefers to keep his online courses out of their World Campus” because of the rules governing how it operates. The Penn State World Campus is a very successful and impressive achievement, but it does have its difficulties, possibly because it takes quite a formal instructional design approach. Others have avoided these difficulties. I am not against good design (which can be agile), but I disagree with people who say it is the only way to go.

        In these times it is always dangerous to say you must do something in a certain way or it won’t work. The Internet has an awful habit of proving you wrong. Very embarrassing.

  3. Jo McCafferty Says:

    Hear, hear! Online teaching can take a lot more time – and requires a different skillset to face-to-face teaching.
    They’ve missed out empathy from the list here though. If an online teacher has not been through the online learning process themselves, they can be hard pushed to empathise with their students in any meaningful way.

    Online teaching and learning is a different kind of journey, one which really needs to be undertaken together for it to work.

    It is not easy, but it can be just as effective as the face-to-face approach. I see it working every day.
    This takes, planning, preparation, patience, encouragement, engagement and empathy.

  4. David Stokes Says:

    There’s no doubt that eLearning/online teaching is a key component in the delivery of education. It’s nothing new, the australians were delivering distance learning to students via two way radio back in the 60s. The technology has changed, but the underlying principle remains the same….learner engagement. This is the main element of online teaching that tutors need to understand and fully utilise to make online delivery effective.

    Unfortunately many teachers struggle with the change from “chalk & talk” traditional delivery methods and fail to appreciate the requirements of online students? Any educational establishment offering online courses should put its teaching staff through an online tutoring course, delivered……online.

    • Al Says:

      I would query the teachers struggle with the change comment!
      How is the change being managed or developed is the proper question.
      Is it a situation where a teacher has to report to their superior, hand in the chalk and walk out with a mouse?

    • Hortus Says:

      Here, here. I’m currently doing an online MSc. One tutor in particular has been absolutely brilliant, four average, but three downright appalling, only engaging once or twice throughout a module. This discrepancy in delivery standards has to be addressed. One admitted they “didn’t really ‘do’ online teaching” – so what were they doing in charge of an ODL module!! Increasing online delivery means a university’s reputation is going to be increasingly vulnerable. The internet and social networking are great reputational builders … and destroyers.

  5. Vincent Says:

    Has anyone made a study of the recipients. How they use the medium. How the patterns change between home and lecture hall. Has there been any analysis of the lack of constant contact with that years corp. And of course, the cross pollination between courses. Where buying into one course allows access to all other courses.
    Then there is the concept wall. Who does one ask and how does one frame such a question when one hits it.


  6. There are lots of studies happening all over the world. Many by people trying to get their masters or PhDs or just trying to get published. These are often out of date before the get published or nobody is really interested in reading them. However, it is a substantial industry that keeps people employed.

    Better to just get stuck in and try it out as lots are doing. (If you can do that without your academic council getting wind of it).

  7. chris barras Says:

    there is a lot of academic study and litrature on e-learning. The UK’s open university delivers all its courses through e-learning and delivers a masters in elearning all back by solid achademic study.

  8. anna notaro Says:

    This an inspirational web site http://learningthroughdigitalmedia.net/
    It offers a rich selection of methodologies, social practices by leading educators re the opportunities created by the confluence of mobile technologies, the World Wide Web, film, video games, TV, comics, and software…


  9. I’ve been teaching online for 15 years. Initially I really wanted to see how it might change my teaching, and then I sort of forgot to go back. So although I’ve changed the mix from year to year from sometimes fully online to sometimes a bit of both, mostly I still do what I think of as the real teaching part (the discussion part) online.

    It’s true that most in-depth studies are rapidly put out of date, and I’ve also found that most research is heavily quantitative. There’s a bit less in the literature of what you might call ethnography of the learner perspective, which is interesting because most academics do accidentally enjoy a semi-insider perspective in terms of the learning community. But I do it because I’m still interested working with the difference it makes. It all seems a bit less pinned down.

    My list of essentials would be just the ones that make any teaching work: curiosity, trust, reflection, and something about not taking it personally when things don’t work perfectly. The one that’s specific to online teaching is teeth-gritting patience with the [insert corporate name here] learning management system your institution is contracted to. Other than that, it’s all good.


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