Here are a few ideas some of our master teachers use!

Renee Ciulla not only manages our online A.S. and B.S degree programs but also teaches 5 (yes, you heard it FIVE) online classes over the course the year.  She has superb evaluations and there is a reason.  Here is what she said when I asked her for her keys to success!

” I would say mid-semester check-ins about what is working and what is not. Also, allowing student to see their current grades, responding immediately to messages, offering my phone number for conversations, being active with the discussion forums and commenting individually on homework each week.  Students seem to like having a variety of resources to refer to and not just relying on a textbook.” 


Robert Wagner who teaches our Land Use Policy and Sustainable Farming class shared the following:

“My course involves a number of weekly class discussions on specific topics. To stimulate participation throughout the week and engender an active give and take among the students, grade requirements for the activity include a minimum number of contributions and that participation begin by no later than the middle of the week. The latter requirement has helped to prevent a flurry of last minute posts that only react to what has been presented by other students.

“My staying involved throughout the discussion — responding to questions, tossing out “what ifs” for reaction, contributing my own views, providing historical context and examples — seems to be appreciated. The discussions also enable me as the conversation flows to identify and highlight real time news stories and articles germane to the topic and course.”


Abrah Dresdale who teaches two of our permaculture classes suggested the following:

Sending an  ‘Announcement” every Monday has been an important touch stone in the courses I teach. The announcement functions to maintain regular contact with all students. The message orients students to the focus and logistics of the week, with helpful reminders about assignments, upcoming events, or webinars, etc. I always end with an inspiring quote that is germane to the content of that week.”


Angela Roell who teaches our Practical Beekeeping class shared the following:

“One assignment I ask all students to complete is a video introduction answering key questions about their work, passions, experience taking online courses, where they are in their degree program and what they hope to learn in this course.

“I do my own video introduction, answering key questions about myself, my work, my passions and why/how I came to be teaching this course.

“I make these available for everyone to review (via dropbox upload), and ask everyone to comment on 2 or more videos sharing commonalities as a way of building community.

“Throughout the course, I consistently engage in discussion and make engagement in discussion a mandatory part of their grade- so they’re talking to each other and not just to me.

“I ‘grade’ discussions and comments (minimal pt system) in order to keep track of comments. This helps minimize any deconstructive discussion, and helps me catch errors and misunderstandings from the content so I can mitigate them with my own input or ask follow up questions to reinforce learning outcomes.”


Jennifer Santry teaches two courses, Sustainable Agriculture and also Non-Profit Management.  She shared the following:

“A few things I feel are extremely important for online courses and a successful (and exceptional) experience for students are instructor availability (making myself approachable and responsive), constructive and personalized feedback on assignments and discussions, and applicable assignments and projects. I love to include relevant case studies and discussion questions that encourage students to share their own stories, life experiences, interests, and farm/food connections. I believe online curriculum should foster ample opportunities for students to engage their own visions and passions for food and farming.

“For example, in my Sustainable Agriculture course, students are asked to interview a farmer/visit a farm and reflect on it. Many students have said they learned so much from talking directly to farmers about what it’s like to live the life including the hardships and challenges. I also aim to inspire creativity and ‘big picture’ thinking with assignments that include mind mapping, photos, sketches, and other design elements.”


Dr. Roland Ebel who teaches Agroecology from his home in Mexico writes….

In January 2018, I began teaching Agroecology online. This was my first teaching appointment for U”Mass and also my first semester-long online course. I am very grateful for this experience and learned a lot. Someway, it felt like my first face-to-face lectures. I think I developed a good connection to those students who are actively involved in the application of agroecology (in some kind of farm management) and to those students who continuously participated in the diverse online activities the course consisted of. Yet, I still have to find a better approach to those students who are certainly motivated to learn more about agroecology – but who limit their contributions to the required minimum. In the classroom, I am usually successful “activating” such students. Yet online, there is a different dynamic; and I still have to work on the “tuning” of my strategies. At least, I made steps in the right direction…

“What worked well for me (for both groups of students) were the discussion panels. I consciously selected controversial discussion topics, which were related to the respective learning units – but only in a broader sense. This way, I stimulated earnest discussions, where the students applied their new knowledge but did not feel ‘examined’.

“There were ten units including one discussion forum each. Every second discussion was graded; the participation in the five remaining fora was voluntary. Noteworthily, the input in the ungraded discussion was considerably high. In the graded discussions, students were encouraged to post twice. Their first input should refer to the main discussion question. Before posting, a student was not able to see the contributions of her/his peers; after the first post, the entire forum became visible. The second contribution should refer to another student’s comment. This allowed a lively discussion and reduced the replication of arguments. Frequently, students posted much more than the required two contributions.”


Dr. Allen Barker who teaches Organic Gardening and Farming shared the following:

In my online course of Organic Farming and Gardening, a Discussion Board is included. Participation in the Board is mandatory since it is needed for the fourth credit. Right now, there are fifteen topics, and students are asked to participate in the Discussion an average of twice per week. The students can choose any topic twelve times or act on twelve different topics. They usually choose a diversity of topics. I give bonuses for particularly active participation. For example, students might participate forty times, and I consider that kind of activity as a scholastic achievement worthy of recognition. The discussion topics include materials that are not covered in the rest of the course and are not in the text book. Two questions deal with students personal involvement in farming or gardening and of their interest in the course. These topics are very popular with the students. Other topics are issues that involve what General Education calls Critical Thinking. These topics include urban gardening, genetic engineering, irradiation of foods, certain philosophies of organic farming, rules of organic farming, some technical issues, and so on. I do not participate in the discussion other than sometimes (or rarely) to offer scientific advice. I usually add a new topic every year and have never removed a topic.


Dr. Masoud Hashemi who teaches Pasture Management shared the following:

Last semester, I began a section in my on-line course which I called it “case studies.”. Utilizing case studies was a great way to engage in active, student-centered learning. Students were asked to analyze a case study of their choosing – preferably a first-hand experience (every student had one). Students identified problems, used their newly acquired knowledge to make specific recommendations for correction, and evaluated ways to improve the system as a whole in the future. This approach encourages higher order cognitive learning, and students received tangible feedback that they can implement in “real life”. The students also had the opportunity to present their case study in a discussion section of the course to receive peer evaluations; they had an excellent discussion.


Christopher Hobbs who teaches Herbs, Spices and Medicinal Plants writes…

“From my experience, students appreciate hands-on activities or labs. My course will include a number of experiments and practical exercises to make herbal products to use personally, and determine the quality of various commercial products, a crucial part of herbalism. Capturing and preserving the active components is key to benefitting from herbal medicine.

“What I read from Renee struck home as well, because I plan on actively eliciting feedback throughout the semester so I can provide the maximum benefit for students from various backgrounds and interests.

“I will be holding “office hours” weekly so students can contact me directly for real time Q and A. I will also provide an email address to email me directly for slightly delayed answers to questions. I always make grades available to students.

“If enough students enroll, I will start a Facebook page for discussions among class members.”


Catherine Sands who teaches Community Food Systems as well as Food Justice and Policy, shared the following:

I’ve just decided to ditch quizzes in my online course. I wanted to give the students a more creative combination of opportunities to work through the material which spans reading and watching stories of people doing food change work in their communities, structural and policy analysis. So in addition to weekly discussion blogs, which are really a brief reading response paper and then commentary on at least two other student posts, and in addition to three very different class research projects, I have introduced a blog called “Stories of Resilience” in which students weekly write about one of several case studies per chapter of The Color of Food. As I am showing them that in order to change policies, we have to change the normative narratives, this gives students a chance to read about people of color who are working in all areas of the food system for equitable access to healthy affordable food. It’s also a nice balance to trying to understand the Farm Bill.


Deborah Niemann who teaches Pastured Poultry says….

I use the discussion board in my class so students can apply what they’ve learned to real life situations and decisions. For example, in Pastured Poultry, students discuss how they feel about putting down a chicken that may have a health problem. They also have to find their closest avian vet and find out how much an office visit costs. This brings them a whole new perspective on pet versus livestock and emotional attachment versus profitability. In addition to posting their own original response to the weekly question, they are also required to respond to at least two of their classmates’ posts. Almost all of my students are new to livestock and don’t realize how different it is than having pets, and many of the discussion questions bring out the decisions they will have to make as a business person and farmer.



If you have other practices you would like to share, please send them to me!


John Gerber