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).


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
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students, e., teaching students to work productively with others.
  3. Encourages active learning, 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
  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

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:

  1. Includes a well-organized course, the structure of which is clearly communicated to

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.

Common Questions

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.

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.

FROM:  Teaching and Learning Online: Communication, Community and Assessment – A Handbook for UMass Faculty

NOTE from John Gerber

The work you put into developing the class “up front” will pay off down the line.  Creating a new course is  A LOT of work, even if you have taught the class “live” on campus.  And of course, every time I teach a class online I learn ways to make improvements.

Teaching online requires much more preparation than teaching on campus as the class needs to be fully developed on day one!

Class size depends on your assessment methodology.  For example, I teach Botany for Gardeners which relies heavily on objective tests and quizzes for assessment.  While I also have weekly essays which require my attention and feedback, I can handle 50 students in this class.  On the other hand, I teach Agricultural Systems Thnking online which relies mostly on written homework, diagrams, short reports, and discussion… all of which require my attention.  I can handle up to 15 students in this class (without going crazy myself).