These ideas are in use in online courses throughout the CSU and beyond and are meant to help you get oriented to some of the pedagogical topics that are part of online teaching.

Handout 1"Best Practices in Online Teaching"

Summarizes the best practices related to content, interaction, and assessment

Handout 2: "QOLT Lite: 10 Steps to Building a Great Online Course"

Presents 10 easy ways to improve your online course

Have an idea or topic you'd like to share? Contact Glenn Pillsbury to spread the word!


Content refers to the "stuff" of your course, the materials and activities.

A clear and well-thoughtout course web site is as important to the success of your students as the instructional content itself. Here are three tips to get started.

  1. Construct a good home page in Canvas. 
    • Hide unneeded links in the course navigation
    • Consider using the Modules page to organize the flow of your course materials into weeks or unique topics.
  2. Create an obvious "Start Here" area. Don't hide important information away in the syllabus.
    • List your contact information
    • Provide links to tutorials on how to use the discussion board (both technically and in terms of content expectations)
    • Provide explanations about how to handle technical problems (will you help? Should students skip right to contacting the help desk?)
    • Provide download links to any multimedia software you can't guarantee will be installed on students' computers.
  3. Organize the Discussions page in Canvas.
    • Create individual forums to house required content discussions, general course questions, non-course related chat, etc.
    • See below for more best practices related to using the discussion board.

  • Develop an introductory video that introduces you to the students, lets you talk about the course topic and any special requirements students need to be aware of, etc. (Both examples are from San Diego City College faculty)
  • Intro surveys
  • Link to an icebreaker discussion forum
  • Guidelines for acceptable behavior
  • Detailed syllabus and syllabus quiz activity
  • Instructor response time to questions, assignments, grading, and availability
  • Handouts, screencasts, and tutorials on how to do things in the class (e.g., post to the discussion forums, turn in assignments, use any required outside resources)
  • Grading rubrics for discussion posts and other assignments as needed
  • Information about techical support options: will you be a point of contact or should students only contact the Help Desk?
  • Other housekeeping and information links
  • Create a low-stakes test that quizzes students about the mechanics of the course (how to get help, how often they should login to the course site, etc.)

Even though the students will be proceeding through the course materials in a manner that is largely self-directed (but not self-paced), their experience in the course will be enhanced by regular communication from you. These announcements can be related to reminders of due dates, other day-to-day class business, etc. Any announcements you create will automatically be emailed to students as well.

  • Use the LMS's Announcement tool when contacting the entire class so the messages are archived on the class Web site.
  • Send something at least once a week.
  • A 24-48 hour response time to any student emails is a best practice (notwithstanding scheduled absences)
  • Use a more informal tone.

Injecting "social presence" into your course can prevent it from becoming just another correspondence course and will provide your students with a connection to you as their instructor.

  • Learn to create slide-based video lectures using VoiceThread.
  • Use the LMS or another tool record short talking-head video introductions to each unit, module, or week that let the class know the purpose of the new content and your expectations for it.
  • Record a short audio introduction to the units and make them available for download so students can play them on their portable devices.
  • Record audio feedback on assignments

The principles of backward design are:

  • What do you want your students to be able to do or understand at the end of the module?
  • How will the students' learning be demonstrated? What evidence or documentation will you have?
  • What materials will produce that evidence or documentation?

  • Specify a "chunking" of the content.  For example:
    • Read through background information.  For every week, this is essentially the "lecture" content of the class.
    • Complete an exercise, a short writing task, or other activity submitted to the instructor for grading.
    • Contribute to a discussion forum that jumps off from the unit or weekly topic.
  • Chunking also helps students to learn time management skills.
  • Expected workload for a 3-unit course is 7.5 total hours per week.

Interaction refers to how your students will interact with each other and with you.

Assess students' technological skill level, familiarity with the course material, their access to technology, as well as their general preparedness for online learning.

  • Have students take the online self-assessment before the start of the semester.
  • Use the LMS's survey tool to create the surveys
  • Create a 1-point "assignment" using the Assignment tool for students to get experience creating and uploading a word processing file in the proper format.

A friendly icebreaker activity is very good at creating instant connection among the students. Consider sharing information with the students about your own personal interests, background, etc. Remember that students have no way to "see" you in an online class except through the content of the course. Adding a bit of personality can help engage them in the material

Some ideas:

  • Create a forum in the discussion board and post icebreaker questions in the first thread and tell students to reply to that post with their answers.
    • Encourage students to use the editor to attach a photo to their post
    • Encourage students to record a video in their post.
  • Using VoiceThread, create a new presentation and configure it to allow viewers to add slides to the end.
    • Students enter the presentation and add a piece of media to a new slide and record an audio or video comment
    • Later students traverse the whole presentation and record replies on some of their classmates' slides.

Discussion forums are wonderful tools for accomplishing a wide variety of learning objectives and are the primary way you will create a vibrant learning community in the class. In particular, they:

  • are easy to use
  • are convenient
  • are status leveling (they remove in-class peer pressures)
  • provide accountability
  • provide documentation of learning
  • create a peer learning community

Some guidelines:

  • Typically, in any discussion assignment, students should be required to 1) create one response to the prompt, 2) respond substantively to the responses of two other students (including asking a question), and then 3) reply to any responses to their own post.
    • It's a good idea to make the initial post or thread due from everyone first, before allowing the responses to be made.
    • You might also consider requiring the two responses be made on two different days.
  • Student responses should always be "value added" in some way and should not simply be "I agree."
  • Enforce a "new subject" rule that requires students to title any posts they make in the subject line of the message. Visually, this creates a clearer overview of the discussion as a whole. It also helps students to focus their writing.
  • Require students to ask a question in their response to a classmate's post. The question will be answered by the first student at the end of the assignment.
  • Grade the students' posts according a rubric (make the rubric available in the syllabus or in the Getting Started folder)
    • Provide examples of some posts that would be scored low and some that would be scored high.
    • View a sample scoring rubric (this rubric is interesting because it also considers the usefulness of a post's subject line in the overall grade)
  • Discussion assignments in large-enrollment courses will need to be managed differently (not left out) or you'll die from the workload.

An example assignment schedule:

  1. Initial prompt from instructor posted on Sunday evening.
  2. Students have until Wednesday evening to post an initial response.
  3. Beginning Thursday, students post two responses to classmates' posts until Saturday.
  4. Close the loop! - Students reply to the responses made on their posts

Going further:

  • Have students self-evaluate their own previous posts a few times during the semester by asking them to consider how well their contributions followed ideas adapted from Grice's Maxims (source):
    • Quantity: make your contribution as informative as is required, but not more, or less, than is required.
    • Quality: do not say that which you believe to be false or for which you lack evidence.
    • Relation: be relevant.
    • Manner: avoid ambiguity and obscurity; be clear, brief, and orderly.
  • For an interesting essay about judging substantive contributions to online discussions, see Sedef Uzuner (2007) "'Educationally Valuable Talk': A New Concept for Determining the Quality of Online Conversations" Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 3(4).

  • Create a new thread for each discussion the students are to participate in.
    • The instructor prompt will be the first message in the thread.
    • Students will participate by replying to that first message.
    • Students should use a well-crafted subject line to summarize the point of their posts and to make browsing easier for the reader.
  • In the forum settings, disable students' ability to create new threads within the forum.

  • Several students might have the same question, so requiring students to post their course-related questions in a public forum means you only answer it once.
  • Encourage students to help each other in this forum, which will in turn increase their own mastery of the material.
  • Obviously, no discussions about individual grades or progress go here. Those should be handled via direct communication with the instructor.
  • Students should be able to create new threads in this forum.

  • Put students into groups (see next topic).
  • Make it an expectation of the course that students will provide some expertise and make useful contributions to the success of the class.
    • Perhaps students could be responsible for creating podcast presentations on subsidiary course material (i.e., stuff that might not get a lot of attention elsewhere in the course)? Give these presentations some weight by including their topics on exams.
  • Build upon existing student knowledge and experience.
  • Avoid placing yourself in the middle of every conversation or online conference.

Groups are a good way for students to feel connected to others in the class without feeling overwhelmed by a large class population. For instructors, small groups are also a good way to break down the responsibilities of the course into manageable bit-sized chunks.

  • The groups should be no more than 8 students (10 in large-enrollment courses). Randomly assign the group members if possible.
  • The LMS has great tools for assigning students to groups, and each group can have its own discussion forum, file sharing, and chat room.
  • Students can still reconvene into the larger class population for specific discussions or projects.
  • Assign a group project early in the course to provide an immediate sense of community for each student.

Assessment refers to how you'll measure student academic success and also the overall "success" of the course itself.

  • Structure your activities to emphasize more frequent assessment at lower stakes.
  • Avoid "catastrophic" assessment structures such as:
    • Two exams and a term paper with 10% for attendance and participation
    • These leave little room for growth by the student and feedback from the instructor.
    • Weighted gradebook should have a minimum of five categories with no category worth more than 30% of the final grade.

First, there is no foolproof way to prevent cheating in any setting, whether face-to-face or online. The unproctored nature of most online exams does, however, subject them to a greater possibility for cheating to occur. Poorly constructed online exams can also make themselves open to cheating.

More information about maintaining integrity in online assessments

Here are some ideas for strengthening the security of your online exams. Many of these ideas are borrowed from CSU Sacramento's recommendations.

Reinforce intellectual honesty at every opportunity:

  1. Create an "honesty question" in the Canvas quiz that asks the student to affirm their agreement to follow a Code of Conduct.

Make it difficult for students to pass along answers to their friends:

  1. Build as large of a pool of questions as possible to decrease the chance that each student will see the same set of questions.
  2. Randomize the questions in the quiz.
  3. Randomize the answers within each multiple choice question in the quiz.
  4. Display the questions one at a time.
  5. Do not release the correct answers until the quiz availability window has passed.

Make it difficult for students to look up the answers during the quiz:

  1. Include more higher-order questions that challenge the student to create, synthesize, and argue.
  2. Set a time limit on the quiz but do not configure an "auto-submit" as this has been known to blank out a student's exam entirely. Late submissions are noted in the exam results so you can still address the issue of lateness as it relates to the exam grade.

Gauge how well the class is "working" and collect any suggestions for improvement.

  • Be accommodating of any reasonable requests for adjustment suggested by the survey(s).
  • Maybe create a "Suggestion Box" discussion forum where students can post anonymous suggestions to help improve the course mechanics.

At the end of the semester, let students talk about their experience in the class, what they feel they're learned, and offer any suggestions for change or improvement to the course.

The assessment recommended here is purely voluntary and is not associated with any official university course assessment process.

Updated: October 21, 2022