Best Practices in Distnace Learning

While viewing these resouces consider ways you might incorporate "best practices" into your online coureses.

Best Practices in Online Course Delivery


The instructor encourages student-faculty contact and interaction.

Frequent student-faculty contact is the most important factor in student motivation, intellectual commitment, and personal development. Feedback from faculty is an important factor in online student success and satisfaction. The following types of activities show that the instructor maintains contact with students.  The instructor:

  • offers an alternative form of contact–phone calls, fax, face-to-face;
  • establishes virtual office hours: times when you are available for online chats, phone calls, or email;
  • acknowledges initial receipt of students’ email with an automatic email reply;
  • differentiates types of inquiries and instructor response time (receipt of message, personal question, content question, assignment feedback);
  • informs students that infrastructure problems (server, etc.) are beyond the control of the instructor and may impact response time;
  • creates course assignments that build in feedback and communication (see principle 3);
  • creates an online community;
  • makes an effort to find out basic information about students;
  • refers to students by name;
  • conveys enthusiasm for the subject (suggestion: use emoticons);
  • lets students "sit in" on physical class or work one-on-one with them.

The instructor gives prompt feedback.

The instructor role is key, as it gives the students help in assessing their knowledge and competence. The following types of activities show that the instructor gives prompt feedback to students. The instructor:

  • responds with frequent email: with answers to questions, comments about lesson/unit content, giving directions and information;
  • returns tests, papers, assignments, etc., within one week;
  • holds virtual office hours for students to discuss their graded work;
  • posts or sends grades regularly;
  • acknowledges all student questions;
  • uses quizzes/questions that require students to review the content (self-check or automatically graded online);
  • differentiates types of inquiries and his/her response time (receipt of message, personal question, content question, assignment feedback);
  • uses grading rubrics to elucidate his/her evaluation of student work;
  • posts outstanding student work at the course website and explains what makes it good;
  • provides models of assignments (e.g., a model student essay or journal entry) to demonstrate your expectations;
  • follows up on feedback via email or phone call if students do not respond initially to feedback.

The instructor emphasizes time on task. 

Learning takes place when time is used effectively and actively. The following types of activities show that the instructor emphasizes time on task with students. The instructor:

  • clearly defines and explains course goals, performance objectives, grading and evaluation. criteria, and grading rubrics, indicating the relative emphasis on facts, critical thinking, analysis, reasoning, and so on;
  • establishes deadlines for assignments;
  • lets students know how much time it will take to do assignments;
  • outlines the steps in completing each of the assignments;
  • uses quizzes/questions that require students to review the content (self-check or automatically graded online);
  • builds in a reward system of points for all student work.

The instructor encourages student cooperation.

Cooperative learning characterized by interaction, personal responsibility, collaborative skills, and group processing enhances learning. Here are some suggested ways to help develop student-to-student interactions:

  • create assignments that require students to respond to peers' work/assignments;
  • use techniques for fostering student cooperation:
    • peer reviews,
    • bulletin boards,
    • chats,
    • group projects,
    • study groups, and
    • team learning;
  • encourage links between students: 1) exchange of student phone numbers and emails, 2) interviewing and introducing one another;
  • ask students to complete a personality questionnaire for the formation of compatible and effective learning/study/work groups
  • ask students (if appropriate to subject) to provide peer feedback on assignments. 

The instructor encourages active learning.   

To maximize learning, students must interact with the material they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, and incorporate what they are learning into their world view. The following types of activities show that the instructor encourages active learning. The instructor:

  • encourages student questions, input, feedback (if the course material is appropriate); and clearly states that all points of view are welcome and respected;
  • becomes involved in class discussions;
  • regularly sends general messages to the whole class;
  • follows up on students who are not participating;
  • asks students to state what they expect to learn in the class;
  • asks students to provide and critique URLs that enhance learning;
  • asks students to teach their classmates;
  • asks students to develop/create learning activities and projects;
  • encourages opinions as well as facts;
  • asks students to critique other students’ work;
  • asks student to reflect on their performance, their progress, their problems, and their process.  What have you learned (in your own words)?  Why is this new knowledge important?
  • uses open-ended questions to encourage extended and wide-ranging dialog;
  • uses quizzes/questions that require students to review the content (self-check or automatically graded online);
  • follows up reading assignments with discussions, simulations, or applications to case studies/scenarios;
  • selects real-world, relevant, and practical assignments that allow students to apply and practice the concepts learned;
  • offers frequent short assignments/quizzes or other frequent "in-progress" feedback opportunities;
  • establishes replies and responses as important values of online discussions, through tone, modeling, and grade weighting.

The instructor respects diverse talents and ways of learning (UDL).

Helping a student to recognize his own learning style can improve a student's learning. Recognizing the learning styles of others can increase a student's repertoire of learning strategies. The following types of activities show that the instructor respects diverse talents and ways of learning. The instructor:

  • asks students to complete a learning style assessment questionnaire at the beginning of the semester;
  • designs more than one method of assessment and demonstration of student achievement; allows students to choose from different possible modes of project presentation, established up front in a learning contract between instructor and student;
  • encourages students to use the web and other resources/media to master course content by incorporating web-based assignments into your curriculum and reading assignments;
  • recognizes that distance education and online classes are not the preferred or best learning environment for some students; refers students to the “Is Distance Learning Right for You?” page online.
  • is sensitive to possible cultural differences, especially communicating with students for whom English is a second language;
  • provides (if possible) alternatives to reading text, such as audio explanations of complicated material.

Adapted from Howard Community College

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Useful Resources:

@ONE offers free training in the area of online teaching to California Community College faculty.

Quality Matters is a faculty-centered, peer review process designed to certify the quality of online courses and online components.

Last Modified 8/9/10