Retooling Skills for Online Instruction
A Primer for Your Next Educational Challenge
By Jerry Olivas

From the December 2002

Is it inevitable that all faculty members will eventually be teaching online? Maybe not, but the number of online courses being offered and the need for faculty to teach these courses continues to grow, providing a number of opportunities for those of us willing to take up the challenge.

I took the plunge into online teaching in the fall of 1999. Being fairly competent with technology, I thought that the transition would be a snap. I’d just put my course syllabus on the Web, rev up my email system for sending and receiving assignments, get a nice comfortable ergonomic chair, and voilá!, I would be an online instructor. Oh, boy, did I have a lot to learn.

Even though I had gone through specific training to be an online instructor with University of Phoenix Online, and was able to observe several classes before signing up, I didn’t really perceive how much time it would take to teach an online class. For more on the specifics of online instruction, see "What is Online Instruction? at the end of this article.

Love to Write

The biggest shock for me when I started online teaching was the extent of writing involved. You can use your existing traditional classroom materials but they will have to be modified to include more detail and fuller explanations. One of my traditional classroom course syllabi grew to about four times its size once I had adapted it for use in my online course. Likewise, discussion questions, test questions, and project assignments all have to include full explanations. If you are not totally clear in your instructional materials, especially the course syllabus, you will spend a good deal of time explaining in written form what you mean.

You will need to present new lecture material at least once a week, and each lecture should be at least 1,500 words long. Keep in mind that you can’t rely on the Socratic method to clarify or elaborate as you go when posting these one-way lectures, so be prepared to provide written clarification of both the lectures and its related assignments.

Remember that the clearer everything is at the beginning, the less time you will have to spend clarifying as you go along. It is possible, of course, to further clarify a particular issue, as you go and a good place to do this is in the main newsgroups so that all the students will see your more detailed explanation. However, the hope is that you do not have to, for example, rephrase a question. Hopefully the question was clear the first time and you are spending your time analyzing the answer to the question.

In addition to your lectures, you will most likely be posting some general discussion questions, probably every couple of days, and interacting with students through the main newsgroup on a daily basis. This back-and-forth must have substance, which usually means a paragraph or more.

Facilitating the Online Class

Keeping the course moving along at a steady pace is essential to the success of an online course. If your course has prolonged breaks or slows down for any reason, students may lose interest. Once the momentum has slowed in an online course it is not easy to get it back. Here are a few tips to help keep students involved and excited.

  • The first couple of days of an online course are crucial. You want to, of course, post all of the necessary materials for the course the first day. You also need to be available online to answer any questions and post personal responses to each student’s biography. If students see several posting from you the first few days it shows them that you are right there and ready to help and teach. Also, it has been my experience that if students see a lot of posting by you they tend to be more active themselves.
  • Students expect to hear back rather quickly in online courses. This may be because of the 24/7 nature of the course and the shorter duration of many online courses. For normal discussions, I try to respond the same day. For graded work, I get back to students within three days. If students see a lull in the course because I haven’t been posting or responding to messages, they will follow suit.
  • As with any course, students like to get good strokes. With an online course this means actually putting something in writing, such as “great analysis” or “well thought out answer.” These kinds of comments can really motivate students to work harder and contribute even more to the class. If you point out that something is wrong in a discussion response, or that perhaps more explanation is needed in an answer, do be tactful so that the student does not misinterpret what you are saying. I proofread these types of messages carefully to make sure they are very clear and constructive.
  • Solve problems as quickly as you can and watch for potential problematic situations. This may be anything from harassment between students to plagiarism. These types of situations need to be thoroughly covered in the course syllabus. However, you may need to use private email to deal with particularly sensitive manners. Most importantly it is important to solve any problems as quickly as you can because online courses move along rather quickly with a lot of deadlines so you don’t want students to get held up.

Technology Setup and Computer Expertise

Before you get started with the interworkings of your online course, you need to make sure you are outfitted with up-to-date technology — and that you know how to use it.

Online instructors often use their home computers to communicate with their students. A computer that is more than three years old is probably too slow and doesn’t have enough memory to handle the technical demands of online instruction.

A computer with a Pentium 4 CPU, 512 MB of RAM, and 80 GB of disk storage would do just fine and allow you a little room to grow. I would personally recommend a larger-than-normal monitor for easy viewing. A 19-inch flat screen would be great. Also, because the majority of students use Windows-based computers, it is best if an instructor uses that type of operating system.

Your connection to the outside world should be as fast as possible, preferably cable or DSL, and your Internet service provider (ISP) must be reliable. It is also of paramount importance that you have the most recent updates for all of your software, including your virus checker. Most students and instructors at University of Phoenix Online use either McAfee or Norton antivirus software.

When it comes to computer knowledge, you need to know how to use your online classroom software at an expert level. University of Phoenix Online uses the Outlook Express Newsgroups feature that comes with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser. However, some institutions use proprietary software such as WebCT or Blackboard. Whether off-the-self software or newsgroups from a browser are used, the same basic methods are used and the key is to involve students in asynchronous discussions. The proprietary programs make this a little easier because they use more of a graphic screen with fancier methods for navigating the program, for example.

No matter which software is used, it’s important to have a good handle on how to keep your computer and its software running smoothly, as well as how to keep your files organized and backed-up. Configuring your computer so that it’s optimized, installing and uninstalling programs, customizing your software so that it runs correctly and efficiently, creating folders, and dragging and dropping files are some of things you need to be good at.

You may have access to your school’s Help Desk, but don’t think you can always depend on it. There is a good chance that you may need help late in the evening or at other times when the Help Desk may be closed. And be prepared for your students to ask you for technical support. Students will usually ask for help with minor technical problems, such as how to control the look of their windows or how to find files that they have misplaced.


Basic educational principles apply in an online course. In many ways Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives may be a little easier to achieve in an online course because students must express all of their ideas in writing. This, I believe, compels students to think more before they contribute to group discussions and answer questions. Students realize that much of their work is read not only by the online instructor but by all the other students taking the course so they often put more effort into it.

Not all faculty members can or should be online instructors, but many of us teaching in the traditional classroom will eventually take the leap, or should I say “seat.” For those interested, it is another one of those educational challenges that I think most instructors will enjoy and receive a great deal of satisfaction from.

It has allowed me to be able to work with students in a more individual way because so much of what occurs in an online course requires a one-on-one dialog with each student. I really feel that I get to know each student’s learning style, which means that I can tailor my responses accordingly.

I also like being able to take a little more time with my responses, which has allowed me to provide more substance. In a more general sense it is rewarding to know that I teach using technology in a collaborative manner because this is the way the work world his headed.

I also should add that as a side benefit of sorts, it’s nice not to be on the freeways so often, and I don’t miss going around and around looking for a place to park in the faculty “reserved” parking lot. I have better things to do, like being online with my students in the comfort of my own home office.

Jerry Olivas is a lecturer in the School of Business Administration at California State University, San Marcos; an online Instructor for information systems and technology degree programs for University of Phoenix Online; and an independent information technology consultant. Contact him at

What is Online Instruction?

I may need to clarify what I mean by online instruction. What I am talking about is fully online, with only electronic communication between the instructor and students. For example, the online courses that I teach for the University of Phoenix Online have a maximum enrollment of 13 and last five weeks. There are no face-to-face meeting with students, no phone calls, no “snail mail,” and no dropping off of assignments. Classes are conducted using Microsoft’s Outlook Express Newsgroups feature.

For my classes, the university’s technical staff set up several newsgroups on the university’s servers. One newsgroup is for the main classroom where general discussions are conducted. Much of what occurs in this newsgroup are discussions related to current topics in the subject area. Also, a good deal of administrative-type information is posted in this newsgroup. Everyone in the class can read and post messages on the main newsgroup.

Another newsgroup is set up for posting the course syllabus and weekly lectures. The students can only read the items posted in this newsgroup but the instructor can read and post items. The syllabus and weekly lectures both contain questions that students must answer. The syllabus has concept-oriented questions that relate more to the course’s electronic text (actually, this is a normal text that is downloaded by students). The lecture has case study and practicum-type questions that relate more to the lecture. A student may have to do a greater amount of research to answer the lecture questions.

Another newsgroup is set up for students to post their answers to the questions from the course syllabus. Students can only write to this newsgroup but the instructor has read and write capabilities.

Lecture questions are answered in the main newsgroup so that everyone can provide feedback to each other’s answers.

Three or four newsgroups are also set up for use by student teams. Team members can only read and post messages in their own team’s newsgroups.

Newsgroup messages are posted very much like the way you send an email message. When a new message is posted, it is put at the top of what is referred to as a thread. As students respond to a message, their messages are posted under the original message, forming what looks like an outline without the heading letters and numbers.

A typical question in the main newsgroup that I post might receive 50 responses. Some of those would be responses to other student’s responses but all in the same thread.

I return student’ work to their private email boxes with my comments and grades. I also post my concept and lecture questions answer to the main newsgroup after students have submitted their work. The total amount of messages in all newsgroups for a typical class (13 students for five weeks) is approximately 1,500, with about 25 percent of the messages posted by me.

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