Best Practices in Online Teaching for Student Engagement


Many theorists predict that online education will gradually surpass traditional classrooms in the role of educating students in higher education.  Peter Drucker, management icon, states that “In 30 years, the universities of America, as we have traditionally known them, will be barren wastelands.”   Gordon Dryden and Dr. Jeannette Vos in their top-selling book, The Learning Revolution, contend that his prediction may be conservative and that the new wave of online education may be less than a decade in coming (The Learning Web, 2008). In November 2008, Governor Tim Pawlenty and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Board of Trustees announced a goal to have 25% of all Minnesota State College credits earned through online courses by 2015 (Minnesota State Colleges & Universities, 2008).

The growing trend toward online education is self-evident through the increasing popularity of online universities such as University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, Strayer University and many others. Economic trends have forced more and more disenfranchised individuals out of the workforce and into a situation of needing to achieve a higher education to improve their chances for employability; many of the students in these online colleges and universities are students over 25, with families, and some with full- or part-time jobs.

Online learning and Native Students

Native American students are exceptionally, if not uniquely, suited to online education. Many are place-bound on the reservation, making travel to colleges and universities not feasible. Many native students would fit into the paradigm of the non-traditional learner, i.e., being over 25, and with family and/or job responsibilities. Logistically, online classes seem “made to order.”

On a deeper level, online classes also can be particularly pertinent to Native American learning styles, which “emphasize group cooperation and group achievement and which supports the value of indigenous knowledge and the learners’ personal observations of the world and their connections to vibrant communities.”   (Hai-Jew, 2008)

The discussion forum, in particular, provides a safe and close learning community for native students to share observations, learning, and reflections. The community-based modality of the forum is perfectly suited to storytelling and sharing.

Strategies and Tools

Tools are presented in two different groups. The first group will deal with creating a social presence in the classroom and the second will show specific pedagological techniques.

Creating a Social Presence:

Online teaching and learning is a completely different paradigm than the traditional face-to-face classroom.  In a brick and mortar classroom, the “teacher” has the role of educator, providing a lecture or demonstration of the material, and other concrete guidance.  An online classroom lacks that “presence” and therefore a skillful teacher will guide students to effective interaction with the material as well as to encourage active learning in the social atmosphere of the online classroom.

Creating an interactive atmosphere is a complex skill; that interaction, however, is the most exciting element for students as they work through an online class.  Many techniques can foster this kind of interactivity:

  • A warm welcome letter or post. This goes a long way to front-loading the feeling of comfort and safety that is necessary for students to be active in the class.
  • A short bio and an invitation for students to introduce themselves to each other by sharing their bio. Students want to know their Instructor and it is important to allow it. There needs to be a comfortable balance between privacy and self-disclosure, but some self-revelation on the part of the Instructor helps a student be open to the lessons being taught. A student should be instructed to share only what they are comfortable with.
  • A short explanation about how to proceed. It is not helpful to assume the students will see the order in which they are to proceed just because the items are listed in a certain order. An online class can look like a jumble of words and links to someone who has never seen one before!
  • One way to expedite the getting-to-know-you process is with a photo gallery. If a student does not feel comfortable posting their own photo, perhaps they would be comfortable posting a picture of their pet or a landscape that they like.
  • Establish a question forum for the students to ask their questions. Make sure students are encouraged to be open about their questions because other students may have the same question. But at the same time, make sure they know they can send a private e-mail or message for questions or concerns they do not want to share with the class.
  • An excellent way to jumpstart discussions is, once students have become facile with the forums, to have students take turns facilitating discussions.
  • An instructor needs to remain accessible to students by communicating frequently throughout the discussion forums.
  • One practice for keeping students participating in the discussion forums is to attach points to participation. Requiring students to post a certain number of substantive posts over a certain period of time will keep them engaged in the discussion. If the Instructor follows the discussion and makes sure it is targeted and lively, the result will be active learning and enjoyment for the student.
  • It is important to project a high-level of warmth and friendliness in all classroom interactions realizing that words and messages can be perceived differently online than in person. Capital letters are like shouting. Using a red color also seems angry or brash. Using calming colors for emphasis; blue or purple has a soothing effect for nervous students who are trying to get used to the online venue.

Nuts and Bolts:

  • The syllabus should be complete and detailed with what is expected. The first assignment I give is for the student to send a response post that they have read and understand the syllabus. This also makes clear which students have logged into the course.
  • It is important to include contact information for the Instructor or Facilitator.
  • State software requirements needed to accommodate the material being offered in the course. For my classes, this would be, at a minimum, some office productivity software, Adobe Reader and Flash.
  • It is good to mention connection speed. Students should know that a dial-up connection will not be satisfactory.
  • Respond promptly to e-mails or questions that come through the forum
    • First few days – respond by six hours
    • After that – 24 hours
  • Creating a help page is a good way to reduce stress for the student by having resources where they can see them.  This page can contain links to needed resources such as tutorials, help files, explanations of policy (such as cheating and plagiarism) or good sources of material that support the lessons,  as well as to downloads for  needed software like Adobe Reader and Flash.
  • Intervening when students miss assignments or are “absent” from class may prevent student failure.
  • Create assignments that keep students logging in.
  • Consistent and regular feedback to the student is essential. Most students want the result of their postings and tests “yesterday.” Help them to feel motivated to continue to contribute by keeping YOUR contributions to them exemplary.

In summary, online education represents an interesting paradox. On the one hand, the distance and use of technology can create a barrier; yet techniques for effective pedagogy are steeped in social interaction. It is very important to effect an interactive system in the online classroom that dismantles the barriers and results in classroom unity and learning effectiveness.


HaiJew, Shalin. (2008). of Online Learning and Teaching, 4(1), 94-108. Retrieved from

The Learning Web. (2008). Distance Learning – the online education wave of the future. Retrieved from

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. (2008). News and Media: Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from

Toolkit Entry submitted by Rochelle Troyano – Nov. 2009

Tags: ,

Comments are closed.


Recent Comments

    Spam prevention powered by Akismet