Effective Practices for Online Learning


The following are recommended practices adapted from a document titled Ensuring the Appropriate Use of Educational Technology: An Update for Local Academic Senates, which is available from the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. If you would like guidance on any of the principles outlined below, please contact the Instructional Development Coordinator or Distance Education Coordinator for assistance.

When teaching all or part of a class online, it’s important to remember the often-cited seven principles should always be kept in mind (Chickering & Gamson, 1987):

  • Encourage faculty to student interaction;
  • Encourage student to student interaction;
  • Promote active learning;
  • Communicate high expectations;
  • Facilitate time on task;
  • Provide rich, rapid feedback;
  • Respect diverse learning.

Effective Practices for Course Development and Delivery of Course Content
Courses delivered via distance education should not merely be an online presentation of an instructor’s classroom-based lecture or a series of PowerPoint presentations that are used in the classroom. In developing materials for use in an online environment the instructor needs to consider the varied learning styles of his/her students, issues of accessibility, and how to make the online environment engaging.

  • Course content should be made available in discrete “chunks” that permit the student to easily complete a meaningful course element in a limited time and allow for the student to readily return to the middle of a section of content;
  • The nature of students and how they work should be incorporated into the content structure and course design;
  • Repetition, interactivity, and opportunities for self-assessment should be provided;
  • All course components should be developed with accessibility in mind.

Effective Practices for Instructor-Student Contact and Interactivity
The visible personality and preferences of the instructor in a course is one of the major factors in predicting retention in online courses.  Title 5 regulations require that faculty teaching online courses initiate “regular effective contact” with students.  Regular effective contact is not a simple matter, but involves a wide variety of elements that reflect the instructor’s participation in the course content development and implementation. Sacramento City College maintains guidelines for regular effective contact. Some helpful tips are also noted below.

  • Ensure that the schedule description and course syllabus clearly establish whether the course is fully online or whether on-campus activities are expected;
  • Ensure that instructor–student contact includes regular announcements about what is expected of students, including assignments due, upcoming tests, comments on recent activities in the course, and email;
  • Ensure that regular contact also includes regularly added, faculty-created course content. Instructor presence can be established both one-on-one and through global course changes;
  • Strive to maintain a regular presence in the course by responding to discussion forums and answering questions regularly;
  • In the first weeks of a course, make an extra effort to maintain an active, daily presence;
  • Use forum functionality to create asynchronous discussions regarding course content that encourage critical thinking; participation in discussions should be part of the evaluation methodology;
  • Create a discussion forum for general questions regarding the course but do not rely on this alone to assist students;
  • Address students by name when responding to discussion postings and emails;
  • Change subject lines of instructor discussion board responses to match the content of the response, which helps students to find information that is of interest to them;
  • Provide activities that incorporate a wide variety of instructional methodologies to address multiple learning styles.

Effective Practices for Technology-Mediated Office Hours
While some instructors may opt to hold on-campus office hours, providing technology-mediated office hours is an option available to all instructors. CCC Confer (www.cccconfer.org) provides all California community college faculty with a phone and/or Internet-based means of communicating synchronously with students. Scheduling such office hours can be a challenge, but the benefits may be worth it.

  • Through the use of CCCConfer and other such technologies, online office hours can be held and archived—allowing for even those students who are not able to attend to benefit;
  • In the instance of well-attended online office hours, instructors need to maximize the capabilities of the system employed so as to effectively manage the class;
  • Online office hours may be more useful to students, if they are offered outside of the normal business day. Allowing for instructors to conduct office hours from home is a practical solution to meeting the needs of the diverse community of online students;
  • Online office hours may also be useful to face-to-face students and face-to-face office hours may be useful for online students. Giving all students both schedules when an instructor teaches the two modalities is a plus;
  • In course announcements, mentioning the benefits of recent office hour sessions helps to encourage more students to participate;
  • Responding to email can be considered as asynchronous office hours, but synchronous opportunities for student/instructor interaction provide important access to the instructor.

Effective Practices for Use of Learning Management Systems (Desire2Learn) and Publisher Materials
Decisions regarding course management systems and publisher materials happen in various places.  Sacramento City College provides access to the Desire2Learn (D2L) learning management system for all courses, as requested by the instructor.  The way that publisher materials are incorporated into courses could involve both college conversations and department or individual faculty member decisions.

The following characteristics should be considered when selecting a learning management system that has the functionality needed for effective course delivery:

  • Intuitive design and functionality for both instructor and student
  • Accessibility for disabled students
  • Easy to use course content areas with ability to import material
  • Easy to use and organize discussion forum functions
  • Robust assessment environment
  • Adequate grade-book function
  • Ability to produce a wide variety of course statistics (e.g., student tracking)
  • Individual faculty members or departments should determine what publisher materials are adopted;
  • Publisher materials are most effectively used when they are added as needed to instructor prepared content.

Use of Individual Websites or Online Resources  in Place of a Learning Management System

Some faculty members or departments choose to use individual web pages in place of, or in addition to, integrated course management systems. Use of websites should be governed by a computer use policy that includes strong protection of academic freedom. (The Los Rios Computer Use Policy can be found here.)  Other standards for websites are included in the Academic Senate’s Spring 2000 Guidelines on Minimum Standards for College Technology.  Particularly important are:

  • The college should maintain a website with adequate server space for individual faculty, department/ division and local academic senate web pages;
  • Faculty should have direct upload access to the appropriate server area;
  • Design and technical support should be available to faculty.

Contact the Instructional Development Coordinator for more information about these resources at SCC.)

Elements that can be incorporated to prevent cheating include:

  • Randomized questions, so that each student has a unique assessment experience;
  • Timed testing, to minimize/prevent accessing additional resources when not permitted—subject to accommodations for disabilities as required;
  • Regular written assignments that allow for routine verification of student identity based on consistency of style and skill;
  • Revision of assignments from term to term.


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