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The ReVIEW Team

7 Lessons I Learned as a Bad Online Teacher

8 min read

Remix of "Nodal Network" flickr photo by -mtnoxx- https://flickr.com/photos/adammeek/34621310923 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license and Education Reform: Insert your favorite “Wrath of Khan” joke blog title here" flickr photo by opensourceway https://flickr.com/photos/opensourceway/6082519811 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

I love teaching online. I have also messed up along the way and draw important lessons from these failures. So then I iterate.

Over my last decade of teaching online, which began in my blended 6th grade classroom in 2004-2005, I have focused on seven key lessons that drive my instructional design.


Day 55. Classroom. flickr photo by davidmulder61 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Know Your Learners

I always want to create those magical moments. Where networked learning thrives. It rarely happens. Too often I design for the wrong audience.

I think about the participatory learning environments where I live. Places often celebrated by digital bards and nomads jumping from pop up like learning events that differ vastly from the public perception of MOOCs. I want that in my classes.

I can't have it; not without a lot of scaffolding and time, probably spanning multiple classes. There is a difference between learners who want to be there and who want to be there. We must design accordingly.

More importantly I do have to consider the complexity and frequency of tools I want to introduce. I am committed to students controlling their space for learning. Privacy through data empowerment. Yet I need to recognize that navigation must be fluent in all learners.

What to do?

Before each class I draw up a persona of three typical learners in the class. I try to think about their writing skills, their technology skills, and their experience in complex and distributed learning environments.

I offer a week zero class with face to face time before the class begins. I also record these sessions and put them online.

I also build in design studio time in my hybrid classrooms and open video office hours in my online classes. You can drop in any time for help.


empty goal flickr photo by tadekk shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Set Clear Expectations

I always strive for maximum flexibility. Students often grade themselves or each other.  I say,  "No due dates, those are guidelines. I care that you learn, not when you learn." I was wrong.

Even classes with the most open structure  students must know your expectations for assignments and participation. I am not saying apply a rubric to everything or set up, "Post to the discussion board twice by Tuesday and reply three  times by Sunday," but students must know what to do and when.

What to do?

Have due dates. When you work with students who often have multiple jobs, children, and a full class load do not be surprised if they look to your flexibility as a time management opportunity to finish other tasks.

Model the weekly expectations. You may not complete the same tasks as students (though this is my favorite model) but don't do what I do and let weeks of tasks and feedback pile up.

I want a fluid syllabus. The idea that course content can not change in response to students is silly. Yet you need to have expectations of major assignments and group worked laid out early.


Alone. flickr photo by mildiou2 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Online isn't Alone

Just because we do not gather in a room together doesn't mean we don't hang out in class. Yet I have to think about the complexity of tools we use to encourage engagement.

Some of my favorite experiences often occurred when using the Google Suite of applications. This was before Google Classroom but the single sign on and experience of Hangouts, Docs, Google+, Google Sites, and Google Forms made instructional design easy.

I also have to remember I am not teaching a correspondence course. Having students submit a 250-500 word submission each week could be done by mail. Do more.

What to do?

Choose a suite of tools and provide training on how to use them. Do not assume a lack of use is a lack of engagement.

Mix groups of on campus and off campus students. When allowing self selection watch out for geographical segregation or remote or commuter students.

Create assignments that depend on collaboration. Collaborative case studies or weekly debates are two of my favs. In my children's literature classes I love to do book clubs as well.


Wilson teaching flickr photo by Portland Seminary shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Good Pedagogy is Good Teaching. Online or Off.

I bought the latest screencasting software. I made the powerpoints. I hit record. I needed to stop. Watching a narrated slidedeck online is just as bad, if not worse, than watching it in the classroom.

If a practice works in the traditional classroom it probably works in the online classroom. We are not reinventing teaching just changing the mode and medium of delivery.

What to do?

Take what you do already and move it online. Your lessons work because they are good and you have honed them for years. Find a peer who has taught online and ask them to move online.

Take what we know about classroom discussions and writing instruction and include these into your teaching. 

Don't record powerpoints. My favorite way to introduce new content is with expert interviews or scheduling podcasts with authors of articles we read. 


Make! flickr photo by Sklathill shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Production Based Learning

I used to equate readings with rigor. Word counts with wonder. I was wrong. 

We need to make our online classes production based learning environments. Students need to curate and create learning artifacts that provide evidence of knowledge growth over time.

They need to remix readings with their own ideas. You know...analyze and synthesize.

What to do?

Create assignments that require students to use the learning material in novel ways. Get students making.

In more well defined domains such as math this can include making instructional videos to teach others about algorithms being studied. 

Have them design their own space for learning. When students create a stream of their learning or a portfolio f artifacts you get deeper learning.


JUL2011_ 1645 flickr photo by torres21 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Provide Timely and Focused Feedback

I created a rubric for everything. In my first publication "Forums and Functions of Threaded Discussion" I even shared an acronym rubric. Two bad habits of teachers. Seeing acronyms everywhere and trying to grade everything.

I have also just allowed classes to move organically. Just dipping my toes into conversations. My students deserved more. I needed to find the balance.

What to do?

Don't grade every discussion and post. Do you provide a rubric for each response when a student raises their hand in class? No. Why would you do this online? Doesn't mean you can't have a holistic participation grade.

You can have a rubric but you don't need to score students on every criterion every week. Target your feedback on areas where students need growth.

Coach your students. My best feedback is rarely attached to grades. Instead I either your recorded screencasts or video chats to provide feedback.


Filigree - Nicolás Paris (1977) flickr photo by pedrosimoes7 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Model. Model. Model

I often expected my students knew what to do. I would begin each week with a short video introducing the tasks and then let the class go. I was wrong.

Students need layers of of differentiated scaffolding and examples from you and peers.

What to do?

Go back to rule one. Remember most of your students may never have had an online learning experience. Let them see you doing what you ask of them.

Connect your classes across semesters. I utilize the same classroom stream each semester. Students have the option to delete their data but most do not. This creates a library of example of students can use as models.

Recognize the leaders in the class. Students will turn to a few for advice. Online learning requires this kind of emerging leadership. Plan pathways around this.

Empower students as models. Choose students, especially those not overly involved and pre teach them a skill a skill or content. Have them lead the class.

Model how to model.

Online learning and teaching take constant growth. Always Iterate. These seven lessons guide my instructional design and they can help you rethink how to teach online. 


Greg McVerry, is an international expert on literacy and technology. He received his PhD in Educational Psychology as Neag Fellow at the New Literacies Research Lab at the University of Connecticut. If you would like to learn more about how he uses ReVIEW Talent Feedback System to help improve online teaching across the globe feel free to email him.