5 Pitfalls of Online Teaching

Female student looking frustrated with books and computer

I took my first series of online courses for professional development in 2009.  The courses were highly interactively and well-designed because they were taught by experts in the field of computer-assisted language learning.  A shout-out to my professors in the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certificate program, Principles and Practices of Online Teaching!  (See blog on this topic). Ever since then, I’ve compared online courses to those.

As a working instructional designer and current PhD student enrolled in online courses, I bring a well-rounded perspective to the topic of distance education.  I’ve researched and written about how to develop an online community of inquiry.  It has become my personal agenda to ensure that students taking online courses don’t get frustrated from the course design and lack of teacher presence.

Here’s a list of what I consider the top 5 pitfalls that will surely decrease student learning outcomes and student satisfaction:

  1. Lack of pattern in weekly assignments will cause confusion, especially in a hybrid (blended) course. For example, as you plan threaded discussions, quizzes, and assignments, make sure they follow a pattern; otherwise, indicate on your syllabus any gaps in the established pattern of assignments.
  2. Numerous clicks to find content leads to frustration. To increase findability, use clear navigation practices to reduce time lost on task and frustration levels (Simunich, Robins, & Kelly, 2012).
  3. Lack of synchronous sessions to connect with the human leads to reduced achievement. To increase student achievement, include synchronous sessions (Bernard et al., 2004), Arbaugh and Hornik (2006) suggested video conferencing, voice messaging, or some other types of multimedia.
  4. Instructors not responding to students’ discussions in a timely manner. There are  several theories on human learning about delivering targeted instruction at the right time such as Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development, Ebbinghaus’ serial position effect (primacy and recency effect), and the presence or absence of retrieval cues in Cormier’s information processing theory.  Students need prompt feedback that targets their instructional needs (Arbaugh, 2001).  See my blog post on instructor feedback for online courses.
  5. Lack of student-student interactions (Bernard et al., 2004).  Make sure students can talk to one another and share their finished projects.

Do you agree with my top 5?


Arbaugh, J. B. (2001). How instructor immediacy behaviors affect student satisfaction and learning in web-based courses. Business Communication Quarterly, 30, 42-54.

Arbaugh, J. B., & Hornik, S. (2006). Do Chickering and Gamson’s seven principles also apply to online MBAs? The Journal of Educators Online, 3(2), 1-18.

Bernard, R. M., Abrami, P. C., Borokhovski, E., Wade, C. A., Tamim, R., Surkes,  M. A., & Bethel, E. C. (2009). A meta-analysis of three types of ITs in distance education. Review of Educational Research, 79, 1243-1288.

Simunich, B., Robins, D., & Kelly, V. (2012). Does findability matter? Findability, student motivation, and self-efficacy in online courses.  Quality Matters (QM) Research Grant, Kent State University.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

List of Student and Teacher Expectations for Online Courses

(Originally posted in 2015, I thought this blog was relevant now at the beginning of the semester for all those teaching online this term.)

What you can expect from your Instructor:

  • I will reply to your questions within 24-48 hours except during holidays.
  • I will provide clear and concise instructions and exercises for you to follow.
  • I will return graded assignments within two weeks from the due date.
  • I will monitor discussions to clarify students’ postings, highlight good or interesting comments and ideas, and provide insight.
  • I will provide the necessary components of successful interaction: explanation, demonstration, practice, feedback, and assessment.
  • I will provide a range of practice opportunities–from self-corrected multiple choice items to free form expression on a concept.
  • I will provide meta-cognitive, cognitive, and social strategies for instruction.
  • I know the platform you are using very thoroughly, so that I can anticipate and make good guesses about the origins of any problems you are likely to have, and some answers for them.

What I expect from my Students:

  • You will meet the minimum technical requirements of this course. Take the student orientation tutorial for this learning management system before getting started.  Seek other training services for basic computer and word processing skills (e.g., JagSkills).
  • You should always use good grammar and spelling when posting online.  Use the spell check feature.
  • All your messages will be consequential and full of content! For example, simply responding “me too,” or “thanks,” does not include content.
  • You follow the rules of Netiquette. For example, no bullying online.
  • You will complete all required tasks in a timely manner.
  • You will not copy (plagiarize) the work of others and claim it as your own.  Cite your resources using the American Psychological Association’s (APA) manual for publications. It’s currently in the 6th edition.

Protocol for Technical Issues:

  • First, make sure it’s not a browser issue (e.g., Google Chrome), and try a different browser to see if this resolves the issue.  If so, then you either need to update your regular browser or clear its history/cookies/cache.
  • Read the information in the Help tab (online manual) to learn how to use a tool.
  • Read log error messages and record specifics of problems and forward this to the tech support and instructor. Take a screenshot if possible to illustrate the exact problem.
  • Remember that your peers can help you, too!
  • Last, after someone fixes the problem, make sure you refresh the Web page, as the system will remember the exact same page you were looking at the last time you logged in.

Sandra Rogers

Updated 11/19/2915

Goodbye eCollege, Hello Schoology!

Venn Diagram of the tools and features of eCollege compared to those of Schoology LMS

Here’s a link to the PDF of this image.  Pearson is closing its door on eCollege and eCompanion, so we adopted a new learning management system (LMS).  Schoology by comparison has so many more features for our learners.

Quality Matters for Online Instruction

Quality Matters (QM) logo

What is it?

Quality Matters™ (QM) is a peer-review process for providing feedback and guidance for online course design.  According to the QM website, it originated from the MarylandOnline Consortium project in 2003. They received a grant from the US Department of Education to create a rubric and review process based on research and best practices.  In 2014, it became its own nonprofit organization.  Through a subscription service, the organization now provides training, resources, conference events, and research collaborations.  They currently have 5000 QM certified reviewers to assist subscribers with the peer review process of their online courses.

Who uses it?

QM provides specific rubrics and guidelines for the quality assurance review process for K-12, higher education, publishers, and continuing education programs that offer distance education.  QM has a new program to bring the rubric and process to students.  The QM process is specifically for hybrid and fully online courses; it’s not for web-enhanced face-to-face courses.  QM currently has 900 subscribers.  Subscription prices are adjusted to the size of your online programs.

How does it work?

A subscribing institution (or individual) requests a QM review of their course and submits an application.  QM recommends that you familiarize yourself with the rubric through the training process in advance of the review.  They also recommend that the course for review not be new—that it has been through a few semesters to work out the bugs.  A QM coordinator for your course assigns you a team of reviewers consisting of a team leader and two other certified peer reviewers, one of which is an subject matter expert.  They read your self-report about the course and review your course using the rubric and guidelines.  The rubric covers these general standards: 1. Course Overview & Introduction, 2. Learning Objectives (Competencies), 3. Assessment & Measurement, 4. Instructional Materials, 5. Course Activities & Learner Interaction, 6. Course Technology, 7. Learner Support, and 8. Accessibility & Usability.  The team contacts you with questions throughout the 4-6 week process.  Then they present you with your evaluation with time to address any major issues before finalizing the report.

What are the benefits?

Those courses that pass the review process receive recognition on the QM website.  Even if you meet the standards, the peer reviewers provide you with recommendations for further improvements.  Instructors can use this feedback for other courses they teach or debrief with colleagues about it.  This serves as an ongoing continuous improvement process.  This is something that institutions can promote to their clients and instructors can add to the curriculum vitae.  From personal experience in becoming a QM certified peer reviewer, I can attest to the benefits of knowing the best practices and accessibility requirements for online course design.  It has helped me to become a better online instructor and provided me with a wealth of knowledge for my work as an instructional designer.  I’m grateful to the Innovation in Learning Center at the University of South Alabama for training me on the QM process and providing the opportunity to become a certified peer reviewer.

e-Learning Instructional Strategies to Teach to the Whole Person

Heart Tagxedo for blog post image

Teaching to the whole person is more important than ever.  But how can we do this in an online learning environment?  I work at a Jesuit and Catholic college where I’ve been learning about Jesuit education and Ignatian pedagogy. The principles of Ignatian pedagogy include context, experience, reflection, action, and evaluation (Korth, 1993).  To address these in distance education, I’m developing an instructional design (ID) model that is a combination of learner-centered, experience-centered, activity-centered, and content-centered to fully address the whole person in online courses. Ragan, Smith, and Curda (2008) stated that a combination ID model is possible.  Not only is it possible, to include research-based best practices, it is absolutely necessary to provide diverse and rich experiences in online environments.  Otherwise, a single-mode of learning will become monotonous and decrease student motivation to learn.

Table 1 provides instructional strategies for the online environment that engender higher-order thinking (cognitive presence) for each approach.  This chart represents an initial listing to assist educators with strategy selection depending on various affordances and constraints such as time, resources, et cetera. For example, an activity-centered lesson is based on an interactive task and requires collaborative tools and student groupings. Content-centered lessons are passive tasks where the student generally only interacts with the content; the exception being discussions of content. Experience-centered-activities require a hands-on approach to developing something or serving/working with others. The learner-centered activity provides the learner with more autonomy over their pursuit of knowledge and includes metacognitive actions for self-regulation of learning; the affordances and constraints for this type of activity are highly dependent on the task.

Table 1

Cognitive Online Instructional Strategies to Teach to the Whole Person

Activity-Centered Content-Centered Experience-Centered Learner-Centered
· Analysis of case studies

· Critically review an article

· HyperInquiry team project

· Academic controversy assignment

· Develop a book trailer on topic

· WebQuest

· Pretest/Posttest

· Write a literature review

· Complete modules on topic in computer-adapted lab/program

· Write essay

· Make a presentation

· Discuss content with peers and instructor


  • Develop questionnaires

·Develop a personal model of topic

·Participate in a simulation

·Develop a workshop

·Develop a wiki on topic

· Develop a podcast on topic or narrated PowerPoint

· Develop a how-to guide or video tutorial on procedure

· Write a blog post on topic

· Serve others as a mentor, tutor, or volunteer on topic

· Virtual fieldtrip

· Peer-review of papers or projects

· Students create m/c questions for review

· Design a project

· Evaluate a program

· Write an autobiography of your interaction with topic

· Complete self-evaluation

· Develop a personal learning network

· Capture reflections in journal, audio, or video

· Curate digital books and articles on topic for lifelong learning

Note. I linked some of these activities to sources of my own and others. Check back soon for an update!


Korth, S. J. (1993). Precis of Ignatian pedagogy: A practical approach.  International Center for Jesuit Education, Rome, Italy.

Ragan, T. J., Smith, P. L., & Curda, L. K. (2008). Outcome referenced, conditions-based theories and models. In J.M. Spector, M. D. Merrill, J. van Merriënboer, & M. P. Driscoll (Eds.), Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (3rd ed.) (pp. 383- 399). New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates/Taylor and Francis Group.

Cognitive Benefits of ePortfolios

Research Study: Plans for an Online Community of Inquiry

4 Things You Can Do to Make Your Online Course More Accessible

The following suggestions are recommended in meeting the Americans with Disability Act (1990).

“No otherwise qualified individual with a disability …shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance… (Section 504, 29 U.S.C. Sec. 794). ” Follow these basic guidelines for compliance and to improve learning for all:

  1. Describe images and hyperlinks with alternative text.
  2. Use San Serif fonts for online text.
  3. Check and repair all portable document formats (PDFs) for accessibility.
  4. Caption all audio and video.

Images. Alternative (alt) text helps people that use assistive technology (e.g., screen readers) as their learning accommodation.  For example, screen readers like Microsoft’s (MS) JAWS (Job Access with Speech) read the description aloud to the user with vision impairment.  Make sure you concisely provide alt text for each image in your online course. This includes images on a course page within a PowerPoint or Word document. For some learning management systems (LMS), it’s not a requirement when adding photos.  For example, Schoology does not.  We’ve contacted the developers to add the requirement as the image is added to the LMS instead of as an additional task afterward.

Hyperlinks. When you add links to your course, think about simplifying information by providing the specific name of the Website instead of a confusing Web address, also known as the URL (Uniform Resource Locator).  Take into account that the assistive technology will read aloud the long URL if you do not give it a name. Imagine listening to an entire URL reading: “h-t-t-p-semicolon-forward slash-forward slash-secure-period-ecollege-period-com-forward slash-shc”.    This would cause extra cognitive load on the listener. Here’s a good and bad example:

The exact name of the Website will aid all learners in understanding where the link will take them.

Fonts.  Sans-serif fonts are recommended for online text to provide accessibility. Sans-serif fonts don’t have the “hats and shoes” on certain letters that serif fonts include.   This is because serif fonts may waiver and become difficult to read on low bandwidth or poor Internet connections.  Schoology provides Arial as the default font, which is sans-serif.  For a complete list of typefaces, see Wikipedia.

PDFs.  Are your PDFs readable? Conduct a word search within the Find box of aPDF for a word you see in the document. Type Ctrl+F if you don’t see a Find box.  If you receive the message, “No matches were found,” then the document is a scanned image, which cannot be read by persons who use assistive technology.  Use Adobe Acrobat Pro XI to repair “unreadable” PDFs.  It has an accessibility checker that you can run to repair the document.

Ensure your MS Word documents are accessible before you save them as a PDF.  MS Word versions 2010 and later have accessibility checkers that will highlight any issues your document has. Within MS Word, select File > Info> Check for Issues > Check Accessibility.  Fix issues like missing alt text for images.  See Adobe Accessibility Quick Reference Card for information on earlier versions of MS Word that you may have at home.

Captions.  Caption all media.  Closed captioning is the preferred format (instead of open captions), so the user can turn it on or off according to their needs.  If you don’t have your media captioned, at the very least, provide a script until you caption the video or audio file.  However, transcripts don’t provide equal access to the lesson because the words and images from the video aren’t in sync to enhance meaning.  See list of free captioning services below.

  1. Captioning Key is funded by the National Association of the Deaf and The Described and Captioned and Media Program. It provides a PDF document on specific quality assurance guidelines for closed-captioning. http://www.dcmp.org/captioningkey/
  2. Amara.org for captioning any video on the Internet: http://www.amara.org/en/
  3. CaptionTube for captioning YouTube videos: http://captiontube.appspot.com/
  4. Subtitle Workshop for captioning any video: http://sourceforge.net/projects/subworkshop/


Sandra Annette Rogers, Instructional Designer

Instructor Feedback for Teacher Presence

Cartoon headshot of blogger, Sandra Rogers
Be ever present in the online courses you teach.

Instructor’s online behaviors were not a focus of research until the momentum of online teaching occurred (Baker, 2010).  Based on research on human learning (Ormrod, 2012), one can draw on several theories for delivering targeted instruction at the right time: Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, Ebbinghaus’ serial position effect (primacy and recency effect), and the presence or absence of retrieval cues in Cormier’s information processing theory.  Students need “right time” feedback that targets their instructional needs.  Moreover, feedback formats should vary to enhance the lack of richness in text-based media commonly found in online environments (Arbaugh & Hornik, 2006; Chickering & Gamson, 1987).

As cited in Moore and Kearsley (1996), Moore’s 1973 transactional distance theory explains how electronic communication tools promote student-student and student-teacher interactions. They theorized that the geographical distance matters less than the course structure.  Online courses that provide e-tools for communication close the distance and provide psychological closeness between the teacher and the class similar to closeness created in traditional courses (Lemak, Shin, Reed, & Montgomery, 2007).  Arbaugh and Hornik (2006) suggested video conferencing, voice messaging, and some other types of multimedia.  Bernard et al. (2004) found a larger effect size for course completion rates with synchronous sessions when compared to asynchronous ones.  Baker reported that students in synchronous courses reported higher levels of instructor immediacy levels.  If synchronous sessions are tied to higher course completion rates, then, perhaps online instructors should intermittently offer them.

Arbaugh and Hornik found that online teaching requires the instructor to take on a facilitator mode and manage discussions in a conversational style to augment student interactions.  The informality of the conversation could lessen the psychological distance between the students and their instructor. Moore and Kearsley likened distance education to a transaction that could create a psychological space for potential misunderstandings.  Therefore, the risk for misunderstandings could be increased when teachers wait until week’s end to post their responses.  Hence, this may not be a very good practice.   The lack of, or delay in, instructor feedback is a critical component in distance education.

Why do some online instructors not provide a format for class discussion?  There’s a multitude of possible reasons from a lack of ability, unrecognized benefits, a preference for lecture-based instruction, or lack of time.  An alternative would be to provide an online discussion moderated by a teaching assistant or participants in the class. In a literature review by Thormann, Gable, Fidalgo, and Blakeslee (2013), student moderation generated more frequent and in-depth discussion for the learners. They found that student ownership of the course increased. Understandably, some participants reported dissatisfaction if the instructor rarely participated.  Therefore, the teacher still needs to participate in the online discussions even with a student moderator.  The US Office of Education (Means et al., 2010) conducted a meta-analysis and review of 99 online learning studies.  They found larger effect sizes for studies that included collaborative or teacher-directed learning activities than those with independent study.

See my PowerPoint presentation for more tips on incorporating your teacher presence in your online courses: Effective Online Communication.


Arbaugh, J. B., & Hornik, S. (2006).  Do Chickering and Gamson’s seven principles also apply   to online MBAs?  The Journal of Educators Online, 3(2), 1-18.

Baker, C. (2010).  The impact of instructor immediacy and presence for online student affective learning, cognition, and motivation.  The Journal of Educators Online, 7(1), 1-30.

Bernard, R. M., Abrami, P. C., Borokhovski, E., Wade, C. A., Tamim, R., Surkes,  M. A., & Bethel, E. C. (2009). A meta-analysis of three types of interaction treatments in distance education. Review of Educational Research, 79, 1243-1288.

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987).  Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. Wingspread Journal, 9(2), 75-81.

Lemak, D., Shin, S., Reed, R., & Montgomery, J. (2005).  Technology, transactional distance, and instructor effectiveness: An empirical investigation. Academy of  Management Learning & Education, 4(2), 150-158.

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. U.S. Department of Education Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development. Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/opepd/ppss/reports.html

Moore, M.G., & Kearsley, G. (1996).  Distance education: A systems view.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.

Ormrod, J. E. (2012).  Human learning.  New Jersey: Pearson.

Thormann, J., Gable, S., Fidalgo, P., & Blakeslee, G. (2013).  Interaction, critical thinking, and social network analysis (SNA) in online courses. The International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, 14(3), 294-318.  Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1306/2537
This article was written by Sandra Rogers.

Collection of My Best e-Learning Blog Posts

How participants can prepare for a webinar & understand how to interact
A Pathway for Participants to Understand How to Prepare & Attend a Webinar


I’ve been blogging since 2011.  I noticed I had 61 blogs listed in the category for e-Learning.  Here’s a collection of my best effort to help others understand how to improve online learning and your professional online image as an eLeader.

Face-to-Face to Online Course Development Checklist

From Face-to-Face Teaching to Blended Format

How to Make Your Online Course Accessible

Personalizing Distance Education

Effective Online Communication

Online Cognitive Activities that Engender a Community of Inquiry

 WebQuest for Creating Critical Thinking Job Aids

Scoop.IT! The Critical Reader

Use of SecondLife for Educational Purposes

SecondLife: Advantages and Disadvantages for Education

 Process Map for Participants to Attend a Webinar

 Another Basic Tool for Online Teachers: The World Clock

Personal Branding for the 21st Century Educator

Follow my e-newspaper, The Online Educator, to learn from leaders in the industry.