Teaching online courses – How to help virtual learners to succeed?

I have taught my first online course in 2003 – it seems like a century ago. To be correct, it was a blended delivery – 25% of the content was delivered in the classroom and the rest of the content was offered online. I must confess when teaching my first online course, I did not have a proper understanding how to manage the course delivery, how to support and engage my students, and I did not realize how many efforts it can take. I believe that the content I have created looked more than a simple digitization of the collected course material that was offered in the traditional classroom environment.

Since that time, we have accumulated a serious expertise in online course development and teaching methodologies. Multiple technology platforms have been developed to support effective online teaching and learning. Online education and training have become the fast-growing industry on its own than a response to the educational and training needs all over the world.

In this post, I’d like to focus on the role of online instructors, share lessons I have learned, and summarize some best teaching practices which can help virtual learners to succeed.

It is a demanding job – to teach online

I think that teaching online takes much more time than classroom teaching, and most of the time is spent on maintaining communication with learners: following up with the progress, providing feedback, moderating discussions, and motivating students. I think that online delivery can’t be compared with the classroom teaching; it is very different.

The preparation of the course, writing the online content takes a lot of time, and this is a very important phase, and it requires a complete re-shaping of the material: dividing it into the consumable partition, adding illustrations, images, and diagrams which can be understood and interpreted by learners.

I’d like to mention one more aspect of online learning – activities. We should plan online activities carefully since it takes much longer time to complete activities online than in the classroom environment, especially it applies to collaborative assignments and projects

When adding activities, we must choose the right ones which can be performed effectively online, otherwise, the time will be wasted and no results achieved. My experience shows that not every activity we run in the class will have the same level of success when implemented online.

Another important activity is a course delivery planning according to course outlines and delivery schedule:

  • Lesson sequence;
  • Lesson objectives;
  • Delivery content;
  • Activities associated with the lesson plan;
  • Assessment strategies.

We all appreciate the flexibility the online learning is offering to learners but in reality, the flexibility is also limited since we need to maintain balanced workload during each week. The learning content, related tasks, assignments, and activities with the respective deadlines are distributed through the semester on weekly basis. This is the main reason why the course delivery schedule must be communicated to learners before the beginning of the courses.

My experience shows that answering students’ questions in writing takes a longer time than answering the same questions verbally, and it is not just about typing, we must think how to formulate our replies so that our students can understand our messages correctly. I spent a lot of time marking online assessments and providing individual feedback in writing.

If I am planning student work on a weekly basis, it requires regular online presence, ideally – every day. One of the specific features of online teaching is that workload is distributed evenly through the semester. If the teacher is neglecting online presence, the job will be piling up, the quality of teaching and learners’ satisfaction will suffer. Delaying marking, feedback, or moderation of discussions is not an option in online course delivery.

Maintaining regular and timely communication with students

Communication is a key success factor in online learning. It starts with welcoming students and explaining them the content and the activities of the online course. It is very important to provide as much as possible information about course requirements in terms of assessments, estimated time for studies, and a general advice how to handle course workload on weekly basis.

It is important to make sure that students feel confident that they will manage online studies successfully. By maintaining positive and supportive communication, the instructor creates a comfortable learning environment which helps students to manage the course. Students must feel that the instructor is available to help when it is needed.

Timely feedback on students’ progress is vital for students’ success; it helps them to identify their strengths and weaknesses, seek help if needed, and improve their performance.

I have taken sever online courses myself, and in most of the cases, I enjoyed every bit of my learning experiences. I know how difficult it is to have the full-time job and study online. And I appreciate my instructors because they did follow closely with my progression, and as soon they felt I was falling behind for whatever reason, I received inspiring and motivational messages and offer to help. This is how an online instructor should support learners.

Variety of technology tools are available

These days, we have a variety of amazing technology tools that can be used for development and delivery of online courses. My approach has been to balance the use of technology and keep things simple as much as possible.

We all acknowledge the importance of multimedia elements but we can’t overload students’ focus with long videos, flashy animations, or simulations. In some cases, students might have difficulties to access them.

Technology should support learning, enhance its effectiveness, and our task is to define what technology we need to help students to achieve their learning goals.

Is online learning suitable for all students?

It is a challenging question. From one side, we are trying to promote online learning by highlighting its openness, availability, flexibility, and accessibility, but we must keep in mind that not all students can benefit from these advantages. And the reasons can be very different:

  • The person can’t decide if the course is meeting his learning needs;
  • Some people are not motivated enough to manage their learning and follow up with the learning schedules and deadlines, they usually lose interest to study as soon as they see lesson material, activities, and deadlines;
  • Another category of learners is lacking time management skills and have very good intentions, but they fail to stay in the course and comply with the deadlines;
  • Some students don’t feel comfortable working and communicating virtually with peers and instructors; it is not a common case for a new generation of learners but, we still have some individual cases.
    Instructor’s task is to help these students to stay in the course, provide timely all necessary information about the course content and other requirements, and motivate students to study. The rest is in learners’ hands


I think that online teaching helped me to become a better teacher. I have improved my communication skills, became more patient and supportive. I always ready to guide and advise my students if they get confused, lost, or discouraged.

The writing of online content is an experience on its own. Online content should be concise, clear, and professional. Online teaching provides opportunities to think carefully about our communication style and our answers to students’ questions. It also invites to think more about the course content and new and innovative ways of content presentation.





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10 thoughts on “Teaching online courses – How to help virtual learners to succeed?”

  1. Hi Nadia,
    Thank you for this very informative article. It is wonderful to think just how much information there is available now for those wanting to learn new skills.

    1. Thank you for your comments. Well, we are learning constantly; it is a requirement of modern life. I think that online education and training industry can help many people to gain knowledge and skills in a convenient way. The success of online learning is substantially dependent on the instructor.
      Thank you again for stopping by.
      Wishing you a success.

  2. Online teaching isn’t something I think I would be good at but I have taken many online courses myself and I really applaud anyone that can teach.
    I don’t think I would have the confidence to do it myself.
    How many regular pupils do you have when teaching online?

    1. Thank you for stopping by the post. Well, teaching online is a very demanding job, and usually, the biggest problem is that you don’t know your students personally. It takes time to establish communication lines with virtual learners. Online requires an individual approach. Usually, I don’t have huge classes 15-40 students per session which is manageable. Actually, it is enjoyable.
      Wishing you a success,

  3. Great article, I really enjoyed it!

    I believe the student has to be very disciplined when they partake in any virtual or online course. They have to want and the course has to be interesting, more so than the classroom equivalent, which has got to be a task and a half for the teacher.

    I could never have imagined myself ever taking part in online training but here I am learning a new skill and thoroughly enjoying it too.

    With the way technology is going this way of learning can only get better.

    1. Thank you very much for your comments. Online education and training is a fast developing industry, and the technology is having a huge impact how knowledge and skills are taught to students. But the success of learning depends on motivation and dedication of learners. The instructor’s role is support, motivate, and advise the learners. Technology will provide us with great tools, effective learning methods but technology can’t replace instructors.At least, not in the near future.
      Thank you again. Wishing you a successful development of your business.

  4. This is a huge responsibility and as you point out, it is not taken lightly.

    My grandson is homeschooled and I wonder if he could benefit from online learning.

    I would like to see him on a regular schedule of timely response and answers like you posted about to show him discipline in his studies.

    Even though a lot of his material is gotten online, the touch of a teacher could be beneficial.

    1. Thank you very much for your input. I agree with you, there is a necessity to stay in touch with the teacher. Currently, online education and training cover all levels of education starting from kindergarten up to PhD studies. I am absolutely sure that you can find suitable courses for your grandson.
      I wish you all the best,

  5. Thank you for the article, Nadja!

    Do you think is it possible to start teaching online for a non-qualified teacher? I have a Bachelor degree in engineering but I have an interest in online teaching and blogging. I am really good at Maths and was tutoring in coaching classes up to 12th Standard.

    Just want to know what you think. Thank you

    1. Thank you for your comments. Interesting question. If you check the requirement, they very different. Since online education and training sector is growing very fast, they need a lot of teachers. So, I’d suggest, to check different providers and apply for jobs, the formal education is not needed so much; it is mostly about the ability to communicate and support learners.
      If you want to gain some online teaching skills, several courses are available online; for example, courses from COURSERA.
      I wish a success.

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