Embracing online education in a challenging time

Embracing online education in a challenging time

Key takeaways

  • Instructors should be accessible, connected, and engaged
  • Student satisfaction is directly related to the quality of human interaction
  • It’s more effective to focus on one or two strategies

It seems as if overnight hundreds of colleges and universities closed their doors due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Institutions sent students home and began the arduous task of converting on-the-ground classes to an online environment with no idea of when things will return to normal.

Some hypothesize that this will speed up the adoption of online learning that is already in progress, while others worry that if this mad dash results in subpar online offerings, faculty and students alike will grow more resistant to online education. Of course, the larger issue is retention—from the standpoint of tuition and funding for colleges to avoiding major disruptions in graduation and completion rates for students. The first question is this: How do we retain students in the online environment who may never have had any intention of taking an online class? Second, how do faculty engage students in the online environment if they have never taught online?

Be an ACE instructor: Accessible, Connected, Engaged

Whether a course is synchronous or asynchronous, research indicates that student satisfaction with online education is directly related to whether there are opportunities for human interaction, including a relationship with the instructor. Here are a few strategies to give your online classrooms the same connected and engaging feel as an on-the-ground class.


  • Set virtual office hours. On campus, most instructors have office hours. Office hours can still be offered remotely, either on a by-appointment basis or by having an open hour (in Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, Adobe Connect) during which students can pop in and out.
  • Send students an open invitation to email questions and comments, then be committed to answering swiftly. Most institutions ask faculty to respond within 24 hours. However, for a student working on homework with a burning question, that may not be timely enough. Responding as soon as you are able makes the interactions more conversational and students appreciate knowing that faculty are responsive.
  • Consider providing a cell phone number that students can use to text questions, notify you they sent an email that requires a response, or simply call to touch base or ask a question. Your willingness to be available sends a potent message that you are accessible and devoted to students’ success.


  • Put a face on your class. So many online courses are devoid of any human presence. This may be the key deterrent to students choosing online education. Today’s students are tech savvy and use digital devices to connect to others, but generally, they are texting and sending pictures, FaceTiming, Instagramming, Facebooking, Tweeting, etc. What do most of these communication methods have in common? Someone’s face and/or voice. How do you put a face on an online/remote class?
    • In synchronous classes, of course, students see and hear you at the designated class time, but if that is the only face time they get, they are likely to not be as satisfied as they could be.
    • In asynchronous classes, consider video lectures—not narrated PowerPoint slides with a talking head, but actual video of you speaking conversationally, off the cuff, as if you were in a synchronous setting. Videos do not need to be long—10-minute introductions to the materials can be sufficient (particularly as rapid deployment is necessary during these trying times).
    • Create interactive assignments using VoiceThread, YouTube, Google Hangouts, Adobe Connect, Skype, or Zoom. Create opportunities for students to see and hear you and each other. Ditch relying solely on the typical written discussion board and move discussions into a virtual space with voice and video.
    • Connect the real world with the classroom. Have students conduct remote interviews with practitioners in the field and share those interviews with one of the interactive modes above.
    • Use videos from multiple sources such as YouTube or TED Talks. Students respond to information being presented from different perspectives.


  • Consider putting students into more intimate groups (five to 10 students depending on overall class size) to create a sense of deeper rapport. Discussion boards and/or interactive platforms are easier to manage when student groups are smaller. Interactions tend to be more numerous and robust. Students report that they really believe that they have the opportunity to get to know each other being in groups versus interacting with the class as a whole. Of course, you can encourage students to interact in any or all groups if they want more connection.
  • Use project-based assignments, assignments that involve real-world application, and consider group assignments. Even in an online classroom, group assignments can be designed to encourage rapport, camaraderie, and collaboration.
  • Communicate frequently using the course announcement feature, discussion boards, emails, and grading comments. Communication makes your presence in the class and investment in the students known and tangible.
  • Share and encourage sharing. Use class announcements and discussion boards to share pictures of your family and pastimes then encourage students to do the same. Students like feeling that they are getting to know others in their class on a personal basis.

Focus on one or two strategies

In this age of rapid online deployment, keep in mind that you do not have to utilize every strategy off the bat, or prepare an entire semester’s worth of lessons. Pick one or two strategies then embed them in one- or two-weeks’ worth of lessons—and then continue to work a week ahead of your students. After that, employ one or two additional strategies each semester until you have designed your course to be as connected and engaging as you and your students need and want it to be.


Lederman, D. (2020). Will Shift to Remote Teaching Be Boon or Bane for Online Learning?
Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2020/03/18/most-teaching-going-remote-will-help-or-hurt-online-learning.

Sterling, K. (2015). Student Satisfaction with Online Learning. UC Santa Barbara.
ProQuest ID: Sterling_ucsb_0035D_12576. Merritt ID: ark:/13030/m5867f6n. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/5g7707j3

Meet the authors
Leana M. Bowman
Leana M. Bowman
Senior Specialist

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