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Best Practices for Online Classes


Santa Rosa Junior College
Best Practices in Designing and Conducting Online Courses


The instructor of an effective and enjoyable online course generally does four things well: prepares students for the course before it starts, designs the course well, maintains strong instructor visibility, and creates effective learning communities. The following information includes strategies, activities, design techniques, and organizational tips, is designed to help online instructors implement “best practices” in designing an instructionally and pedagogically sound online learning environment and conducting online activities.


1. Preparing students: Creating a course syllabus for online students
2. Designing a clear, easy-to-navigate course Web site and Web-based learning activities
3. Building strong instructor-student and student-student communication
4. Conducting the Course: Getting Started

Best Practice Overview Description and Details

1. Preparing Students: Creating a Course Syllabus for Online Students

In addition to the traditional features of a course syllabus, the syllabus for an online course or a course having a significant online component should include details about

  • Student preparation and expected student conduct in the online environment
  • Course and Web site design, including an introduction to the technology and courseware you will use such as drop boxes, message boards, and blogs
  • Instructor-student contact and student-student contact methods
  • Student resources such as help desks, disability resources, and course policies

Detail: Syllabus Features & Design

Note: Standard features of a course syllabus, such a list of textbooks required, the instructor’s grading policy, a curriculum overview, etc., are not discussed below. Only features that should be revised or added for an online class (or a class having a significant online component) are discussed.

  • Posting Your Syllabus: When the online Schedule of Classes is made available to students, post a public version of your syllabus to your CATE section home page so that interested students will be forewarned about requirements and format before they commit to the class. To avoid confusion and create consistency, use the same layout in the publicly accessible syllabus on your CATE section home page and on any additional course syllabus available only to enrolled students. If the public syllabus is an abbreviated version, make this fact known to students.
  • Student Preparation: Advise students, many of whom may be new to online learning, about the differences between online and traditional face-to-face learning. In particular, advise students of the time management and study skills required to be a successful online student. Encourage students new to distance learning to complete the online preparedness quiz and to check that they have the appropriate hardware, connectivity, and basic computer skills necessary to take an online course by reading the needs overview titled “What You Need, and What You Need to Know”. For additional CATE courseware-related issues that may arise for your students, such as uploading documents, submitting quizzes, and posting messages to message boards, provide a link to the SRJC Student Handbook for online classes.
  • Check-In Policy: On the publicly accessible section home page for your course (on CATE), provide students with information about completing the class check-in process.
  • Instructor information: Provide students with several ways to communicate with you: face-to-face office tutorial, email, office telephone, online office hours, chat room, etc. Clearly state instructor responsibilities and roles: for example, how often instructor will answer e-mail, the instructor’s role in discussion boards and chat rooms, etc. Include a statement about how long students may expect to wait for responses to questions and concerns.
  • Course Description: In your course description section, explain how the course and Web site are organized; for example, provide a brief preview of the units or modules in the course, go over the frequency of quizzes, essays, or exams, tell students where they should check for due dates and drop boxes for assignments, explain how to use navigation tools such as a navbar or menus, and, in general, show how the course is put together to help students feel comfortable with the course environment.
  • Student Learning Outcomes Statement: Objectives in an online course provide important guidance to students who don't have the benefit of regular in-class discussions to focus their learning. Objectives should be made available for each lesson, module, or section of the course. These objectives should emanate from the course’s SLOs and detail the specific tasks that students will be able to complete.
  • Textbooks and Web resources required and recommended: If online resources are used, provide students with links to support services for those resources so that they will know what to do if problems arise. Also, provide students with a direct link to the SRJC bookstore to make purchasing textbooks and other required supplies easier.
  • Policy on Plagiarism: Be specific about the actions you will take if a student is caught plagiarizing. Your policy should be consistent for all students. To help students understand the gravity of the situation, provide a link to the SRJC statement on academic integrity. If you use a commercial site such as to screen essays for authenticity, explain why you have chosen to use the site and provide students with a link to the site’s instructional and help pages.
  • Participation expectations: Articulate expectations for student participation in groups, blogs, message boards, and/or chat rooms. Explain how participation will figure in students’ overall grade.
  • Assessment: Identify any special test-taking procedures you will use in the course such as proctored or timed exams or exams scheduled at a particular time.
  • Research information and links: Provide students with links to general resources they will need throughout the course.
  • Netiquette and SRJC student conduct expectations: Include information about online abuses such as flaming, hacking, and inappropriate use of message boards. Provide information about Student Conduct Standards and Due Process.
  • Technical requirements for the course: Inform students about any downloads or
    plug-ins required to access course content and provide links to download pages for the
    plug-ins as well as basic explanations on the download process.
  • Technical Support: Explain how students access technical support when they run into trouble. Include information to students about technical requirements and provide basic technical support, as well as customer service links and phone numbers for all required technology (e.g., Realplayer, Quicktime, AOL instant messenger, etc.). Faculty should not be responsible for all training, or expected to answer all technology-related questions.
  • Help for students with disabilities: Provide links to resources for students with disabilities. Many of these links are available from the SRJC “Distance Ed Accessibility” page of SRJC Disability Resources Department.
  • Course Visitors & Guests: Inform students about any others who may have access to the course, including invited guests, technical support people, and course evaluators.
  • Alternate content formats: Inform students if lectures and/or other curriculum will be available in alternate formats such as .pdf files, CD-ROM, podcast, etc. Explain how students will access these alternate formats.

2. Designing a clear, easy-to-navigate course Web site and Web-based learning activities

All activities and content on the course site—reading, audio, image, and video content; individual activities such as problem solving and research; collaborative tasks; and assessment—should be clearly and logically integrated. The course should be organized so that a student new to an online class can navigate through the course intuitively, without the need for assistance. All parts of the course must meet accessibility standards for students with disabilities.

Design & Structure

  • Design: Pages of the site should be visually consistent through color, design, and font schemes.
  • Download efficiency: It should be possible to quickly download pages on the site even without a high-speed Internet connection. Long texts or documents should be provided in downloadable formats such as .pdf so that students may read hard copy if they prefer. Avoid uploading very large image or other file types to your course as these take a long time to download. For best image quality, JPEG format should be used for photos; GIF should be used for all other graphics. For efficient video and audio downloads, use file streaming instead of download.


  • A navbar should be available in all Web pages on the course site so that students may return as needed to key pages such as the syllabus, calendar, progress page, discussion board, lesson introduction page, etc.
  • Hyperlinks should be used sparingly and with reason to help students stay focused on lesson objectives.
  • All links should be checked regularly to ensure that they are active and up-to-date.
  • Inactive links should be fixed or removed. Links with outdated information should be updated.
  • Passwords: Be mindful of how many times you require a student to enter passwords in the different levels of your course materials. It can be tiresome for students to enter passwords for every new page they view.


All course content and activity must be accessible to students with disabilities. Follow the
Distance Education Accessibility Guidelines provided by the SRJC Disability Resources
Department. Additional information on accessibility and the World Wide Web can be obtained from the Web Accessibility Initiative at: or In addition, the Center for Applied Special Technology maintains a Web site at: which provides a means of checking individual pages or sites for accessibility.

Animation, Multimedia, and Images

When designed and implemented effectively, technology can greatly enhance student learning. Video, audio, images, and other media used in Web-based instruction can enhance interest, help students relate course content to prior knowledge and tap into that knowledge to improve learning, and improve comprehension and retention of information. Moreover, multimedia instruction appeals to learners having diverse learning styles enabling more students to achieve learning outcomes. To obtain the benefits for students of multimedia instruction, instructors should consider the following:

  • Media should enhance learning. (Avoid adding images of butterflies just because they are pretty.)
  • As often as possible or as is realistic, the course should offer multiple forms of media for an assignment to appeal to students having different learning styles. Students have different ways of learning and processing information, and this doesn't change just because the course is online. Some students may prefer having a hard copy of course materials to make notes on and highlight, so offering pertinent Web pages as .pdf files can be helpful. Auditory learners may find it helpful to have instructions as sound files.
  • Clear instructions for accessing media should be provided (e.g., links to media players, plug-ins, etc.).
  • Links to Internet resources that enhance the learning experience should be provided. However, when accessing a resource is required for an assignment, the required materials must be accessible for students with disabilities.
  • Pages should be downloadable within a reasonable period of time even on computers without broadband connection; if high speed connection is required, then that should be stated clearly in the syllabus.
  • All animation, multimedia, and image content must meet accessibility standards.

Electronic File Submission

When allowing students to submit files electronically, clearly define what files types you are able to open (for example: extensions such as .doc or .rtf, but not .wps).


  • Course Calendar or Table of Contents: Students should be able to review all assignments and due dates in a central location to ensure that they have completed all assigned tasks. Assignment deadlines should be clearly defined; you may consider requiring all assignments for a particular week to be submitted at a regular time and day (say, 11:55 pm Sunday) in order to accommodate the busy and diverse schedules of students.
  • Learning Units: Content should be divided into learning units, appropriately labeled, and presented in a logical manner. Units should be manageable segments and should build on each other as the course progresses. All learning units should follow a similar format. Online instructors typically divide learning units into components as follows: SLOs and objectives, lecture, readings and/or other content, collaborative activities (if appropriate), written assignments or tasks, assessment, etc.).
    • SLOs: Write and post objectives (student learning outcomes, or “SLOs”) for each learning unit. Objectives in an online course provide important guidance to students who don't have the benefit of regular in-class discussions to focus their learning. These objectives should emanate from your course’s SLOs and detail the specific tasks that students will be able to complete.
    • Overview: Introduce learning units with an overview of the topic. This can simply be a paragraph that briefly explains the topic to be studied or a list of objectives.
    • Access Prior Knowledge: Connect what the students already know about the topic to what they are going to learn. Provide activities that allow students to measure prerequisite skills, assess that learning is taking place, and apply knowledge or skills presented. Recalling prior knowledge will help provide a context for the students and get them excited about the learning tasks ahead of them.
    • Learning Activities: Align your learning activities to your objectives and outcomes. Use your objectives and outcomes to determine your learning activities.
  • Models: Provide models of effective responses to assignments such as reading responses, peer editing, essays, and exam questions (formatted as .pdf files, or as content on separate Web pages). Models allow students to better understand the differences between quality and non-quality work. However, when using model assignments from former students, first obtain their permission in writing.
  • Rubrics: Provide rubrics to inform students of criteria for non-objective tests and assignments. Rubrics let students know exactly how you will grade their work and take the subjectivity out of grading. Develop rubrics for individual assignments, or develop a generic rubric that applies to all assignments. Rubrics can be useful for most assignments, including essays, discussion board posts, reading responses, peer editing activities, and group projects.
  • Optional Resources: Extend your students’ learning with optional resources. For those students who get excited about a topic and want to learn more on their own, provide links to material that you think will be helpful. Conversely, you can also provide links that will help remediate students who struggle through a topic. Optional resources do not have to meet accessibility standards; however, meeting accessibility standards for all resources is recommended.
  • Copyright Law: Copyright protection applies as soon as a work is published in a tangible form (on paper, on the Web, on Video, etc.). Instructors must refrain from using copyrighted materials illegally. To ensure that all materials on your course Web site are in compliance with copyright law, follow the guidelines of the TEACH Act and Fair Use Policy outlined in the documents below:
  • Student work: Students hold the copyright to the works they create. If you wish to use a student’s work, you will have to treat it like any other copyrighted work.

3. Building strong instructor-student and student-student communication.

The instructor’s engagement and involvement in the online classroom is critical. A present, engaged instructor helps create coherence in the online classroom and builds a sense of community that leads to students’ learning. Online instructors should guide their students through the course and take an active role in facilitating learning.

Interaction & Communication

  • Use good communication practices: Be aware that some of your online students may be non-
    native English speakers from other cultures. Provide definitions for key vocabulary,
    summarize main ideas, reinforce important concepts, review prior content, and be mindful
    that using slang and idioms may be problematic for some students.
  • Timeliness: Post days that you will be checking the class message list, blogs, and/or student email, for example T/Th, M/W or M–F, etc. Advise students of the average turnaround time they may expect for instructor feedback on assignments. If you will be unavailable for a period of time during the semester, notify students beforehand.
  • Automatically Graded Assignments: Results of tests and exams that are automatically graded should be available to the students immediately after their due date.
  • Instructor Graded Assignments: Feedback should be individual and meaningful. Students should be informed about when they can expect feedback. Feedback should be given as soon as possible so that students may learn from instructor comments before encountering new lessons and assignments.
  • General Feedback: Provide general feedback to the entire class on specific assignments or discussions.
  • Weekly Introduction and/or Wrap-up: Provide a weekly “wrap up” before the next lesson begins.
    Introduce a new week with an overview (including deadlines) of what is coming up.
  • Instructor’s Role in Public Interaction Forums: The instructor should model appropriate behavior for online interaction by being polite and respectful of students at all times and advise students on how to communicate with others in public interaction forums effectively and appropriately. Any conflicts should be resolved in private communication. Inappropriate student conduct in public interaction forums should be dealt with quickly to minimize any negative feelings in the class.
  • Discussion Boards or Message Lists: Online courses often require students to interact on a discussion board. Deciding how to assess such participation requires some forethought and will affect overall grading schemes. Ensure that discussion topics are focused and meaningful. Take into account issues such as whether or not the discussions will be required, and, if they are required, how to fairly and consistently reward students for their interaction. Carefully consider the amount of time discussion board assignments take to complete (students frequently complain about discussion board activities as being too time-consuming). Also, consider the required format for responses, including proper English usage, and appropriate etiquette, as well as how to encourage more hesitant writers (including emerging language learners) to participate.

    Consider providing more than one discussion forum—specific discussion boards (or pages) for responding to assigned questions and tasks, and a general discussion board where students may ask and answer general class-related questions. You may even choose to include a more general "Virtual Cafe" where students can build community and chat about non-class student issues such as great places to get lunch or to study, upcoming events, etc. If more than one discussion board is used, however, a distinction should be made between graded discussions and non-graded discussions, and where the instructor will post comments and/or feedback.
  • Chat rooms: Chat rooms provide both opportunities and pitfalls. Among the pitfalls in chat rooms is the fact that fast typists can take over the conversation. Also, students can quickly become confused and frustrated if protocols for interaction are not clearly defined. And conversations can become disjointed when students’ thoughts are interrupted by the ongoing dialogue of other students. In addition, time zones can be a barrier to setting up chats at times that work for all students. To create an effective chat, have a clear agenda and make sure the chat flows in a meaningful pattern. For example, assign students the task of reviewing information that will be relevant to the chat and give students questions in advance that focus the discussion, or have students write something in advance and begin the chat by posting their text. Allow students time to concentrate on reading rather than typing in comments in the beginning; then direct the discussion to responding to the posts.
  • Blogs: Blogs, which are structured like journals with a date/time entry stamp, are becoming an increasingly popular format for student interaction. Blogs emphasize student “ownership” of their writing and allow students to see all of their work in one place. Moreover, blogs allow students to get to know one another better than most discussion boards and chat rooms; students can post pictures and links, create a personal profile, develop a personal writing style that other students get to know and like. And in many blogger applications, students may choose to “follow” particular
    blogs that appeal to them. Blogs can also be assigned to particular groups working collaboratively on assignments. To create an effective blog assignment, be sure to offer students clear instructions early in the semester about how to set up their blogs. Have students introduce themselves (be specific in your instructions here about what kind of information to post and how long the post should be), and perhaps post a picture of themselves during the first week of classes. To create an effective blog assignment, make blog questions and activities clear and specific. An explanation of how blogs will be graded should also be outlined and rules for proper etiquette established.
  • Email: Students are more familiar with email as a form of communication than discussion boards, chat rooms, and blogs, and so email often yields excellent results for student collaborative work. Assigning students to work in groups using email to exchange work is an effective use of email in an online learning environment; but email for whole-class discussion and communication gets cumbersome, and email for file upload is less efficient and less safe than file upload to a drop box. Another disadvantage of using email for student-student interaction is that communication is not archived on the course site. As with blog, discussion board, and chat room assignments, effective collaboration using email depends upon the instructor’s creation of clear and specific guidelines for interaction and explanation of tasks and goals for collaboration.
  • Feedback From Students: Gathering feedback is an important activity for improving your course. Anonymous surveys the beginning, middle, and end of the course are highly effective. Early feedback allows an instructor to change direction if necessary; feedback at the end of the course will provide good overall information about the effectiveness of the course.

4. Conducting the Course: Getting Started

During the first week of classes, greet students with a welcome message and tell them how to get started in the course. Ask students to introduce themselves to the class in a discussion forum such as a bulletin board or Blog.

Greeting your students

A welcome message should be the first thing students see when they initially log into the course. Keep the tone of this message warm and inviting.

Introduce yourself to the class, and have students introduce themselves to you and to one another in order to begin building a “community of learners.” Consider asking students to post photographs of themselves or of something they care about, such as a pet or favorite flower, to their personal Web pages, discussion board posts, or Blogs, so that you and other students can create a personable visual connection. Post a picture of yourself (or of something you care about) to the course Web site as well.

Possible student activities include:

  • Sending an email in which they explain why they enrolled in the course, what they already know about the content of the course, and what they hope to learn.
  • Introducing themselves in the discussion board.
  • Posting a message in the appropriate group discussion board with a link to a Web site they think will benefit students in the class.
  • Building a Web page or Blog.

Consider making the first week's assignment fairly simple. One possibility is a quiz during the first week that includes questions about the syllabus, class Web site and procedures.

Acquainting students with the course environment

Possible student activities include:

  • Having the students complete a worksheet or quiz based on the syllabus contents and course environment.
  • Requiring students to complete simple activities using all of the interactive features of the site. For example, students could post to the discussion board, upload a simple document to the drop box, and take a sample quiz (ungraded).