Online Teaching Best Practices

Shifting to online teaching can be a challenge, but does not need to be overwhelming. In the early days of teaching online classes, we did our best to apply existing pedagogy to online instruction and hoped for the best. Fortunately, over the last twenty years, we have learned from our early attempts and a list of best practices has slowly emerged.
Here are some of the top suggestions to make your online experience the best:

Video Lectures
Many faculty use lecturing as a major component of their instruction. Lectures and demonstrations remain critical in online learning. There are a few things you can do to make the process of adding your lectures and demonstrations to your Learning Management System (LMS).

1. Keep the lecture/demonstration short
This is important for several reasons.
– It is easier to record a short lecture/demonstration on one topic. The preparation time is much shorter and it isn’t as overwhelming of a project.
– Students are more likely to listen to a short lecture or demonstration. Students are more likely to commit 5 to 10 minutes than 20, 30, or (God forbid!) 50 minutes.
– Students will re-listen to a short presentation on one topic more frequently when they didn’t understand something or need a refresher.
– When you need to update a presentation due to updates in your field or you find a better way to present the lesson, it is much easier to accomplish this when each video only covers one topic.

Many colleges and universities have one-button recording studios or similar resources to help you with recording your lectures. Check with your library or online learning resources department.

2. Use a high-quality microphone.
There are many ways that you can record your lecture: podcast (audio only), presentation (PowerPoint with audio), Lecture/demonstration screen capture, talking head, demonstration with video insert, etc.
The biggest problems that I have observed are not using a quality microphone and not recording in a quiet area.
Generally, the camera on your laptop is high enough quality for a recording of your speaking.
However, the built-in microphone isn’t or picks up every sound in the room. Invest in a quality microphone such as a Blue Snowball. You will be surprised by the quality difference.

3. Edit your video.
One of the great things about a recorded lecture or demonstration is that you can edit out all your pauses, false starts, and mistakes. I had no idea how frequently I used ‘um’, or ‘hmm’ when doing a technical demonstration.
Thanks to the wonders of editing, I can remove those pauses and make a higher quality video. This also gives you the opportunity to fix any mistakes or misquotes.
If you are not comfortable editing your own video, hire a student assistant from the digital media or journalism department to do your editing. They are already trained in the software and it is a much better use of your time to let them gain experience while you create more lectures.

4. Don’t be surprised if your students like your recorded lectures and demonstrations better than live.
This was a hard one for me to swallow. My students made it clear that my recorded demonstrations and lectures were preferred to my live demonstrations.
The number one reason?

They could pause me!
It turns out that I tend to speak quickly and go through the demonstration too fast due to the time constraints of a typical class. This made it very difficult for students to follow along and duplicate what I was demonstrating.
Once I started recording my demonstrations and sharing them on the LMS, they loved to be able to pause the video and be able to recreate the demonstration.

Virtual Office Hours
Let your students how quickly they can expect to hear back from you and when they can contact you for a video chat or text-based chat if they have questions or problems.
Your teaching assistants and tutors also post when they will hold virtual hours.
Discord is also a great way to share information with a class. Offer a few points for joining the discord server and participating. It provides an easy way for students to assist each other and for you to monitor and offer advice as needed.

Use Active Learning
While active learning is important in any learning situation, it becomes critical to aid in learning and retention for online classes. Use projects to get the students involved in the learning process.
Recently when I assigned a project to a class that would require group work, someone mentioned that they could ‘meet’ on their discord server. I wasn’t even aware that they were using discord as a back-channel in the class!
I encouraged them to continue to do use their server and to develop their project working as a virtual team.

Engagement is Key
To avoid students dropping out and failing to complete your online course, it is critical that you regularly engage with your students in a variety of ways.
Just as you don’t expect to engage all of your students with one method of presentation in the classroom, you need to use a variety of ways to help keep them engaged online.
When teaching online it is even more critical that you engage. Use a variety of social media to connect with them. If you are not a social media person, have your teaching assistant, tutor, or child, or grandchild help you!

I generally send out at least one email a week to each of my classes reminding them of what is due and what we will be learning that week. I also post to the class discord page. I have my TA post to Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat to further engage my students.
It is easy for students to set a lower priority in their online classes. If they are at home, they are probably distracted by family, friends and other interactions. It’s critical that we help them to be responsible and succeed in their classes.

Use Multimedia
Multimedia goes both ways. Use a variety of sources to present a media-rich presentation to your students. Videos, images, and animations dramatically increase retention.
But also have your students create videos and presentations for their assignments. I’m amazed at how many students have aspirations of becoming a social media star or influencer. They know how to create multimedia, let them use that skill to submit their assignments. I have used these types of projects for years and include the best from previous years to help teach various topics.

Less Is More
When teaching online, the organization of the lessons and material is critical. As the subject expert, it is your job to arrange the learning material in the optimal way for your students to succeed.

Avoid long text-based or video lessons
As mentioned earlier, short video lectures and demonstrations are preferred to longer videos.

The same goes for long blocks of text.

Break up any long text with images, videos, or animations to help make the material more readable. Use white space (i.e. add line breaks) to help make the material more readable. A large block of text can be intimidating, especially for students with a learning disability.

Lesson chunking
When learning in an online environment, it is critical that we practice lesson chunking.
You are already used to chunking lessons; anytime you determine what will be taught, what order it will be taught in, and how much to cover in each lesson, you are practicing lesson chunking.
When teaching online it is even more important to break the content into smaller chunks to help your students succeed. Help them to identify the vocabulary and concepts that are critical to their success.
Smaller chunks are better! Just it is better to eat a meal in small bites, it is also better to learn in small chunks.

Useful Software
(in alphabetical order):
Adobe Premiere Pro – For editing video, Premiere Pro has become the industry standard. It has a serious learning curve, so if you aren’t ready to commit time to learn to use it, go with something else.

Adobe Spark / Premiere Rush – Easier to use recording and editing. There is even a version for your smartphone.

Camtasia – Simple to use and very popular for recording and editing lectures and tutorials. With Camtasia you can do screen captures, talking head lectures, or inset your camera into the screen capture. Available for PC and Mac. This is the software I use on my PC

OBS Studio (open source) – This is the tool I recommend to my students (who have no money). Allows for screen capture and basic editing.

Screenflow – Simple to use and very popular with the Mac crowd. When I’m doing screen recordings on my Macbook, this is the software I use.

What did I miss? Is there another tip that you would recommend for your fellow educators? Add your tips in the comments!

Brian Burton, Ed.D., has been teaching online for over twenty years. As one of the pioneers in the field of online learning, he publishes and speaks widely on the topic. If you would like to schedule him for in-service training, speaking at a conference, or motivational speaking, you can contact him at

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