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A Key Competency for Online Instructors


Debates continue in the public sphere over the quality and efficacy of online instruction, with research studies citing quite different outcomes confusing the issue. The heart of the matter is that not all online instruction is equal –- institutions still differ widely in the level of planning that goes into the online instruction they provide and in the level of preparation and training provided for online instructors.

To see success with an online learning initiative, hiring and training for specific competencies is critical. Director of instructional design and development Larry Ragan and a number of his colleagues at Penn State World Campus (including Janet May, Paula Bigatel, Shannon Kennan, and Brian Redmond) have for some time been engaged in defining competencies for online instructors with some specificity.

This week, we interviewed Larry Ragan and Brian Redmond, who guided the panel of researchers for the Competencies for Online Teaching Success (COTS) study, to learn more about what competency they would cite as most critical –- and specific activities that can help instructors in online courses can develop it.

A Key Area for Improvement: “Active Teaching”

Ragan explains: “Our research leads us to believe that active teaching and responsiveness is the primary skill set that faculty need to have to be successful online, and one of the most challenging. The challenge is in the transition from the face-to-face environment to the online environment. In a face-to-face setting, active teaching and faculty presence are inherent in the physicality of what we’re doing; the physical nature of their presence is a given. In the online environment, many faculty struggle with how to establish and maintain teaching presence in the online classroom.”

Ragan and Redmond suggest efforts instructors can undertake to establish an active teaching presence in an online course, including:

  • Setting clear expectations around communication and responsiveness
  • Activities that can be structured and organized during course design and course delivery

Here’s where instructors can make a difference.

Responsiveness: Not 24/7

Ragan and Redmond note that inevitably, many instructors new to the online environment err on either the side of too much availability or too little. Redmond recommends that instructors set specific hours (much like office hours) in which students will know that the instructor is online. “Students really appreciate knowing when you’ll be there and when you won’t. I’m not online on weekends, when many of my students are. But my students know that, and expect it. And they know when I can be reached.”

Besides hours of availability, specify in the syllabus and in your first communications with students:

  • How quickly the instructor will respond to a student question
  • How quickly students will receive grades after submitting an assignment
  • How often both instructor and students are expected to participate in online discussions

“Also, model the level of communication you expect to see from students,” Redmond suggests. “Participate in online discussion, but don’t participate too much –- that can backfire, and you’ll have students stop interacting with each other to focus on just interacting with you.”


Many of the practical tips in this December 2009 article are still relevant today. For the article, we interviewed Larry Ragan to learn how faculty developers can help instructors set and manage reasonable expectations around online workload.

What You Can Do During Course Design and Course Delivery

Besides setting clear expectations around responsiveness and availability, Ragan and Redmond suggest that instructors plan how they will manage their teaching presence in an intentional way during course design. For example, think through where to use Web 2.0 technologies in the course –- how will the instructor engage with students through blogs or wikis? Will the instructor post a video introduction to the course?

During the actual delivery of the course, the key to establishing active presence and engaging students is to personalize the communication – to make it more than just text on the screen. There are a number of ways to do this.

First, Redmond recommends reaching out individually to students (which is most feasible in smaller courses of 15-25 students). Send individualized emails to the students after the first few weeks of the course -– ask how they’re doing and check to see if they have any questions or concerns.

Second, when instructors provide a summary post at the end of a week, Redmond recommends personalizing the weekly summary. “A post that recaps the week’s discussion or assignments should provide some specific commentary,” Redmond suggests. “It can say: Here’s what I saw. Look at Tony’s post, and you’ll notice this. Carolyn’s post was well-researched. Bob was a little off-track, and here’s why. Here are three things to take note of.”

Active teaching has a dimension of establishing leadership in the class. Students want to know that someone is driving the bus. If online learners feel "driverless" for a week or for two weeks, they began to panic a little.

Larry Ragan, Penn State World Campus

Third, consider posting “bridge videos," video segments in which the instructor manages the transition from one lesson to the next. The video allows the instructor to quickly highlight the key takeaways of the previous lesson and the core questions to address in the next, and establishes a physical presence and a more human connection with the students. “The instructor might be videocasting from a lab, or from home with a dog sitting in his lap. These bridge videos create a sense of personality, persona, and presence,” Ragan notes.


Join us in Houston, TX on March 12-14, 2012 to explore the best approaches for engaging and supporting faculty interested in the online and blended teaching environment. This interactive workshop will address the areas of professional development essential to the preparation of instructors for online teaching and learning success. Each participant will return to campus with a relevant framework that covers their key concerns and action steps.

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About the Authors

Daniel Fusch, Director of Publications & Research

Daniel provides strategic direction and content for AI’s electronic publication Higher Ed Impact, including market research and interviews with leading subject matter experts on critical issues. Since the publication’s launch in 2009, Daniel has written or edited more than 500 articles on strategic issues ranging from student recruitment and retention to development and capital planning. If you have a question or a comment about this article, feel free to contact Daniel at