The Most-Needed Competency for Online Instructors

If you find these practical strategies useful, please share this article with faculty at your institution.

In this updated and revised edition of a popular 2012 article from Academic Impressions, we have turned to Larry Ragan, Susan Ko, and Brian Redmond for tips on how faculty can develop a key competency for online teaching.

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 Penn State's Center for Online Innovations in Learning (COIL) Larry Ragan and a number of his colleagues at Penn State (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.

We have interviewed Larry Ragan and Brian Redmond, who guided the panel of researchers for the Competencies for Online Teaching Success (COTS) study, as well as Susan Ko, the co-author of Teaching Online: A Practical Guide and the faculty development director for CUNY School of Professional Studies, to learn more about what competency they would cite as most critical –- and specific activities that can help instructors in online courses develop that competency.

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 an instructor 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

Ko notes that consistency is key. She adds, "If you are changing your regular pattern of availability and communication--for example, if you are traveling, if you are going to be on a plane for five hours during a time when you would normally be responsive online--make sure to let students know. Students are always delighted if you are more responsive than they expected, but are not delighted if you are less responsive than they expected. If you are normally available on weekends and suddenly you are not, make sure they know ahead of time and that they know what to expect."

“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.”


In this January 2014 article, we interviewed Larry Ragan and Susan Ko 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.

Similarly, Ko stresses the importance of using students' names when responding to their inquiries in an online environment; "if you aren't able to make simultaneous eye contact," she notes, "this helps to establish that personal connection."

In a larger course, you may not be able to greet each student individually with an individual comment, but you can still reference their names, especially when responding to an inquiry that several students have posted (e.g., "Hello, Mary and Lydia, I see that all of you have asked me whether...").

"I think it is good idea to greet students individually in the first few days of the course. You can do this through an icebreaker question. That helps you get a sense for who the student is and what their interests are--and can motivate students quickly to get involved in the subject matter of the course."
Susan Ko, CUNY School of Professional Studies

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 University

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.

Fourth, invest the time and attention needed to design effective discussion questions. "This can be difficult," Ko cautions; "A good discussion question is not haphazard. You need to put a lot of thought into it. One thing you can't do is spend time going back to review discussions that went nowhere."

If a discussion question does "go nowhere," Ko suggests:

  • Intervene while the discussion is still in progress to ask a follow-up or clarifying question. Just as in a face-to-face setting, often this can "save" a derailed discussion.
  • Review the discussion afterward and find out why the discussion didn't go anywhere. One of the benefits of an online environment is that often you can record, preserve, and/or read the entire discussion--making it easier to analyze what went wrong and why.