Teacher Guide to Online Learning

Teacher Guide to Online Learning

Table of Contents

About this Guide

Michigan Virtual™ and the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute® (MVLRI®) have produced the Teacher Guide to Online Learning to support those new to teaching online. It is based on two Michigan Virtual courses: the first an orientation course for iEducators (new teachers who are recent graduates of Michigan teacher preparation programs who have been selected for a two-year digital learning teaching assignment with Michigan Virtual); and the second a Professional Learning course for online facilitators. 

This guide is one of a family of Guides to Online Learning that detail the world of online learning from the perspective of the people integral to creating a positive learning experience. Each guide outlines key definitions, research and resources, and practical strategies that paint a picture of what kind of preparations and support systems are necessary to ensure students succeed in their online courses.  


The Teacher Guide to Online Learning would not have been possible without the guidance and valuable contributions from many experienced and dedicated professionals in the field of K-12 online learning. Special thanks to Michigan Virtual’s Student Learning leadership and the many authors of Michigan Virtual’s iEducator course and Professional Learning online learning facilitation course whose expertise and experience helped direct the structure of this guide. Michigan Virtual lead instructors and other staff as well provided valuable feedback during the review of this resource.

We are especially indebted to the members of the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance (VLLA) who contributed their time, attitudes, artifacts, and expertise through personal interviews, group discussions, and written responses that were used to bring this guide alive through voices from the field. Specifically, we would like to recognize and thank the following online teachers for their contributions: Carrie Madden and Mallory Kirkland (Georgia Virtual School); Robert Selzler (Idaho Digital Learning); Kristen Koch, Annette Gleason, and Adam Knapp (Michigan Virtual); Caitlyn Skinner and Jenny Lovering (Montana Digital Academy); and Annette Walaszek and Jon Oestrich (Wisconsin Virtual School). Additionally, special thanks to Dana Breed (Stevens Point), Erik Hanson (Appleton eSchool), Dawn Nordine (Wisconsin Virtual School), David Parr (Arise Virtual Academy), Janean Ranis (Cameron), and Dan Tenuta (Kenosha eSchool), and members of the Wisconsin eSchool Network and Wisconsin Digital Learning Collaborative (WDLC) for their valuable contributions to the teacher guide. Lastly, many thanks to MVLRI fellow, Rebecca Parks, for gathering and selecting quotes and original content from the interviews she conducted with our experts: the teachers who are teaching online learners in Michigan and across the country.

What is Online Learning and How Does It Work?

A Working Definition of Online Learning

The Aurora Institute (formerly the International Association for K-12 Online Learning) describes online learning this way in its publication A National Primer on K-12 Online Learning 2nd Edition

Online learning is characterized by a structured learning environment, to enhance and expand educational opportunities, providing instruction that is teacher-led, and may be synchronous (communication in which participants interact in the same time space such as videoconferencing) or asynchronous (communication that is separated by time such as email or online discussion forums), and accessed from multiple settings (in school and/or out of school buildings). 

Additional ways that online learning is being used in the K-12 space:

  •  expanding the range of courses available to students, especially in small, rural or inner-city schools, beyond what a single school can offer;
  • providing highly qualified teachers in subjects where qualified teachers are unavailable;
  • providing flexibility to students facing scheduling conflicts;
  • affording opportunities for at-risk students, elite athletes and performers, dropouts, migrant youth, pregnant or incarcerated students, and students who are homebound due to illness or injury to continue their studies outside the classroom;
  • providing credit recovery programs for students that have failed courses and/or dropped out of school, allowing them to get back on track to graduate;
  • helping students that are currently performing below grade-level to begin catching-up through blended learning;
  •  addressing the needs of the millennial student;
  • providing on-demand online tutoring;
  •  increasing the teaching of technology skills by embedding technology literacy in academic content; and
  • providing professional development opportunities for teachers, including mentoring and learning communities.

Online Teacher
“The online learning environment allows teachers to impact a much broader demographic of students, as opposed to the neighborhood kids within the surrounding district. This makes the real-life experiences and connections so much more exciting and enriches the learning experiences for everyone.”

Differences and Similarities

Although some educators believe that “anyone” can teach online or that it’s easy, it takes a different skill set and practice to be a proficient online instructor. In fact, many profess that teaching online makes them an even better face-to-face teacher.

Online Teacher
“Whether the students are in front of you in a classroom or behind you in an email, they all have different personalities that you need to hone in on and work with to meet their learning needs.”

 What are the similarities between face-to-face and online teaching?

  • You are an expert in your field.
  • You build relationships with students and create a learning community.
  • You evaluate student performance through written assignments and assessments.
  • You create supplemental resources for your students’ needs.
  • You seek to connect classroom lessons with the real world.

Online Teacher
“Many online learning experiences provide students with the same learning opportunity as face-to-face instruction, but with a different delivery method. In online instruction, students are given the chance to work one-on-one with their instructor such that both can focus on the individualized needs of that student. Students are able to work at their own pace, allowing them to have ownership in their learning. This is not always possible in a face-to-face classroom.”

What are the differences between face-to-face and online teaching?

  • Students will contact you individually.
  • You develop relationships in a different way.
  • There are more opportunities for individualization.
  • Students will communicate with you and work on their courses at all hours.
  • Students may begin the course at different times of the calendar year and not progress through the course all together at the same time, depending on the online learning program model.
  • Students may have greater discretion concerning the order in which they complete their lessons so may skip around in online content and need to be redirected to go back and complete tasks, depending on the online learning program model.
  • You may not physically see your students. Unless you use video conferencing, for example, communication will be primarily via email, the learning management system (LMS) message system, graded feedback, phone, texting, etc.
  • Michigan students have an onsite mentor to help support them and act as a liaison among students, parents, and you if need be. (See more about mentors later in this guide.)
  • The content is often already created for you, depending on the online learning program model.

Online Teacher
“In the online classroom, I do not have the luxury of reading students’ body language to gauge their level of understanding while teaching. Instead, I have to rely almost entirely on tangible data points like assignment submissions, discussion posts, questions, and other work to inform student mastery. But this takes practice and lots of open and honest communication between me and each student. It takes time, but it is time well spent when the students find great success in their online class.”

Online Teacher
“I can develop a much more personal relationship with my students in the online environment. In a face-to-face classroom, you can easily get the surface relationship in a 45 minute period before they move on to the next class, but the online environment allows me to meet individually with a student in need for whatever time is needed to address academic concerns and personalize growth.”

Why Students Choose Online Learning

Students want to learn online for a variety of reasons. You may not know why your students are in your online course, but what brought them there has an impact on their motivation and often on their success. The Foundation for Blended and Online Learning along with Evergreen Education Group published a report based on surveys, focus groups, and interviews with students along with other data. Why Students Choose Blended and Online Schools distinguishes three primary reasons students pursue online and blended learning (using both online and face-to-face learning in the same course): academics, social-emotional health and safety, and interests and life circumstances.

Online Teacher
“Each student has a unique reason that led them to online learning, but together we find commonalities within the learning environment to build a healthy and supportive community of learners.”

Why Teachers Choose Online Teaching

Today’s teachers have many reasons for entering the online learning environment. Many teachers choose online teaching for one or more of the following reasons:

  • Life changes (pregnancy, young children, relocation, health concern(s), family concern(s), etc.) prevent them from working outside of their home;
  • Their home location is in an area with an unreasonable commute to a school;
  • They have a desire to be challenged with a new modality of teaching;
  • They aspire to reach a wide demographic of students who are interested in a specialty area of learning that the teacher can provide;
  • They’ve been encouraged to teach online by a school/district leader to expand their professional growth and experience or to participate in a district online program; and
  • They are looking for more flexible hours or supplemental income.

Whatever the reason, many teachers openly embrace this challenge and find great satisfaction and success in this teaching modality; however, new online teachers quickly learn that there are additional skills and knowledge required for this position. This guide is intended to provide new online teachers—or those exploring the possibility of teaching online—support in making that transition.

The Online Learning Environment

Despite the many positive aspects of online learning, certain hidden, unknown, and invisible forces that you may or may not be aware of can affect your ability to teach and your students’ ability to learn in the online environment. As with any relationship or situation, the online learning environment presents challenges for both students and teachers. The Foundation for Blended and Online Learning (2017) published a report on why students choose blended and online schools.

The Online Student

  • Students come with various academic levels.
  • Students come from a variety of backgrounds and have various life experiences.
  • Students have various levels of technological ability, and their access to technology and the internet varies.
  • Students are used to working in a very different educational environment and may not have all the skills required for successful online learning.
  • Students probably have no previous experience with their online instructors.

Online Teacher
“The asynchronous teaching and learning challenges of the online classroom can require a great deal of organization and flexibility on the behalf of the teacher. In some online programs, students are allowed to enroll at random times during the course, complete and submit work at different times, and ask questions that may be behind or ahead of where the teacher is at the moment. When this happens, the teacher needs to address each student exactly where they are in the course to value the individual learning process.”

The Online Teaching and Learning Environment

Because of the asynchronous delivery of courses:

  • Students may work at a different pace than the instructor.
  • Students may work at a different pace than other students.
  • Giving and receiving timely feedback can be a challenge.

It isn’t always easy for an instructor to see:

  • Evidence of learning,
  • Evidence of struggle, or
  • Evidence of understanding.

Students have ultimate control over their time and attention, therefore:

  • How does the instructor help students stay engaged with their learning?
  • How does the instructor help students become successful thinkers and learners?
  • What are the limits of the instructor’s ability to help students stay engaged and be successful thinkers and learners?

Recognizing these potential sources of friction can help a new and/or seasoned online teacher prepare positive solutions or employ methods to minimize or avoid these pitfalls and create a positive learning experience for everyone. This guide addresses these potential challenges while also providing numerous suggestions and effective practices to make the online teaching and learning experience exciting and positive for instructors and students.

Your Online Work Environment

Being efficient in managing your time when working online may be the key to balancing your work and personal life. Prepare to be physically, digitally, and mentally organized so that you are not only efficient, but can enjoy that balance between work life and home life. Begin by securing a workspace conducive to being a productive instructor.

Tips for Organizing Your Physical Workspace

Tips for choosing your location:
  • Set up a space that is separate from your family life and area.
  • Choose a closed off space that will allow for quiet and privacy.
  • Consider a door with a lock or a “do not disturb” sign if you live with others.

Because you will be spending the majority of your day working on a computer, repetitive motions such as wrist pain can be a common ailment. Your physical activity level will be reduced if you choose to sit most of the day, and eventually you may notice a negative impact on your energy level. You must carefully structure your remote work environment so that it is not only conducive to productivity, but is conducive to your health and welfare at the same time.

Get enough sleep, eat healthy, and exercise. This is sedentary work so rest your eyes, wrists, and back. Stretch periodically.

Design your space to allow you to minimize distractions and help you focus:
  • Find a private space in your home (preferably with a door) that can be dedicated to your work as a teacher.
  • Set up your computer in an area with good light. Lights should be directed toward the side of or behind your line of vision.
  • Make sure you have high speed internet service with antivirus and malware protection software to protect you and your students’ systems.
  • Consider a desk you can raise and lower to avoid the negative health effects of sitting for long periods of time.
  • Use a comfortable, supportive, and perhaps ergonomic chair as you will likely be sitting for long periods of time.
  • Have computer paper, pens, and notebooks on hand.
  • Do not slump or round your shoulders as fatigue will quickly set in.
  • Consider using a foot rest that allows you to push back into your chair.
  • Communicate proactively to those sharing your living space of the need to respect your workspace and work hours.

I always make sure my office is clean and organized because I find it helps keep me focused on the students and not the “other” things that need to be done around the house.

Organizing Your Digital Space

Today millions of pieces of information bombard us at lightning speed. Just as you reduce chaos by organizing your physical workspace, you want to achieve the same goal of keeping your digital world organized. In order to relieve stress and be a more productive online teacher, it is essential for you to develop and maintain an organized digital workspace that promotes maximum efficiency and helps you locate files and items more readily.

Habits for a Productive Digital Workspace

Business experts offer these tips for making your digital workspace a productive place to work:

  • Clear your virtual desktop. Get all those icons off the startup menu that makes your system run slower.
  • Scan paper documents, when possible, and place them in folders.
  • Use clear file names so you can easily retrieve them later. Alphabetize file names and be consistent in your filing system.
  • Get the folders for all the classes you teach set up and organized as soon as possible.
  • Archive emails in folders labeled with the course name and term.
  • Create shortcuts on your desktop for programs, folders, and websites you use frequently.
  • Create bookmarks for common internet sites.
  • Use a calendar with deadlines and note priorities.

Before a new course begins, I prepare my Google Docs and run through my check lists to be sure I am fully prepared for the first day of classes.

Organizing Your Email

Email will likely be the primary way you communicate with your students, their mentors, and parents/guardians. You likely already have years of experience using email, but using it as the primary means of communication for online instruction requires an organizational and workflow strategy conducive to this type of work. The better you are able to plan and stick to a solid email management strategy early on, the better you will be able to stay engaged with students and others on a daily basis. This is critical to establishing and maintaining good relationships with all those involved.

I am very organized, keeping track of all important dates within my Outlook Calendar. In the past couple of years I have converted my documents over to my Google Folder so I can continue to work on them from any place at any time. Keeping my inbox cleaned out each day is also important. I have several email folders so I can easily locate a message when needed.

Organizing Your Calendar

In addition to email management, schedule management is another tremendously important skill for an online teacher in order to stay in sync with everyone in your virtual environment. Scheduling and coordinating time to meet with your students, mentors, and colleagues and blocking out appropriate time to attend to your instructional duties all take place within your calendar. When used effectively, your calendar can be one of your best allies in making sure you stay on top of your schedule.

Having an intentional and deliberate set of routines and boundaries while working from home will also allow you to be as productive and energized as possible:

  • Maintain a routine
  • Set a schedule
  • Establish mental goals for the day
  • Get dressed for work

Before the start of a new course, I fill in my Outlook Calendar that I share with all the stakeholders I will be working with over the next few months. I add in my designated office hours with my contact information; I enter in my general course outline, due dates for assignments, quiz and test dates, and anything else that is pertinent to my students, mentors, and parents. I find that doing this ahead of time helps me feel organized and prepared each week and also keeps me accountable to my own schedule.

Maintain a Healthy Life Balance and Manage Your Workload

Because we live in a “connected” world, there is a danger of not being able to disconnect from your work life, so it may interfere in other aspects of your personal life. A few helpful hints can assist you in avoiding these potential pitfalls and provide you with the healthy life balance needed for a happy and successful career.

  • Create a manageable work schedule that clearly defines your working hours and non-working hours for your students, parents/guardians, and yourself. Be diligent in maintaining these working hours, and do not feel guilty about taking advantage of your non-working hours. Set boundaries. Clearly post your office hours in your course and on your webpage.
  • Prioritize your tasks so the most important critical tasks are done first when your energy is the highest. Learn to say “No” to noncritical tasks. Map out weekly goals and to-do lists and put them where you can see them during your workday. Using electronic to-do lists can help keep you on track.
  • Be sure to remain focused on and diligent about your designated work schedule when you are working. When you are “off,” be sure to disconnect and do not feel guilty about not checking email or texts. Resist the tendency to work all of the time. Your personal time is just as valuable as your professional time. Do not feel guilty for leaving the work behind during your “down time,” and help yourself by walking away from your electronic devices when you are “off.”
  • Give yourself a timeout to help you refocus your energies and reflect on the work ahead.
  • Reach out for help when things get tough. Identify others at your school, via social media, or in an online professional learning network (PLN) who can provide support.
  • Open separate email accounts, texting numbers, and other social media modes to balance your personal life with your professional life. This will help keep you from checking your course-related email and feeling like you need to react to student issues during your designated personal time.
Establish Professional Connections

Teachers can experience isolation just like their students do when they move away from a face-to-face environment. You can address the stress of feeling like you’re all alone and on your own in several ways.

  •  Build relationships with fellow online teachers in your online school through chatrooms, video collaborations, phone calls, and other resources that allow for open and honest communication and sharing of ideas. Consider the EdWeb.net Community, the ISTE Standards Community, The Educator’s PLN, Classroom 2.0, Teacher Square, and Twitter. These sites offer incredible opportunities to connect with other educators around the globe and to begin developing your own professional online identity.
  • Ask questions and share effective practice ideas with other teachers. Be open to sharing resources to enhance student learning. Often your colleagues can be your best resource.
  • Actively engage in professional development opportunities and professional learning communities.

I intentionally close my computer down at the end of the day and do not return to it until the next morning. I have found that I do more successful work when I allow myself to be with my family on my off days and avoid working during that time.

Some of my best resources came from my fellow colleagues. I quickly learned to ask questions and seek ideas from those who are even a few months more seasoned than me.

I quickly learned that I needed to set up a routine for reading assignments, grading, responding to emails, and addressing gaps that I see students having in the class.

Setting a Daily Routine

Having a plan of attack for the day will help you mentally prepare for the day’s events. Below is a common routine that successful online instructors have used to manage their time efficiently.

Daily Instructor Tasks

  • Check and answer email.
  • Compose a weekly group email to the entire class via the LMS message function. For the first week, request a response to ensure your messages are received and get students started interacting with you via email.
  • Check and answer messages within the LMS.
  • Grade student work.
  • Make phone calls to parents/guardians, mentors, and students to build support for helping the student be successful.
  • Send regular updates to parents/guardians and mentors.
  • Track student progress.
  • Help students learn time management skills through use of any pacing elements available in your course.
  • Make expectations clear.
  • Reach out to a PLN or colleagues to seek the wisdom of those who have lived and breathed online teaching before you.
Establishing Classroom Rules and Procedures

Making your classroom expectations clear from the onset of class will save time and energy down the road. Remember that many of your students are new to the online learning environment, so you will have to guide them in terms of appropriate behavior, your expectations, and protocols required in your classroom.

Providing structure to your classroom helps eliminate stress on students. Help provide them that structure so they can become independent, disciplined learners. Ultimately, you also want to create a safe learning environment, one that is conducive to learning and in which students are respectful of the online instructor and each other.

I keep our classroom rules positive, short, and to the point.

1) Participate Enthusiastically
2) Work to the Best of Your Ability
3) Be Honest and Let Your Personality Shine
4) Use Encouraging and Positive Language
5) Ask Questions and Communicate Effectively.

These rules are always posted on the course homepage and listed as a box in my weekly newsletter. It keeps everyone focused and acts as a constant reminder of my expectations.

Classroom Rules
  1. Establish a consistent method and format for submitting assignments within the LMS. Emailing assignments outside of the LMS classroom is not a good practice. Some LMSs time and date stamp each individual student assignment, validating that it was submitted and when. There will be instances when parents/guardians refute a claim that their student did not submit an assignment. The LMS usually contains a course database that collects all login data, click information, amount of time spent in certain areas of the course, and course assignment submission logs to provide individual student data.
  2. Do not accept assignments until students learn to submit them correctly in the first few modules. Make this a teachable moment. Students and parents/guardians may push back, but the goal is to make students accountable for their own learning, and that goes hand-in-hand with having a disciplined approach in following the classroom rules and procedures. Consider some practice activities before getting into the modules themselves. Mentors may already be working with students on these kinds of new skills.
  3. Make directions clear. Provide an additional tutorial if need be to clear up any confusion about what is required. Explain the assignment in a different manner, use screenshots, make a video, provide an audio recording or even meet in real time with the student via the LMS or a Google Hangout, for example, to clear up any misunderstandings in how to proceed. Simple but complete rubrics can help to clarify expectations and provide clear concise directions.
Basic Tasks for Reaching Every Student Successfully
Start of Course
  • Reach out to students who haven’t started the course, as well as the mentors and parents/guardians of those students, at least twice before the drop deadline.
  • Learn how to pronounce students’ names, or find out what nicknames they prefer to use.
  • Bond with the student so they see you as a real person who is there to help them.
  • Create a personal welcome in the course LMS, and introduce yourself to students.
  • Make navigational materials readily available.
  • Make fun videos to keep students engaged and interested.
  • Reach out to students who haven’t gotten started.
  • Provide quick turnaround of assignments while material is fresh in students’ minds.
  • Make contact just to see how students are doing.
  • Build relationships with online learners’ mentors.
  • Call students who have not completed the first unit of work for a phone conference.
  • Contact students who are lagging behind.
  • Encourage students not to give up.
  • Acknowledge bright spots.
  • Set up times to meet to discuss challenges.
  • Provide “re-navigation” to get back on pace.
  • Start talking about the end of course date several weeks in advance.
  • Acknowledge the time crunch: Send out calendars with remaining weeks for students to re-organize the remaining work and make a plan for completion.
  • Create a course countdown.
  • Verify when students’ schools need their grades, and create custom end dates as needed.
  • Maintain a high level of encouragement to complete the course well.
  • Get grades in as soon as possible once students finish the course.
  • Ask for student feedback at the end of each unit.

Responsibilities of the Online Teacher

Relationship Building

One distinguishing feature of online learning is that all interactions must be sought out intentionally and supported. Online learning environments do not have the affordance of natural social opportunities that fully face-to-face environments do. Online facilitators don’t have the ability to read body language, see students visibly struggling, or informally build rapport with a “How’s it going?” check in. We must develop and refine instruments that aide the teacher in engaging with students in ways that promote deep learning fellowship.

Building relationships with students in fully online settings may require the use of different and more intentional strategies than in face-to-face classrooms. One of the most utilized strategies is through the use of communications and feedback tailored to individual students. Experienced online teachers use communication to convey to students that they are present in the course and that they care about the student. This is done through prompt replies to student messages, flexibility in mode of communication (email, text, video call), and individualizing messages with the students name and interests.

Another way to build a relationship with online students is through the use of online teaching effective practices. Strategies such as posting “Welcome” videos, course announcements, teacher contact information and office hours, providing content in multiple formats, posting supplemental videos, and offering on-demand academic remediation sessions serve to humanize the instructor and help students feel more welcome and oriented in their online course.

Creating a human-to-human bond with your online students, as well as with their parents/guardians and the student’s local online mentor, is critical in determining student success in your online course. This can be accomplished through effective individual and group communication, encouraging engagement in the course, productive and growth-focused feedback, and multiple opportunities for students to ask questions and learn in a way that is meaningful to them.


Effective communication promotes an effective learning environment, whether face-to-face or online, and is arguably the most important (as well as most frequent) activity online instructors engage in. Communication can make or break your students’ experience.

Online Teacher
“Communication skills are the most important teaching skills and instrumental to becoming a successful online instructor. In fact, effective and positive communication skills may be more important than instructor content knowledge. Communication is the make-it or break-it key to letting students know that we are real people who care about their success.”

Why Is Communication Important?

We know that how a student feels about learning greatly affects the student’s retention and performance in a particular subject, so we want students to feel positive about as many aspects of their learning environment as possible. Unlike in the face-to-face learning environment, in some programs, teachers simply do not control many aspects of the online environment, for example, which LMS is used, the look and feel of the course, the specific course content, and in many cases, how the student work is graded. However, you do have control over a foundational element in students’ online experiences: communication.

Online Teacher
“The number one key to being a great online teacher is to be an excellent communicator. You do not need to be an extrovert to be a good communicator; instead, you need to have an online relationship with someone. You can be an introvert and have a huge impact on your students through your computer.”

Creating a human bond with your online students is critical in determining their success in your online course. It takes skill, time, energy, and heart to build a professional academic relationship with each and every student and maintain the positive connection throughout the course that contributes to their success. As a facilitator of online learning, you will quickly realize that you simply cannot leave anything unsaid.

Setting the Tone

In your online course, you will want to be the first one to communicate because you are responsible for setting the tone for the type of experience students will have. The first contact is when and where that begins.

An instructor must take a number of actions to officially welcome students, mentors, and parents/guardians to the online experience.

Welcome Letter

Instructors should send their students and the mentors who work with those students a welcome letter containing at least the following:

Instructor contact info

  • Office hours
  • Course start and end dates
  • Course requirements and expectations
  • A professional-looking instructor picture

Keep in mind that your students and others involved in their support will see you as a real individual if you share information about yourself, including your interests and outside activities. Each recipient requires different consideration.

I start the course with a welcome letter and a few pictures of me in a casual environment. This helps my students see me as a real person, not just 26 letters behind a keyboard. I keep it light in tone but am sure to lay out my expectations, office hours, and any other pertinent information they may need to know.


As you compose your first communication, consider the following:

  • Kick off the learning experience with a positive and professional message. Show that you are excited to work with the student and that you are approachable.
  • Post the letter in the course info area of your LMS and in the announcements area, too.
  • Send the welcome letter within five business days of the start of the course or within five business days of a student joining the course. Remember to send the letter to each new student who adds once the term starts.

As you create these opening communications, keep in mind how you want students to feel the minute they sign into your classroom. In addition to a welcome letter, video announcements are an opportune way to personalize your course. Remember, announcements are students’ first impression of you, your teaching style, and your presence in the course itself.

Online Teacher
“Online teachers need to be comfortable enough to record themselves—not necessarily their face but their voice—so that students can hear that they are a real person behind the keyboard and make a true human connection.”

At the beginning of a term, you will have many students to welcome. You may wish to set up a list (such as a class roster spreadsheet) to indicate that you have sent a welcome to each student and mentor. As the term progresses, more students may be enrolled. You can add them and their mentors to the spreadsheet, too. Some instructors gather other info on these same sheets from the students’ letter of introduction and exchanges with mentors, essentially creating a database about their students for easy reference.

The first assignment in my online class is for the students to read my welcome letter and then respond with their own brief introduction. This serves a dual purpose: I get to know each student and their interests, and I can assess their understanding of the classroom discussion board and submitting assignments.


It is also a good idea to send a letter of introduction to the parents/guardians, if possible, because they are a very important and often over-looked member of the students’ support system. This is your first chance to establish positive contact. Remember that they may not understand anything about the online course and may not even know their student is taking an online course. Encourage them to contact you with any questions or concerns and supply all your contact information so they can communicate using the method of their choice. Be sure to let them know that the student has a mentor at their school and who the mentor is if you can. Contact the parents/guardians at least one additional time during the course to share something positive about their student.

I send a welcome letter to both the student and the parent introducing myself. I briefly share my interests outside the classroom, provide my contact information and office hours, and offer other pertinent information about the class. Even if I do not make voice contact with the parents/guardians, I like knowing that I have reached out to them and let them know I am available to help in any way.


Michigan law requires that online students be assigned a mentor employed by the school from which they enroll. The mentor’s role is to support the students in their online learning experience. Schools approach this position differently, but mentor responsibilities often include everything from getting a student enrolled to keeping students on pace to dealing with LMS challenges. Mentors often act as a liaison between students and their teachers and help students learn to learn online. They are critical to student success and to helping students stay engaged and on pace.

  • Introduce yourself to the mentors and send a copy of your introduction and student welcome letter to them.
  • Email one student welcome letter to each mentor so the mentor is aware of what the students have received from you so they can reinforce your expectations and directions. Personalize each letter by indicating the students’ first and last names as well as which course they are in. Many times mentors oversee many students, and it will help establish good rapport with mentors for you to specify which of their students are in your course.
  • Work with the mentors to understand what may be impeding a student’s progress, diffuse tense situations, break down communication barriers, or address other unique situations that develop.
  • Discuss student progress with mentors to keep them informed of the students’ work—and vice versa.

If your course contains password-protected tests, consider having a separate mentor welcome letter and student welcome letter. Include the passwords in the mentor letter but not in the student letter. The mentors will thank you!


The main way you will communicate with your class as a whole is through announcements. The announcements page serves as the homepage for your course; it’s always the first thing that students see when they come to class. The announcements are like a timeline that stays open throughout the semester. Students will be able to see the current week’s announcement and all previously released announcements, so remind them to check that area of the LMS regularly.

Tools to Enhance Announcements
There are many tools that you can use to present information through announcements. Not every tool is appropriate for every type of announcement, but consider using one or more of these tools when providing supplemental information, a personal introduction, or an important reminder for your class.
• Animoto—Create videos from images, great for a personal intro video.
• Jing or Camtasia Relay—Create simple screenshots or videos to present an alternative explanation of content for students.
• YouTube or TeacherTube—Share an inspirational or helpful video to supplement the course content.
• Keynote, PowerPoint, or Google Slides—Create your announcement as a visually-appealing slide, save it as an image file (.jpeg, .gif, etc.), and upload it as an image in announcements.
• Pixton or ToonDoo—Create a comic strip to illustrate a concept or provide a reminder of course policy.
• PowToon—Produce an animated video to communicate important information.

Announcements are an opportunity to personalize your course and customize the experience for your students. Share your passions and provide helpful supplemental materials according to students’ needs. Make the announcements page an area that students are drawn to—consider how to keep it interesting so that they will read, listen to, and view the important messages you are communicating to them. Include images and video where helpful, but be sure to abide by principles of Copyright and Fair Use (see more on this later in the guide).

Format your text in helpful ways, such as using bold, various text sizes, colors, and highlighting to demonstrate the most important elements of your message. At the same time, too much of these techniques can make your announcement seem unprofessional. It can also end up being distracting or hard to navigate. Try to use formatting as a visual way to capture students’ attention and highlight important aspects without being distracting and keeping accessibility guidelines in mind. The best announcements strike a balance between attractive formatting, inspiration, and helpful information that together enhance the students’ experience in your course.

The Purdue Online Writing Lab – OWL – provides an overview of Visual Rhetoric, or how visual images communicate meaning.

I send out a Sunday Announcement Update each week in my online class. These allow me to give praise to the efforts of specific students or the class as a whole, provide tips or additional resources to enhance prior learning, and share an overview of what will be discussed in the upcoming week.

Post a minimum of one announcement per week containing at the least a reminder of that particular week’s pacing goals and a motivational message or supplemental content.

Make it as easy as possible for students to access any resource you include in your announcement. Post a live hyperlink or embed it within the announcement. If you use an image, size it appropriately so the content may be viewed easily but it doesn’t take up the majority of the screen.

Individualized Communication (email, messages, phone, and texting)

Much of your communication as an online instructor will be highly individualized personal email or phone calls to a student, mentor, or parent. Each time we communicate individually with another person, we are sending multiple messages—some intended and some not intended. It is a common saying that 90% of communication is nonverbal, such as body language, tone, the timing of the response, and the method of the response. Since much of our online communication is lacking body language and often tone of voice, it is crucial that we pay close attention to our delivery techniques.

As teachers, we have the privileged position of modeling a personal, polite, positive, and professional communication style for our students to emulate. This is particularly important because most students do not have much experience with or understanding of netiquette.

Teacher Caitlyn Skinner from Montana Digital Academy created this form to learn more about her students and improve communication.

On the Same Page
Caitlyn Skinner, Montana Digital Academy

The purpose of answering these questions
: I will better understand you, you will better understand the course and you will have the opportunity to better understand me (ask questions!)

1. What name do you prefer to go by?
2. Where are you from, and what do you like to do most where you live?
3. Why are you taking an online course in English this summer?
4. How many online courses have you taken before?
5. Our email accounts are EXTREMELY important in keeping the lines of communication open. Did you send me an email from your [school/ course/LMS] account, to my [school/course/LMS] account?
6. What will help you succeed in this course?
7. What may prevent you (physical, educational, family-related issues, etc.) from succeeding in this course?
8. What specific problems are you having, if any, getting started on the coursework?
9. Do you have any vacation, camp, or similar plans that may require some extra planning to stay on pace in the class? Please list any/all that you know about.
10. What specific goals do you have for this course?
11. What type of communication do you prefer — email, chat, phone, text? If it’s a number that may not be in the [course/LMS], please list it in your answer.
12. What are my office hours? [add hint for finding your office hours here]
13. What is the name of the mentor or mentors assigned to you at your school?
14. Whom would it be best to contact regarding your grades and progress? (Please provide email or phone number.)
15. Are you aware that a summer course has the same amount of work that a course has during the school year?
16. Is there anything else you would like me to know?
17. Is there anything else you would like to know about me or the course?

Consider the Four “P’s” of good communication: personal, polite, positive, and professional.


Whether communicating via phone, email, or in person, show the recipients—mentors, students, parents/guardians—that you are interested in their well-being and are happy to serve them. Use the person’s name, and try to foster relationships whenever possible.

I start my email using the student’s preferred name, just as I would if we were in a face-to-face setting. This is a small act that can make a huge impact on building a relationship with each student.


It’s important to remember that—like you—the person on the other side of the screen has joys and trials and everything in between. As in a face-to-face environment, you will have tense moments of communication. It’s not a matter of “if,” it’s a matter of “when.” Resolve to treat the person with respect and dignity even when you feel you aren’t receiving the same treatment. Never respond in a way that could be interpreted as curt or rude. This can be more challenging when you do not have the advantage of seeing body language and facial expressions.

When I receive an email from a frustrated student or parent, I do not respond immediately. I give myself permission to wait several hours to construct a well-worded, positive response. This also allows me, when needed, to contact the student’s mentor or another professional that may have an alternative insight to the situation to give the student the best possible, positive, and polite response.


Keep a friendly “I am on your side” tone to all communication. Let your positivity influence those around you. It’s likely your students will experience some negativity during their online learning experience, whether it’s confusion over course content, difficulty navigating the course, or struggles with time management. Each point of contact with you should leave a positive impression. How students feel about their learning has a huge impact on the overall effectiveness of their learning experience. As you know from face-to-face experiences, one negative point of contact can do damage that is very difficult to reverse, and it’s all the more difficult to detect when you can’t see the individual’s reaction. One personal, positive communication with you can completely stabilize the experience.

The tone of an email is critical. No matter what the situation, I am always going to assume the best of each situation and avoid anything that might sound accusatory or judgmental.


Proofread and revise your communication in order to attain a professional tone and level of quality. Read the message out loud to yourself to hear how it sounds. Once you hit the “send” button, it cannot be taken back. Check for typos, lack of clarity, and areas of potential misunderstanding. Avoid sarcasm as it does not translate well in online communication. Never use slang, texting lingo, or all caps. Model appropriate grammar and mechanics; for example, follow capitalization rules and use proper punctuation. Above all, maintain a tone that communicates value for the other person.

I use email as a way to coach students on the differences between social and professional communication. If a student sends me an email that begins with “Yo,” I might respond with “Sup Dawg,” answer their questions, and then use this teachable moment to instruct the student how to professionally and effectively construct an email.

The same suggestions about formatting announcements applies here, e.g., using bold, italics, color, etc., to demonstrate the most important parts of your message.

I quickly learned never to use red to emphasize a word or phrase in an email. Although red grabs attention, it is almost always seen as negative or scolding. Green or blue are my best font color choices when I feel I need to highlight with color.

Finally, one of the greatest challenges of individualized communication is ensuring that the message you are sending is the message the student, the parent/guardian, or the mentor is receiving. Since your facial expressions and body language are not visible to your students, the tone you establish in your messages must be clear to avoid misinterpretation.

When I write an email, I start by writing what I want to say. Then I re-read it with my student eyes or my parent eyes to see if I am receiving the same message as intended. It takes time, but I only get one chance to portray an accurate email, so that time is well spent.

Responding to an email as soon as it comes in almost never seems to be a good idea. I give myself some “think time”—anywhere from 10 minutes to four hours, even if the initial email is positive. This allows me to consider my words carefully, ask advice if necessary, and make sure my tone is positive, or at least neutral, so as to not be interpreted wrong.

Phone Communication

Phone communication with a student or mentor is just as appropriate—if not more appropriate—and more efficient at certain times. Often a simple phone call can clear up a lot of confusion, and a live conversation can allow for a much quicker and clearer resolution to a detailed issue than several back-and-forth emails. Just pick up the phone and call. The same basic principles of the Four Ps — personal, polite, positive, and professional — apply. Remember to document phone conversations, too, noting date, time, subject, and any important details.

Some issues may warrant the precision and clarity of written communication. Email and messages from the LMS and your work-related email create a paper trail which can be referenced later if needed.

In the first week of each course, I set a goal to contact each student and parent by phone to introduce myself, give them a voice to my name, and prove that I am not a robot. This one action has made a significant difference in the positive relationship connection I develop with my students throughout the rest of the course.


Some students—and parents/guardians—prefer to communicate via text. Meet students where they are comfortable and likely to engage in communication, but always keep the Four Ps in mind. Many instructors have realized the sheer power of harnessing the most accessible and comfortable format for students. Some instructors, upon giving out a number for texting, start hearing regularly from students who have rarely (if ever) made contact previously.

Some instructors have set up a Google Voice account to use for texting with students. This way, you don’t have to give out your personal cell number. Texts can be routed directly to your Gmail account and you can respond to them on any device you wish. See (https://voice.google.com/) for more information on Google Voice.

I have a separate work text number that I give to all my students to use. Throughout the week, I send random short messages of praise or encouragement to select students, reminding them that I am truly an advocate for their success. I can also be a bit more casual in this form of communication, allowing me to send positive emojis or gif’s to enhance my message.

Learn the students’ communication preference—email, LMS messages, texting, or phone. You can collect this information using a Google form, for example. Note preferences where you can access them efficiently, a student roster spreadsheet, for example, and use them when you contact your students.

Guidelines for Facilitating a Class Discussion

Many online courses also have discussion activities in which students post comments in an asynchronous discussion board within the LMS. Some of these discussion activities are very simple (such as providing an objective response), whereas others include providing carefully-written responses that demonstrate mastery of complex concepts.

Many students see discussion boards as a hoop to jump through to earn points. An instructor’s goal in discussion activities is to facilitate the conversation to keep it moving in the intended direction. An instructor’s presence in the discussion board keeps students engaged in the content and classroom community. Take care not to be too involved. It is not necessary to reply to each post, but be mindful of responding to every student regularly. You will want to demonstrate principles of polite, professional communication while affirming and correcting students’ understanding of the concept at hand. Please keep in mind that all posts, both yours and the students’, are public, so any comments made on the discussion board should be positive while you prompt and facilitate the conversation. Any individual feedback for students should be made in the grade book feature of the LMS and kept private.

I use the “feedback sandwich” when facilitating class discussions. To build a meaningful discussion, I start with saying “I really liked how you did this but have you considered (enter idea here).” Then I tell the students that they can obtain extra points if they email me a response to this idea within a certain timeframe. This tends to keep the discussion going and build in higher level thinking skills that meet their level of growth.

  • Provide a model response in the general discussion instructions/rubric initially to show students what you expect.
  • Adhere to the same standards of behavior online as you would face-to-face. Be honest, respectful, and polite.
  • Take time to think about your response before you begin typing. Re-read it before you post it. Be brief but clear and concise. If you would like to share a long article, post the URL and citation for it.
  • Move the discussion forward by adding to or expanding on comments already made.
  • Always monitor online discussions and contribute when appropriate. Your presence will help maintain positive expectations for student behavior, circumventing instances of inappropriate comments or bullying.
  • Link to prior knowledge or make personal connections.
  • Ask clarifying questions to encourage students to dig deeper into their understanding of a concept.
  • Incorporate key terms and other vocabulary from the content.
  • Encourage students to support their opinions by linking back to the lesson content or citing their sources.
  • Teach students that if they agree or disagree with a comment, they should state why.
  • Teach students to evaluate the validity of arguments.
  • Use the online discussion as a tool to challenge students’ thinking and help the group generate new or expanded ideas.
  • Avoid generalizations about entire groups of people, including racial, ethnic, religious, gender, sexual preference, or other stereotypes.
  • Provide grading rubrics for discussion board posts that include all expectations and examples of moving the discussion forward.

Communication Through Social Media

From the golden days of MySpace to the explosion of Facebook, teachers continually explore new methods to interact, engage, and communicate with their students that seem most comfortable to them. As fast as these modes of communication are changing, so are novel ways for using them.

Understanding that this generation is driven by social media, I created a private YouTube and Facebook page that I share with my students only. I create videos, upload funny or motivational pictures, post announcements or upcoming events, and give “shout outs” to students using this medium to make a more personal connection with my students.

While it’s obvious that there are a lot of benefits to using various social media platforms in the classroom, there are also many things that teachers must consider and be aware of when integrating these resources into their learning environments.

• Get student permission before using names.
• Never share student grades or other personal information.
• Have parents/guardians sign a release form at the start of the year for sharing student images, names, video, and/or work.
• Avoid sending personal messages to students in social media.
• Create a specific classroom/teacher account for sites like Snapchat and Instagram.

Engaging Students

Were you a student who excitedly raised your hand to answer a teacher’s question, or did you avoid the attention? The online learning environment can increase the likelihood of students’ responses, whether they are extroverts or introverts. Online instructors can influence student engagement and bring back enthusiasm for learning or inspire it for the first time.

Online Teacher
“The online learning environment allows every student to have a “voice” in the classroom, ultimately enriching the learning from multiple perspectives.”

Online Teacher
“When an online teacher recognizes and validates every student’s input in the discussion board, it allows the individual to see value in their own ideas and opinions. This can be the best way to engage students in their own learning process and build intrinsic motivation to continue to grow in the subject.”

Motivating Learners

Think back to the aura of excitement during the first day of the school year. If we can capitalize on this excitement in the initial impressions of our online courses, we can tap into a student’s intrinsic motivation to learn.

Motivation depends on a student’s personality. Quiet students often share their voices more in an online culture because they feel comfortable and not like the spotlight is on them. I typically individualize this motivation in my personal feedback and emails and use bitmojis to add a little fun and excitement.

Motivation is an emotion or desire within a person that causes the person to take action. People will usually take action for one primary reason: to achieve a goal. People motivate themselves; we are not able to motivate others. However, as teachers and online facilitators, we can influence motivation through the learning environment we create. We can encourage and support students and contribute to their motivation through tangible extrinsic rewards for a job well done or more personal intrinsic rewards that will propel a student to push forward and succeed. In the field of brain-based research, studies show that providing a learning environment that is safe—where students feel comfortable taking risks and sharing their thoughts—promotes learning.

Do you run a “not yet” classroom? Consider Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset research as portrayed in her TED Talk. In a “not yet” classroom, we create an environment where it is acceptable for students to make mistakes, use initial failures to learn more, and see the experience as a growth opportunity.

Online Teacher
“I am always surprised at how professionals are so quick to tell us how to motivate students. In my experience, we cannot motivate teenagers to do anything, but we certainly can UNMOTIVATE students. I can make them do the work in the course, but I cannot make them LIKE the course. Instead, I focus on the things that I can control and be myself. I can show them how excited the content makes me and find engaging ways to deliver the content while providing an open mind to their questions and choices to prove their understanding. If I am too rigid, I will quickly lose them—and that is the kiss of death in an online classroom.”


You are an educator, so by the very nature of your profession, you want to help others succeed. Assessment is a powerful tool to support student growth and promote success in an online environment.

Consider these strategies for assessment as an online facilitator:

  • Offer feedback on student written work in Google Docs (via comment feature), connected to task learning objectives, during their drafting process.
  • Embed short quizzes in between new learning modules to help you and students understand where they are and where they need to be before moving forward.
  • Set up a discussion board where students reflect on their learning and you respond with both acknowledgments of evidence of their learning as well as questions to extend their thinking.

Online classes allow for many different ways to assess students. They are not only tested on their expressive skills with special assignments where they create a script and sign it but also a midterm and final where they must put together all the materials and use all the skills they have learned throughout the course. I use discussion boards, quizzes, and practice assignments to formatively assess how the students are doing and pinpoint areas for further instruction.

Grading and Feedback

Grading, providing feedback, and the communication that accompanies these two tasks are probably where online instructors spend 90% of their time and energy. It’s also difficult to describe grading and feedback as a discrete activity, as they incorporate so many facets of teaching: relationship building, coaching, instructing, correcting, redirecting, encouraging, communicating with various stakeholders, and more.

One thing that many online instructors appreciate about the online format is that they are freed up from daily lesson planning and content delivery because the courses often already contain those elements. Instead, they can spend their time and energy individually coaching each student. This coaching role is manifested in the activities surrounding grading and feedback.

Students need much more support and feedback in the online environment than in a traditional course. This is because students may feel alienated in the virtual classroom and they are still getting used to learning outside the face-to-face classroom experience. Using effective feedback strategies will enable the instructor to identify and meet individual student needs as well as encourage students to participate and continue to participate at a high level.

Illinois Online Network

Meaningful Feedback

How can we stimulate our online learners to be actively engaged in class throughout the academic term? Beyond an enthusiastic warm welcome letter, interesting and helpful announcements, and encouraging participation in class discussions, grading and feedback can effectively result in students feeling motivated.

Components of Meaningful Feedback

The acronym REPLY is a practical way to organize the key components of quality online feedback on assignments and assessments:

R = Responsive.

Instructors should establish, publicize, and maintain expectations for grading and providing feedback for student assignment submissions. Timely feedback is critical because students may have forgotten what they submitted if the feedback takes too long. The idea behind timely feedback is to capture and use the students’ connection to their work while they still care about it. Capitalize on the students’ interest in the work before they move on in the course. Timely feedback also allows the student to incorporate that feedback into future work in the course.

E = Effective.

At best, an instructor reflects back to students a realistic picture of their progress. Therefore, feedback should be very specific. Make comments that speak to the assignment’s objectives, keeping in mind the context of what the student has been learning throughout the course. If your course incorporates the use of rubrics, use them to assess the students work. Avoid general, broad comments such as “Good job.”

P = Positive.

Feedback should not be merely corrective. Always acknowledge when the student is making an effort and what the student is doing well so that they continue with those behaviors. Make sure you maintain a positive tone throughout your writing. Read (and reread) your comments to assure that a positive tone is maintained, even if the nature of your feedback may be primarily corrective.

L = Learning.

Expand the learning opportunity for students. Point out a few suggestions for improving the assignment. Fill in any perceived gaps in student understanding. At the same time, don’t overwhelm the student (and yourself) by pointing out every little thing that can be improved. Make your feedback positive, helpful, and memorable by focusing on a limited number of attainable improvements for the student to consider. Provide an opportunity for growth by allowing students to learn from your feedback and try the assignment again. Remember, an environment in which students feel safe to try alleviates the highly motivational fear of failure. Learning when they understand failing is a positive aspect of learning and it’s okay to take risks as a way to move forward. The goal is for students to master the content, not simply move on in the course.

Y = You (Personal).

Personal feedback helps you build a relationship with each student. Students who feel you care about them and their success are more likely to be successful. Use greetings and closings. Use their name. It makes the students feel valued and communicates that you are speaking specifically to them, not using a canned response.

R Responsive—Provide a timely response to student questions.
E Effective—Offer specific comments aligned to the assignment’s objectives.
P Positive—Use words that give off a positive connotation.
L Learning—Include suggestions for how the assignment can be improved.
Y You—Make it personal and not just a standard response.

If I was in the face-to-face classroom, I would be walking around and supporting students by answering questions and guiding their work. The online environment doesn’t allow for me to do this as easily, so I allow my students to submit most of their assignments in draft form first and receive growth-focused feedback from me. Then they have the option of redoing their work for a final grade within a designated time frame. This is my way of providing “on the spot” guidance in an online forum and continuously encouraging best efforts.

Other Types of Meaningful Feedback

Praise and Encouragement

Much of your instructional tasks are reactive, such as answering emails and grading assignments. However, the skilled teacher will be proactive, reaching out to students when instructor contact can be helpful and taking time to celebrate student achievement.

Consider making a quick phone call or email each week to encourage one or two students who have done an outstanding job on their coursework, have shown sound character, or who have made solid steps to improve their progress. Or highlight excellent student work each week in an announcement and display the example for other students to see so that they have a good model. You could schedule a task like this into your online calendar as a recurring appointment so that you’re reminded to do it each week. Such tasks do not take long, yet they may yield great results in terms of encouraging students to continue their focus and stay on pace. This type of activity also helps to strengthen the teacher-student relationship, which in turn becomes an important element in the students’ motivation to learn.

Many students know that if they are struggling, a teacher will reach out to help. However, most students are not expecting a phone call or email from a teacher when they are doing something well. I find that praising students for a job well done is just as important as reaching out to the struggling students for help; therefore, I try to recognize the good work and efforts of at least three students each week.

Redirection and Clarification

While grading student work, you may find that students are missing some key knowledge or skills needed to succeed in a lesson. Perhaps they are missing essential prior knowledge, there is an academic integrity issue, or they seem to have some real difficulties in navigating the online course.

In situations like these, mere feedback isn’t enough. Don’t let a situation like this continue for long. Pick up the phone or open your email and reach out to the mentor and student. When you take the initiative to reach out to the mentor and student to address the issue early, it’s much more likely that the student will have a successful and enjoyable experience in your course.

When I provide feedback, I encourage my students to respond back, even if it is a short message confirming they received my message. If I do not hear back within two days, I find an alternative way to communicate my message to the students to ensure that they received my feedback and answer any questions they have. This also shows the students that I am committed to helping them succeed and builds trust in our relationship.

Schedule regular time during your week to look for students who may be behind or skipping lots of assignments. Reach out to them. Document that you reached out, and schedule a follow-up call in a week to see if they have progressed. Contact their mentors to alert them to your action and enlist their support. They may be aware of extenuating circumstances the students have not shared, too.

Meeting Secondary Students’ Special Needs

While the one-size-fits-all approach is still prevalent in many educational settings and may be what most students experience, online options can be very personalized, and there are many technology enhancements that assist students in learning.

504s and IEPs

Michigan schools are obligated to address the learning needs of students of all abilities so everyone has equitable access to education. When students have the tools to learn according to their abilities, everyone wins. By learning more about accommodations, accessibility, and inclusive pedagogy, educators can apply effective practices in meeting the needs of all students in their classrooms.

Even though most student-centered educators truly believe that all students can learn, they are quick to add the caveat that all students do not learn at the same pace, time, or in the same manner. The entire gamut of online learners will arrive within your online classes, from gifted and talented learners to those with severe learning disabilities. Understanding the struggles of those with disabilities or extreme challenges can be a life altering paradigm shift in terms of how we apply our knowledge and instructional strategies to assist them.

IEP and 504 Learners: Speaking the Same Language

Some terminology often used in IEPs and 504 plans may not be familiar to many teachers.

Accommodation: makes the work accessible, but does not substantially change the work, e.g., testing in a separate setting, reading the text aloud, reduced amount of work, etc.

Modification: the subject matter is changed by being significantly below grade level or changing what the test measures. By making modifications based on the student’s IEP you are leveling the playing field, making it possible for those students to have the same chance of success as students without IEPs.

Differentiation: planning instruction based on individual student interests, needs, and abilities to include students with disabilities, gifted, etc. The instructor may, for example, provide real-life problems, create a new assignment, focus on visuals, use current events, create movies, review games, or use flashcards as instructional strategies.

IEPs: the Individual Education Plan is written by the local school. The committee includes parents/guardians, administrators, support personnel, and other student advocates. The plan identifies modifications to be made based upon the student’s abilities and limitations.

IEPs are identified by the school district or mentor in my online program. I keep a separate, private worksheet of the student and his/her accommodations. When I use one of these noted accommodations, I make sure to note this with a date and short description of the accommodation in my worksheet to keep accurate records for future reference.

504 Learners: Michigan Department of Education has prepared a quick reference guide regarding learners with 504 plans.

Using Different Modalities to Reach Students

How Great Teachers Teach Struggling Learners

Great teachers share some commonalities in how they approach teaching. They continually refine their teaching craft, devote energy and effort to their approach, and reflect on how to make a lesson better and more accessible the next time. Great teachers also present content in a variety of ways to enhance student learning and make the lesson come alive using authentic and meaningful techniques. They may use videos, personal stories and storyboards, songs, or even art to enhance the content and appeal to a variety of student learning preferences. When teaching struggling learners, you may want to begin with step number one below and take the individual learner through a specific learning process for success. Keep in mind that the intended outcome is small steps of success, not giant leaps of learning.

  1. Activate prior knowledge
  2. Make learning connections
  3. Manage the instructional learner level
  4. Model the desired responses
  5. Provide opportunities for lots of guided practice

For more ideas about how to present material in different modalities, visit VARK Strategies.

Universal Design for Learning
When differentiating instruction online, one of the frameworks to use is that of the Universal Design for Learning. It helps the instructor meet students where they are. Here are the key concepts for applying UDL in your learning environment:

1. Principle I: Provide Multiple Means of Representation (the “what” of learning)
2. Principle II: Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression (the “how” of learning)
3. Principle III: Provide Multiple Means of Engagement (the “why” of learning)

Learn more about UDL, or view the UDL Scan Tool.

I often help my students beyond the content by creating videos with Jing. This allows students to hear my voice AND see the concept taught in a different format, and I can go at a pace that is appropriate for that individual.

Many struggling learners lack the prerequisite knowledge required to be successful in the course in which they are enrolled. Particularly by high school, many struggling students have been passed on without attaining even a proficient level of understanding of key concepts and learning building blocks required for success. They typically don’t know how to learn. That’s where your expertise as a professional educator comes into play.

Put together by the School of Education at William and Mary, here is a comprehensive collection of different instructional strategies delineated by discipline and/or learning disability to help you help your students learn.

Practical instructional strategies used by online instructors to help struggling students: write clear directions, provide examples, create an assignment checklist with the pacing guide, use rubrics to clarify, make the learning relevant to the individual student, provide alternative options to meet the desired goal, provide instruction using multiple modalities, e.g., voice, video, written email, screen captures, synchronous real-time sessions.

Use the learners preferred communication method such as: texting, email, phone. They are more prone to be in touch and communicate using the communication method that’s more helpful to them.

Teaching Culturally Diverse Students

An online teaching experience may require a fuller understanding of the variety of culturally diverse students you may provide instruction to online as well as the educational settings and expectations of the learning experience and environment of their native culture. You may encounter students who are new to the U.S. Not only are they adapting to a new language, but a new way of life and societal norms as well. Build a relationship with these students, respect them, provide opportunities for them to practice their new behaviors, and use guided feedback as they become acclimated to online learning.

Annie Shibata, Ph.D., a cross-cultural trainer, researcher, and lecturer, suggests these strategies for helping students succeed in the online learning environment:

  1. Keep the language standard and as much as possible, culture neutral. Avoid using slang, idiomatic expressions and culture specific humor and references.
  2. Make expectations about online learning clear. Some students may come from societies or cultures where students are not expected to be responsible for their own learning.
  3. Be accessible. Some students are used to hierarchical systems where the instructor is the “expert,” thus these students are likely to feel more lost in the online (classroom) and need more instructor contact.
  4. Learn about other cultures, but remember that the linkage between culture and learning styles are affected by age, gender, and individual experiences and preferences.
  5. Avoid making generalizations about individuals based on superficial knowledge about the group. Understand your own teaching and learning style preferences, and your assumptions about learning. Cultural self-awareness by instructors is crucial. Uncover your own hidden biases.
  6. Understand your target audience. If the target audience is in America, then a reasonable expectation is that students will make accommodations to the American learning process.

Students in the online environment will be learning new skills as they are learning course content. Be prepared for challenges related to self-regulation, time management, accountability, and communication. The move from face-to-face to online learning requires a lot of adjustment for students. Look to your students’ mentors for support. Share your perspective with them and offer to collaborate on solutions because they’re working with students on the same set of new skills.

Consider having all students write an introduction to you. As we have seen, learning preferences and culture have a number of variables involved.

a. My experience with online learning is________________.
b. Having to put my ideas in writing and share them with other students on the discussion board makes me feel ______________ because _______________.
c. I’m taking this class online because _______________.
d. In this course, I’m most worried about _______________.
e. In order to be successful in this class, I need the instructor to ______________.
f. I do/do not prefer to work in groups.

From Annie Shibata, Ph.D.

Netiquette Guidelines

Online students may feel anonymous given the fact that they cannot see you and you cannot see them. Their appropriate behavior online will need to be guided in this new environment to maximize the learning potential of all students and provide everyone a safe environment. This is particularly evident when it comes to communicating with their teachers and other students via email, text, and discussion boards.

Helping your online students realize that the expectation of appropriate behavior in the online classroom is no different than in a brick-and-mortar schoolroom needs to be presented deliberately. There are certain behaviors that are expected of everyone within the confines of that classroom including the interaction with instructors and their peers. Because this is a new experience for online learners, they need guidance and support to develop their own Four Ps of communication and feedback to learn how to be personal, polite, positive, and professional. You can find many samples of netiquette guidelines on the internet. Select one and share it with your students by placing it in the resource area of your LMS, or check with the students’ mentors and reinforce what they’re doing.

Some teachers ask that their students to sign and return guidelines to pledge themselves to following them. Some teachers go as far as getting parents/guardians to sign as well to say that they will check in with their students to ensure they’re following the guidelines and being respectful of others.

To ensure you are following proper copyright protocol, consider the following suggestions before using and/or copying materials within your online courses:

  • Link to a copyrighted source that’s available online unless that violates terms of use.
  • Embed YouTube videos because embedding is a form of linking and the YouTube license is sufficient for use.
  • Use copyrighted material without permission if it is covered under Fair Use.

Fair Use is permitted under certain conditions when your use contributes to society. See the resource box on this page to learn the four factors of Fair Use.

This job aid provides a quick reference specifically for teachers regarding copyright and Fair Use. Copyright and Fair Use Guidelines for Teachers

When in doubt of a copyright infringement, ask the owner of the work for permission. Use Public Domain resources whenever possible. Also, provide the appropriate attribution to the work such as pictures you may use online. Creative Commons provides easy to use licenses to reuse materials. Check out royalty-free images to use in online courses:

How to Cite Sources

What are the benefits of properly citing one’s sources of information?

  • Gives credit where credit is due.
  • Provides a trail so that other people can locate the sources you used.
  • Provides evidence of your research.
  • Helps you avoid plagiarizing and is a good model for students.

Many quick reference guides for properly citing your sources are available online. Provide several to your students or create your own based on your favorite resources and post it in your course resources area in your course LMS.

  • Facts
  • Ideas
  • A joke that is not written down
  • A song that is sung but is not written down
  • Short names or slogans
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents.
  • Items that are common property with no original author such as calendars, rulers, etc.
  • Works in the public domain or the federal government
  • Websites, presentations, published music, reports, etc. — any original work created in tangible form
  • Anonymous works until 95 years after publication
  • The HTML code used to create web pages
  • Graphics, pictures, or charts from other websites
  • Commercial software


Typically, students do not get a lot of instruction about plagiarism and the consequences. Many people suspect the online environment is rife with cheating and plagiarism. Post your expectations for original and cited work in your course and provide guidelines or online sources students can use as a reference. Contact mentors if you need support with particular students or assignments.

Detecting Plagiarism Online

  • Conduct a web search by copying and pasting several lines of the document into the search engine to find a match on the internet. Follow your teacher radar if an assignment doesn’t feel right and raises a red flag with you.
  • Check the time and date stamp of when the assignment was submitted. Most LMSs provide time and date stamps for all assignments submitted within the course. If a student submits several assignments within a very short time frame, this may be an indication of inappropriate assignment sharing with another individual.
  • Ask if the student is using a flash drive to save his/her work and then submits all work at the same time.
  • Ask the student if the author of the document is a relative who registered the software (like Word, PowerPoint, etc.) on the computer the student uses for online classes.
  • Ask if the student used a public computer such as at the school’s computer lab and forgot to logout which may have allowed someone else to access the course without the student’s knowledge. The mentors should be able to help you verify if the student was working on a computer in an online learning lab.

When I see an assignment that does not appear to be the student’s original work, I assume that the error is on my end and clarify by asking a few questions. In my follow-up feedback, I ask the student specific questions that would expand on their work to check for true understanding of the material. I may also ask for specific references and/or resources that the student used to help in completing the assignment. This almost always clarifies whether plagiarism is a factor in the completed assignment.

Preventing Poor Choices Like Cheating and Plagiarism

  • Be sure students understand what constitutes plagiarism and how to cite sources.
  • Provide students and mentors your expectations for the assessment setting (e.g., no phones, browsers closed).
  • Develop good relationships with students.
  • Emphasize learning and mastery over accountability and completion.

Proctored assessments can be set up to help verify who is taking an exam. For example, the instructor password-protects a test and provides the password to the mentor at the local school who then goes to that student’s computer, types in the password, and the test then opens up for the student. This solution takes coordination on the part of the student, mentor, and instructor.

If possible, where the course design provides a test bank of questions which can be randomly selected for each test taker or the order of the questions can be rearranged, take advantage of those options to help maintain the integrity of the assessment.

If you suspect that someone else may be taking an assessment for your online student, then set up a mutually agreeable time in which you can conduct a verbal assessment with the student to validate your concerns.

Standards for Online Education

While the quality of the course you’re teaching may be out of your hands, know that other agencies and organizations provide oversight and/or guidelines that contribute to a quality online teaching and learning experience.

Course Quality

Quality Matters (QM) is the global organization leading quality assurance in online and innovative digital teaching and learning environments. QM’s mission is to “promote and improve the quality of online education and student learning nationally and internationally through: 

  • Development of current, research-supported, and practice-based quality standards and appropriate evaluation tools and procedures.
  • Recognition of expertise in online education quality assurance and evaluation.
  • Fostering a culture of continuous improvement by integrating QM Standards and processes into organizational plans to improve the quality of online education.
  • Providing professional development in the use of rubrics, tools and practices to improve the quality of online education.
  • Peer review and certification of quality in online education.

Curriculum Quality

Quality at the curricular level is informed primarily by state adopted standards, including the Michigan Merit Curriculum (MMC), the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and nationally recognized standards, such as those established by the College Board for Advanced Placement (AP) courses. It is important that courses are aligned to state or national standards to ensure that students earn appropriate credit towards meeting their academic goals (e.g., graduation or certificate).

Research and Resources for Online Learning Programs

Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report, 2020-21, produced annually, reflects continued growth in K-12 online enrollments in Michigan. The report provides school districts with the opportunity to benchmark their own virtual learning programs against their peers in the state. This opportunity should be an important step in a program’s continuous quality improvement activities. The report is organized into several sections. The first section looks at schools as the unit of analysis. The next section focuses on the virtual courses taken. The third section focuses on students. The fourth section captures performance on statewide assessments. There is also a brief section containing maps of virtual use. Each section is meant to capture the essential findings without being overly data intensive; however, data tables have been included in the appendices to provide those interested with more in-depth information.

For additional information and insights for developing and supporting your online and blended learning program, please visit the following web pages on the Michigan Virtual website:

  • Michigan’s Online Course Catalog contains syllabi information (such as state academic standards, prerequisites, instructor contact time expectations, available academic support, and outcomes and objectives) as well as enrollment and course dates for online courses made available by Michigan school districts and Michigan Virtual.
  • The Digital Backpack blog that shares findings and expertise related to K-12 online and blended learning from both a state and national perspective.
  • Michigan schools are obligated to address the learning needs of students of all abilities so everyone has equitable access to education. When students have the tools to learn according to their abilities, everyone wins. By learning more about accommodations, accessibility, and inclusive pedagogy, educators can apply effective practices in meeting the needs of all students in their classrooms.
  • Research Publications that provide a foundation to examine, engage, and explore educational practices in the industry.
  • Research Clearinghouse contains references to important research and publications in the field of K-12 online and blended learning.
  • Michigan’s Online Learning Law page is dedicated to information on Michigan’s Section 21f legislation. It includes resources and samples developed by and for schools.
  • A family of Guides to Online Learning details the world of online learning from the perspective of the people integral to creating a positive learning experience. Each guide outlines key definitions, research and resources, and practical strategies that paint a picture of what kind of preparations and support systems are necessary to ensure students succeed in their online courses.
  • A page dedicated to Mentors, developed in partnership with school leaders and mentors, links educators to a professional learning community where they can ask questions, problem solve, and share ideas and resources with other mentors around the state including sample forms.
  • The set of national standards for quality online programs, teaching, and courses have been a benchmark for online learning for more than a decade. All three sets of standards were updated and published in 2019 by Quality Matters and the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance.
  • The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) published  Standards to provide a framework for innovation in education and help educators and education leaders worldwide prepare learners to thrive in work and life.

Whether you are a teacher, mentor, parent, student, counselor, administrator, school board member, or someone else who has an interest in online learning, we welcome your feedback and questions and invite you to email us at [email protected].

Limited Course Capacity

We’re sorry to inform you that we have reached capacity for several of our Semester 1 and Trimester 1 courses. You’ll notice when attempting to enroll students in our Student Learning Portal that some courses are unavailable. While we are no longer accepting new enrollments for these courses at this time, many courses continue to remain open for enrollment.

With many students across the state 100% remote, demand for our online courses is greater than ever before. Because every course we offer is taught by a Michigan-certified teacher, this high volume of enrollments has created capacity issues for our teachers who provide each and every student with individual feedback.

While the Michigan Virtual team anticipated and planned for significant increases in student enrollments this Fall, the increased demand we’ve experienced has been unprecedented. As a result, we are taking steps to hire even more part-and full-time teachers to support larger numbers of student enrollments for Semester 2 as well as for Trimester 2 and 3. 

For schools that still need online learning options this year, please fill out the form at the bottom of our virtual pathways page to meet with someone to discuss other solutions. While some of our teacher-led courses are full, we may still have the capacity to help you in upcoming terms or can discuss timing to implement a whole-school or collaborative program in which local teachers from your school/district use our online course content to teach students. We also have free course content and resources available for you to use.

We know this is an incredibly stressful time for all, and we’re sorry if the courses you’re looking for are unavailable. We never want to turn away a student who wants to learn from us. Our top concern, however, is student success, and we have a policy to not take on additional enrollments if we cannot guarantee that all students will have a quality online learning experience. 

We appreciate your patience and understanding as we navigate the unusually high volume of enrollments we are receiving.