Three Common Mistakes to Avoid When Teaching Online

Countdown on the old movie screen.

Online ClassroomHundreds of studies have demonstrated that there is no significant difference in learning outcomes between online and face-to-face courses. But many students still report having a bad experience with online education because their instructor makes some easily identified mistake when moving courses online.

Bad content
Perhaps the biggest mistake online teachers make is crafting bad content. The most common forms of bad online content are long text passes on a webpage, videos of face-to-face lectures, and voice-over PowerPoints.

The web is a visual medium, and so nobody wants to scroll through long text blocks online. If you want to give students text to read, make it into a PDF document that they can download to read at their leisure. Face-to-face lectures are made for a face-to-face audience, and merely putting a camera in the back of the lecture hall leads to videos with poor sound quality, content that is not directed to the viewer (such as announcements to the class), the viewer not being able to hear questions from the audience, people standing up in front of the camera, etc. Finally, bullet-points are for written reports, not presentations. Reading bullet points to an audience treats them as if they are illiterate. The viewer can read bullet points themselves. Plus, reading text makes for a confusing presentation. The viewer is reading the text on the screen at one speed and listening to the speaker at another. The message is disjointed, like hearing a song played at two speeds at once. If you are just displaying text with your audio, then you are better off providing it in a PDF for the students to read themselves.

The ideal content for an online course is a video that combines narration with imagery, like a documentary. The narration conveys the message, while the imagery amplifies it with a visual analog. A PBS documentary about whales does not display bullet points of facts about whales, it shows real whales. The images provide context, emotion, and focus to improve the spoken message. Similarly, when discussing the Roman Forum, you should be showing images of the Roman Forum while your narration provides the information.

One simple way to create decent online videos is to load images that correspond to your points onto blank PowerPoint slides (I like a black background), with one image per slide, and then run the show on your monitor while recording both the images and your voice using screencasting software such as Screencast-o-Matic. This has the advantage of requiring minimal technical sophistication. However, it also ties the images to the audio, meaning that if you want to swap out an image later, you have to rerecord the entire presentation.

A better method is to first record your narration with a free sound recorder like Audacity. Edit that narration to what you what, and then combine the audio with images using a video-creator such as WeVideo. This allows you to change the audio or swap out images later with ease. I don’t even worry about the visuals when I record my narration. I simply record what I want to say, put it into my video-creator, and then find images to match my message using Google Advanced Image Search. I run the audio in my video-creator, stop when I need a new image, find that image on the web, and then place it into the video and move on. It is easier than you think. See a tutorial on how to make videos with WeVideo at

Whatever you do, make sure to express enthusiasm with your voice. I often see videos of instructors speaking in a monotone that makes them sound bored. If you sound bored, then your students will be bored as well. Use voice inflections for emphasis. Also try to speak naturally, like the person is sitting next to you, in order to keep your audience’s interest.

Bad discussion questions
A second common mistake in online teaching is crafting bad discussion questions. Questions that ask students to simply regurgitate what was in the material only discourage them and lead to repetition of what others have said in order to meet the discussion requirements. A discussion is not an essay assignment, it is an online version of what would happen in a coffee house. Don’t ask for research to answer a discussion question online, that makes it into an essay assignment. Ask for your students’ thoughts. You would not ask someone to research their responses to you in a coffee house discussion, would you?

The best discussion questions are easily answered by students based on what they already know. A case study that presents the facts of a situation and asks students what should be done is ideal, but it should be one that allows for reasonable positions on both sides of the issue, not one where the faculty member is fishing for a particular response. Also make sure that the cases allow students to apply their own experience or prior knowledge to the situations, not just what was covered in the class. This makes the cases more real and interesting to the students.

Poor use of in-class time
Many students report mixed feelings about hybrid classes because the instructor made poor use of in-class time. The fundamental idea behind hybrid learning is that the act of pushing content out to the student is moved online, and in-class time is used to allow students to engage the material. But many instructors have trouble creating engaging activities, and merely fall back onto lecturing in-class.

One way to use in-class time is to put students into small groups to work out case studies. Hall and Villareal found that students liked role-playing scenarios that involved situations that they would likely encounter in their professions. I did the same in my medical ethics course. The students got the basic principles online, and then applied them to real and hypothetical cases in-class that were similar to what they would encounter as clinicians.

Students also like starting the class with a question-and-answer session about the material. By allowing the session to be driven by the students’ questions, the instructor goes into the material in a way that is different from how it was presented online. This approach helps students who had trouble with the material the first time, and provides helpful reinforcement from a different perspective for the others.

Avoiding these common pitfalls will make you a much better online or hybrid instructor.

Hall, S. & Villareal, D. (2015). The Hybrid Advantage: Graduate Student Perspectives of Hybrid Education Courses, International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, v. 27, n. 1, 69-80.

Reprinted from Online Classroom, 16.3 (2016): 1, 3. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

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