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How Instructors Learn to Teach Online: Considering the past to plan for the future

By Steven Schmidt, Elizabeth M. Hodge, Christina M. Tschida / October 2020

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The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 had major effects on all aspects of higher education. One of the most important ones dealt with how courses were taught. In a very short timeframe as the U.S. shut down, social distancing was encouraged, and states enacted stay-at-home policies, many college and university courses moved from face-to-face instruction to online instruction. Instructors who had no experience teaching online found themselves online instructors and curriculum developers, having to first modify their face-to-face teaching materials for online use, and then teach the content that was hastily moved onto online learning platforms. As one professor summarized, “Educators across the world have become experienced in rapidly moving courses to an online platform—not necessarily experts in best practices, but certainly experienced in ‘getting it done’” [1].

We are now at the point where we are planning for the future, and with talk of continued safety precautions, we realize instructors at colleges and universities today must be able to teach both online and face-to-face, and they must be flexible in being able to move from one medium to the other, as circumstances dictate. We are also starting to see resources developed for online teaching in specific disciplines, including veterinary medicine [1], law [2], engineering [3] and many others.

Several years ago, we conducted a research study on how university faculty members learned to teach online. A basic qualitative approach using focus groups was employed. Data for this study was collected over the course of one academic year (2011–2012). Purposeful sampling was used to identify participants [4]. Participants were instructors of online courses from various program areas and levels of experience within the College of Education at a large southeastern university. The instructors varied in their professional status and each instructor in the focus group had taught a distance education course a minimum of one year. All instructors interviewed had taught both face-to-face and distance education during their teaching careers. Participants’ level of technical literacy varied from novice to expert. Three 90-minute focus groups were held. Each focus group consisted of a mixture of novice and veteran instructors, a range of experience with online teaching, and members of different program areas to get a strong sample of experience across levels and programs as well as encourage discourse among instructors across departments.

What we learned was there is a process associated with learning to teach online, and regardless of the speed at which an instructor transitions to online teaching, these steps or stages in the process were fairly similar. We categorized the three general steps or stages in the process of learning to teach online as follows:  

  1. Initial experiences
  2. Finding footing
  3. Continuous improvement  

Initial Experiences

As a result of COVID-19, many faculty members had abrupt starts to their online teaching careers. Most had little time to prepare and started teaching online using trial-and-error methods. While these times of COVID-19 are different for all of us, the way in which instructors transitioned to online teaching in these times was very similar to the way most online instructors moved to online teaching before COVID-19. Most in our study used phrases like “jumped right in” or “got thrown in” when describing how they started teaching online.

Preparing for that first online teaching experience proved challenging to participants in our study. Many described their initial reactions using words like “terrified,” “worried” and “apprehensive” at the initial thought. Most felt they were unprepared for the experience and were overwhelmed at the prospect of having to teach using a method they knew little to nothing about. Almost all tried to make comparisons to what they knew, which was teaching in a traditional classroom setting, but most could not see how course content could be “transferred” online. Furthermore, the idea of developing a course, making sure course materials could be placed in an online platform, and uncertainties about whether students would actually learn in the class all caused respondents to feel overwhelmed at the initial prospect of teaching online.

The initial shock period was followed by a search for information and support. At this point, most were focused on support related to learning the technology that would allow them to teach online. Many looked into formal support in the form of courses, “how to teach online”-type training modules, or other resources that might be available at the institutional or university levels. However, most in our study found these unhelpful; either because they were too broadly focused and/or out-of-date. Some asked for one-on-one help from colleagues—often from faculty members in departments related to online teaching and learning, such as the college’s instructional technologies department. A few engaged in different types of self-directed learning activities, such as reviewing articles and websites on online teaching. Some called on colleagues at other universities, as well. All of the aforementioned strategies were noted as having been more helpful than the general institution-wide training

Finding Footing

At some point in this learning process, each participant began to find footing and got to a spot where they could take a breath and consider their online teaching in more depth. At this point, many came to the realization that teaching online involved a variety of tasks, and they began to make distinctions between all the different tasks associated with online teaching, including course design and development, as well as actual teaching. Whereas in the initial step the focus was on learning technology, in this step, as instructors got a better understanding of what it meant to teach online, the focus of their learning broadened. There was consensus that learning to teach online involved learning how to put appropriate course content on a website and develop activities, projects, and assignments. But a separate skill was still the actual process of teaching online. At this point, participants sought out more targeted types of training related to specific aspects of online teaching. Learning was most often self-directed, and books, articles, online resources and colleagues were all helpful during this stage.        

Continuous Improvement

Even the most experienced online instructors in these focus groups did not see themselves as “there” yet, in terms of their online teaching abilities. Most agreed that with experience came more strategies and options they could employ. As online instructors matured in their experience, they became able to focus more on individual student needs within a course. They had more tools at their disposal and understood when to use each tool to meet the needs of individual learners. The focus on individual student needs was an interesting and distinct part of this step in the process. It takes time to make connections with individual learners and to know enough about them to meet their individual needs. They were able to effectively communicate with their learners and make the connections they needed in order to facilitate learning. Once the mechanics of online teaching became familiar, instructors had the time to devote to making those connections and meeting those needs.


Following are recommendations for faculty members who are new to online teaching, and also for who are interested continuously improving their online teaching skills:

  • Start small, with a few resources. Learning how to teach online can be overwhelming, as there is an overabundance of articles, tutorials, classes, workshops, and seminars that can help you improve your online teaching skills. Ask colleagues, especially those in your subject area, for advice on the resources that are helpful and focus on a few to start with.
  • Do not become overwhelmed by technology. Most of the learning management systems (LMSs) used in higher education today are fairly easy to learn. You can learn the basics and be very successful as an online instructor. Do not feel you have to learn every aspect of your LMS in order to be effective. Rather, start by learning a few and becoming familiar with them before learning more advanced features.
  • Focus on the teaching. Do not get so caught up in learning the technology that you ignore the pedagogy. Learn about ways to connect with your learners, to build relationships with your students, and to facilitate the development of relationships among students. Just as you might do in a face-to-face classroom.
  • Join a group or start a group. As noted in this article, instructors were most successful learning to teach online when they learned from others who taught in similar subjects. Find others who are learning to teach online, meet with them on regular bases to share your experiences and learn from each other.
  • Continually evaluate your practice. Learning how to teach online means trying things you may be unfamiliar with. Don’t be afraid to try new methods or strategies but remember to gather feedback from your learners about what works and what does not. This type of evaluation can be done on the fly, as needed. It does not have to be formal in order to be helpful.


The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in what is likely the single greatest migration from face-to-face to online courses, and this happened at record speed. Institutes of higher education are now planning a path forward, and that path most likely involves continued use of online education. That means instructors must be prepared to teach online. We hope this article on the evolution of the online instructor provides some useful guidance for institutions and instructors.

Note from the Authors

The citation for the original article discussed in this work is as follows:

Schmidt, S. W., Tschida, C. M., and Hodge, E. M. How faculty learn to teach online: what administrators need to know. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 19, 1 (2016).


[1] Radcliffe, J. A., Aaron, D. K., Sterle, J., von Keyserlingk, M. A. G., Irlbeck, N., Maquivar, M., Wulster-Radcliffe, M., and Jones, C. Moving online: Roadmap and long-term forecast. Animal Frontiers 10, 3 (2020), 36-45.

[2] Oranburg, S. Distance education in the time of coronavirus: Quick and easy strategies for professors. Duquesne School of Law Research. Paper No. 2020-02. 2020.

[3] Hammond, T., Lightfoot, R., Ray, S., and Thomas, S. Creating and implementing an online course appreciative agreement: Recommendations and insights for updating course materials and social expectations to aid in the transition to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tech report. Texas A&M University. June 6, 2020.

[4] Patton, M. Q. Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA, 1990.

About the Authors

Steven W. Schmidt, Ph.D. is Professor and Coordinator of the Adult Education Program at East Carolina University. His research focuses on online teaching and learning, workplace training and development, and cultural competence. 

Elizabeth M. Hodge, Ph.D. is Professor and Assistant Dean of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives at East Carolina University. Hodge also serves as the lead administrator for the North Carolina New Teacher Support Program, which is a comprehensive, university-based induction program. 

Christina M. Tschida, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Appalachian State University. Her research centers around improving teacher education through critical, equity-centered, anti-racist pedagogies; quality online instruction; and clinical practice reform through the use of co-teaching and coaching.

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