10 Guidelines for Successful Online Teaching at Michigan State University

  • Don't Panic

    Courses are like icebergs, much of the work does not show. You have already selected meaningful content, developed thoughtful assignments, and created an intellectual framework for your course.  

    For most courses, students spend most of the course time outside of class, doing readings, research, assignments, and writings. This is all to say, when moving online, you really only need to worry about 2 key areas:

    • How will I deliver the 3 or 4 hours (depending on number of credits) of normal face2face class time online?

    • What do I need to do differently to address affordances of online teaching?

    Answers to these two questions can be found in the following 9 guidelines.  It is also helpful to review the MSU checklist for online teaching (Word).  See the following videos to guide you in moving your course online.

  • Rethink Accessibility

    The best thing about moving a course online is that it gives me a chance to rethink what it is I really do during a course and if what I do is well-designed for all students to be maximally accessible through Universal Design. Universal Design is a way of approaching building things – like curb cuts  and transcripts – that make physical and digital spaces accessible from their inception. With the barriers between face-to-face and online instruction already breaking down – much of our course content and research is already delivered or managed online – so many of these principles will already be familiar to you.

    There is no magical difference for online courses — what makes for a great online course is the same thing that makes for a great face2face course:  meaningful content, thoughtful assignments, purposeful engagement, and considerate mentoring. 

    When considering what elements you will use in your course, keep in mind that you may have enrolled students with sight, hearing, mobility, or other disabilities. Making your courses – whether in person or online – accessible from the beginning will make your course run more smoothly for everyone. 

    To learn more about what to consider when developing an online course, start with MSU’s  resources for online for accessibility at Web Accessibility (  One of the best resources is put out by the University of Minnesota (

    Michigan State University is committed to providing equal opportunity for participation in all programs, services and activities. Requests for accommodations by persons with disabilities may be made by contacting the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities at 517-884-RCPD or on the web at Once your eligibility for an accommodation has been determined, you will be issued a verified individual services accommodation (“VISA”) form. Please present this form to me at the start of the term and/or two weeks prior to the accommodation date (test, project, etc). Requests received after this date will be honored whenever possible.

  • Enhance Communication and Create Presence

    Research shows that good communication and establishing a positive presence (particularly in the first two weeks of a course) are essential for the success of an online course.  We would argue that these things also make for good face2face courses.  The problem is, in the online world, it is often easy to allow communication to lapse and your presence to be absent from the course.  In short, think more about both as you move online.

    Tips:  Include your image on D2L; begin your videos with you talking before moving to the PowerPoint; send out regular emails of encouragement, offer tips and tricks for successfully navigating the course – all of these strategies can enhance communications.

    It’s not necessary to create slick educational videos or be filmed standing at the lectern: the “sage on the stage.” In fact, students often prefer the direct engagement of talking one-on-one with their professors, whether that is a reality (via synchronous learning) or appearance (via asynchronous learning).  

    The strongest aspect of D2L is communication — it has a rich suite of tools including chat, email, discussion forums, and announcements as well groups for collaboration and these features are not difficult to learn. Check out the video section for tutorials on many of the aspects of D2L. Also see the video on using mail merge to help with managing online communication.

  • Be Repetitive
    In our face to face course we often find we need to repeat things at least three times for students to remember them.  For example, we typically make announcements before class and at the end of class; we stop lectures to explain instructions better; we answer repetitive student questions during class and in the hall – this is all to say we repeat a lot in person.  We need to do the same thing online.  It is good to put the same information in different places on your course site. 
  • Rethink Time Tyranny

    When we teach face-to-face, we are often locked into the assigned time for our class period.  Lectures and discussions are all designed around an assigned time.  Online courses offer you the chance to rethink time management.  We know that 20 to 30-minute chunks are better for the delivery of video, and we can leave discussion forums open for a day (giving students time to think through their questions and responses). 

    See sample of using mini lectures on Preferential Trading Arrangements:

  • Be Modular
    All the above guidelines suggest that one of the best ways to organize your course is in a series of modules.  Self-contained but interlinked modules not only make it easier for your students to follow an online course, but they can make it easier for you to deliver. An added benefit of modular design in these uncertain times is if a student is unable to engage one module’s material due to quarantine or personal/family health issue, it will not be detrimental to their overall performance. Moreover, you as the instructor may have ask a colleague to take over a module for you in case you encounter quarantine or personal/family health issues. See the following video on course modules.
  • Think Compassion

    This Fall is going to be difficult for all of us, but most importantly for your students.  Our students could be facing a series of health, social, economic, emotional, and learning challenges amidst the global pandemic and economic crises.  As teachers we know that passion and compassion are a constant in a good face-to-face course but translating those qualities to an online course can be challenging and requires us to be more direct – we need to think about:

    • The difficulty students can have navigating a course

    • The level of access and technology students bring to the course

    • The prior knowledge student has with technology

    Of course, these all add up to the fact that we need to be much more explicit in the online space about our learning goals and learning outcomes, or modes of course delivery, and the technologies we choose.  Moreover, you may want to direct students to the following list of resources for students.

    To create a good, compassionate online course, you need to be very overt and direct about your learning goals and learning outcomes; you need to have clear instructions about how your course will be conducted online; and finally, you need to define learning goals and learning outcomes.

  • Define Goals & Outcomes (missing)

    One of the most difficult parts of moving your teaching online is that one loses all the interstices of teaching – all the moments when you break the fourth wall of the course and explain to students why you are doing things the way you are doing things (when class starts, or ends, in the hallway, when you notice a general sense of struggle or restlessness – all the moments of reading the class that have become second nature). 

    Thus it becomes very important in online teaching to both be repetitive and to define clearly the goals and outcomes of the course.  We have collected many resources here to help you to do so, but you may want to start with the Step by Step Guide (Word) for setting up an online course.  As well as look to the sample syllabi. 

  • Decide on Mode

    Asynchronous Learning

    Asynchronous learning allows learners to train individually, enabling them to complete courses at a time, place and pace that suits them.


    Synchronous Learning

    Synchronous Learning is instructor-led learning in a virtual classroom setting. During this kind of event, learners log on at the same time and an instructor guides the class.


    Hybrid Learning

    Combination of Asynchronous and Synchronous learning modes.

  • Choose the Technology
    Choose the technologies that work best for you, your students, and your course (simple is often best). Often you will get much advice about new tools and technologies for teaching online; however, we recommend that when starting out it is best to use what students know and what the university best supports (i.e., D2L and MediaSpace).

Additional Resources