Online Teaching & Learning

This guide was created in partnership with The Centre for Teaching and Learning & Library and Learning Services.

Principle 2

Demonstrate Empathy and Respect: Show interest in students' opinions and concerns; seek to understand their diverse talents, needs, prior knowledge, and approaches to learning; encourage interaction between instructor and students; share your love of the discipline.

The student is infinitely more important than the subject matter.

Noddings, N. (1984). “Caring, a Feminine Approach to Ethics & Moral Education”, p.176, Univ of California Press

I do not need to establish a deep, lasting, time-consuming personal relationship with every student. What I must do is to be totally and non-selectively present to the student-to each student-as she addresses me. The time interval may be brief but the encounter is total.

Noddings, N. (1984). “Caring, a Feminine Approach to Ethics & Moral Education”, p.180, Univ of California Press

Most of us who have found ourselves in the teaching profession, found our way here because teaching was something that we liked doing. We wanted to connect with students- and to engage with them in meaningful ways- but how is that possible in an online environment?

It's challenging enough to engage meaningfully in a face-to-face environment and so it’s a rather 'tall order' to be asked to demonstrate empathy and respect:

  • To show interest in students' concerns
  • Seek to understand their diverse talents, needs, prior knowledge, and approaches to learning
  • Encourage interaction between ourselves and learners
  • Share my love of the discipline

Where do I Start?

One of the very best places to start is with the design- how are your learners going to encounter you for the first time?  How will you introduce yourself? 

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Principles give some helpful considerations when you are thinking about designing your course curriculum to accommodate for many diverse learners.

Link to UDL table found at ( For detailed information, visit their website.Image from

(CAST. (2018). Universal design for learning guidelines version 2.2 [graphic organizer]. Wakefiled, MA: Author.)

When you are thinking about engaging with students, providing multiple means of engagement is important. 

So, if you were thinking about introducing yourself, you could include a welcome message on your course syllabus, you could record a short video  introducing yourself, what you are passionate about, and why you enjoy teaching the class (you could even encourage students to do the same) and post it on SLATE, and you could plan for an introductory activity on the first day of class (whether it is synchronous or asynchronous delivery).


In the Design phase, a course blueprint or map of the entire course is created. In developing the blueprint, consider all the components of the course. It can be helpful to work backwards (remember backwards design) and think about what learners should be able to do by the end of course, how they will demonstrate what they have learned, how they can practice what they are learning and prepare for assessments, as well as what materials and supports they will need to help them successfully complete the course. Learning outcomes are the foundation of the Design phase and all components should be carefully developed and selected based on these. It is also important to consider quality standards as a guide for this phase, as they can inform instructional decisions. It is recommended to check if your institution has adopted any internal or external quality standards for online courses. Examples of external quality standards include, the Quality Matters Higher Education Course Design rubric and the Online Learning Consortium Quality Scorecard.

Before entering the Design phase, there are a number of questions it would be helpful for you to consider:

  • Who are your learners?
  • What prior knowledge do they have?
  • What instruction is needed to help them complete the course?
  • What is the purpose and scope of the course?

The Course Outline and the Topical Outline

The Course Outline and the Topical Outline are used to inform learners of the intent of the course, by offering a description of the content and curriculum expectations, describing the evaluation methods and material requirements, and identifying important policies that learners must be aware of.

In an online environment, these become even more important because it is often one of the first ways that you will be communicating with your learners.

  1. Begin with a welcoming and introduction statement that explains to learners who you are and what they can expect from the course.
  2. An important part of any topical outline is the accommodation or accessibility statement. It ensures learners are aware of the accommodations available to them and how to request support (i.e. how can they connect with you).
  3. Clearly state what is expected of your learners and hold each of them to the same standards. These may be the rules of conduct within the institution but can also be added to and evolve  from discussions over the course of the semester.
  4. By developing clear learning outcomes for the course, activities and assessment strategies can directly aligned to measure learner progress. In sharing the learning outcomes, learners become aware of what is expected of them and it will help them to more clearly understand the direction of the course.

Designing Assessments

Assessments document and measure an individual learner's progress towards the learning outcomes of the course. Assessment methods may vary and include, but are not limited to, written tests or reports, presentations, activities, discussions, and exams.

When you are designing assessments:

  1. Constructively align learning outcomes with assessments: Clearly developed learning outcomes will shape the focus of your assessments. Constructing assessments that are directly aligned with the course learning outcomes allows you to evaluate your learners' progress towards the learning outcomes and indicates to learners exactly what is expected of them.
  2. Consider if a time limit is necessary: Having a time limit imposed on learners in a test environment can invoke anxiety and increase the levels of stress associated with the assessment. When you are planning assessments, it is important to determine if time restrictions are necessary. Are you looking to assess how quickly they can complete a task, or if they can complete it correctly?  If time isn't a key factor in the assessment, consider removing time limits or providing sufficient time for all learners (eliminating the need for some learners to request special accommodations). In an online environment, keep in mind that learners will have different levels of connectivity to the online environment, individual differences in processing and performance times or may be using assistive technologies to interact with the assessment content.
  3. Consider using frequent/shorter assignments (assessments): When you are planning your assessments, considering breaking down larger assignments into smaller sections or creating smaller assignments. Courses with few high value assignments can be intimidating. Learners with time constraints, executive functioning challenges, or who may underperform in one assessment area, may struggle to successfully complete assignments and the course. Assessing learners more frequently helps them stay on top of coursework, to meet timelines and assignment dates, reduces the anxiety surrounding large assessments, and provides a status update on the learner's progress towards the learning outcomes. This is particular helpful in an online environment when assessment in one way that the instructor can interact with and/or give feedback to the learners.

The next stage in this process is Development.

The Development or production phase is informed by the course outline developed in the Design phase. Instructional materials and resources, such as instructor notes, activities, assessments, and media are created, along with the online learning environment in which they will be presented. It is important to design and assess materials to ensure that they meet accessibility standards (i.e., Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA); Accessibility Rules for Educational Institutions (Ontario); Web Content Accessibility Guidelines - WCAG 2.0), as well as any quality standards (e.g., Quality Matters Higher Education Course Design rubric, Online Learning Consortium Quality Scorecard, etc.). Once the course is posted to the online learning environment, a quality assurance check is advised to ensure that components are organized appropriately, there are no errors in presentation, and technical elements are functioning.


Consider the following when developing Assessments:

  1. Give clear directions: Clearly articulated directions provide a guiding framework that enables learners to successfully meet the expectations of an assessment. Clear directions surrounding an assessment reduce confusion and lessen stress, allowing learners to move more productively towards the presented outcomes.
  2. Offer choices: By allowing learners to present their opinions, as well as their understanding and knowledge in a manner of their own choosing, instructors can better assess a learner's progress within a course. However, depending on the outcomes learners need to achieve, not all assessments offer flexibility of choice. However, offering choice where possible allows learners to engage in the course in a way that suits their learning style and lets them present what they know to the best of their abilities. Consider whether your assessments can offer flexibility and choice in medium (e.g., written expression, video/audio recording, and graphics), topic, etc.
  3. Provide rubrics: Rubrics clearly outline how a project or an assignment will be assessed by communicating the expectations surrounding each component and describing different levels of quality. With a rubric, instructors can ensure the assignment is aligned with course learning outcomes and create a valuable grading tool, ensuring consistency and structured feedback. For learners, rubrics lead to success, clarifying performance expectations and facilitating self-assessment according to the various criteria aligned to the assessment's learning outcomes. Note: If your rubric is in table format, ensure the table is offered in an accessible format.
  4. Allow for ongoing revisions or draft submissions: Breaking down large assignments into smaller sections helps motivate learners and keeps them engaged and working in the online environment. By allowing learners to tackle smaller sections, the task is less daunting and more manageable. Receiving peer-to-peer feedback provides monitored progress towards to the assignment's goal and also promotes interactions with both peers and the instructor (The Virtual Classroom and video assignments are great tools to use, and they are integrated into SLATE!).

Learning activities are tasks that engage the learner in the learning process, having them utilize or research appropriate information to build a foundation of knowledge or develop a skill set pertinent to the course learning outcomes. Consider the following when developing Learning Activities:

  1. Incorporate discussion: Peer engagement in the face-to-face classroom is an important part of developing and creating confidence. Learners share learning and studying approaches, discuss and clarify assessments, develop communication skills, and diversify their perspectives. In the online environment, virtual discussions can foster similar engagement. Both synchronous and asynchronous discussions can be conducted online, however, consider how each learner is able to use and engage with the mode you select. Asynchronous discussions allow for multiple modes of submissions. They give learners the opportunity to respond in a time that suits their schedules and an opportunity to digest and reflect before responding. Synchronous discussion allows instructors to address questions immediately, however, it may not be available to all learners depending on their availability, the platform hosting the discussion, and the availability of accessible features, like captions.

Making space for many voices in online discussions

When you are thinking about setting up an discussion activity, consider the following tips for respecting diversity. A goal of equitable facilitation of online discussions is the promotion of a safety net and the provision of opportunities to freely express one’s ideas, feelings, and experiences in an online discussion forum. The hope is that this will ensure respect for diversity and other important issues as well as promote reflection and better understanding. (Castano Bishop, 2008): Based on Dr. Joyce Kaser’s publication, “Equity in On-line Professional Development: A Guide to E-learning That Works for Everyone” (2004), consider the following suggestions for facilitating issues of equity when setting up discussion forums in online courses.

  • Monitor the course to make sure that the equity content is accurate and comprehensive. The facilitator is the individual who must be aware of possible stereotypes and biases embedded in the course and who is able to examine and analyze these issues in light of what is being discussed in the course and the forum.
  • Establish early an environment that enables participants to be safe and secure. This could come from the type of learning the group is participating in as well as the facilitator’s style of engagement. The facilitator could provide the ground rules, including the right to ask questions and to respond in ways that are respectful of one another. The facilitator could also take the discussion to a deeper level or move to the exploration of issues with equity implications
  • Intervene, as necessary, to keep the discussion on track. When participants become disrespectful to each other, demonstrate rude behavior (flaming), or post inaccurate information, the facilitator needs to intervene as quickly as possible. While a telephone call could be an effective course of action, much of the conflict resolution should be done online. Modeling good and effective behavior that fosters equitable interaction is critical.
  • Monitor the level of trust that exists. The facilitator is the person who promotes the building of trust among participants. At the same time, the facilitator makes sure that any sensitive issue that becomes a point of discussion and exploration within the course is appropriate for the level of trust within the group. When several of the participants post messages and no one dominates the discussion in any significant way, it is possible that participants trust one another to express what’s on their minds.
  • Note your own hesitancy about exploring any aspect of equity. The facilitator should ask him/herself what his/her personal biases or fears might be that may interfere with effective facilitation. These issues may result in the facilitator’s avoidance of certain salient topics or discomfort when participants raise points related to those topics. In such an instance, the facilitator could raise his/her reservations to the group, making this a learning opportunity for everyone.
  1. Encourage use of reflections, journals and blogs: Completing a journal entry, blog, or weekly reflection helps keep learners engaged with the content and on track in the course. Weekly reflections allow learners to further explore their learning, investigate how it may be applicable to their lives, and reflect upon any difficulties they may have in a topic or section. As well, the entries, if available to the instructor, can provide insight into learners' progress through the course and be a connection point for discussion between instructor and learner.
  2. Offer opportunities for self-assessments and peer assessments: Self-assessments encourage learners to look critically at their work and to assess their effort for completeness and quality. Peer-assessments expose the learner to the work of others, encouraging the development of a critical eye, deepening their knowledge on a topic and diversifying perspectives. By using the rubrics set by the instructor, the class becomes familiarized with the expectations and key considerations for a project and the rubric feedback is useful for future revisions.
  3. Consider using pre-tests: Building pre-tests into the online environment can support learning by allowing learners to test their understanding without penalty. Feedback from this form of support directs them to areas of weakness that may need further review and can indicate useful support resources.

Additional resources such as audio, video, tables, graphics, and readings, are often an integral part of a course. The resources chosen should be carefully selected in support of the content, as well as be accessible and usable by the wide variety of learners in the online environment. Consider the following when you are thinking about the Materials for your course:

  1. Supply materials in multiple modalities: Supplying materials in multiple modalities provides access to all learners at all times. This can include video and audio files, accompanied by transcripts, a graphic image with descriptive text, or a written concept explained through a diagram or concept map. By creating materials, or selecting resources, that can be offered in multiple forms, learners can select the mode that best suits their learning needs at the time.
  2. Select accessible resources: When selecting and posting online resources, ensure that they are accessible to everyone. All videos should include captions or have transcripts available, and audio files should also have a transcript. When posting assessment files, supporting documents, readings, or other resources, ensure the file is in an accessible format. If you require a textbook for the course, see if an accessible version can be made available, or if an accessible electronic version already exists. (See: Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities (AODA); Accessibility Rules for Educational Institutions (Ontario); Web Content Accessibility Guidelines - WCAG 2.0).
  3. Choose resources relevant to content, activities and assessments: Any materials selected for the course should be relevant and support the learning outcomes, content, activities, and assessments of the course. The resources should provide the learner with opportunities to link concepts, establish new concepts and strategies, and solidify understanding.

Layout, structure, and sequence are important design factors to consider when building an online course as they can impact the accessibility, usability, and comprehensiveness of content by learners. Layout is the visual representation of materials. Course content that is organized and makes use of headings and subheadings is important to helping learners to engage with and understand the information being communicated. Content organized in this fashion creates scannable blocks of content to help readers mentally group similar topics. You should consider such elements as, whitespace, placement of graphics and media, and font size and colour. Structure refers to the conceptual organization of materials. For instance, a consistent overarching course structure that includes modules or units allows for the organization of key topics in the course. These topics can then be tied to the weeks of the course's duration and provide learners with areas of focus. Modules should also be structured similarly to support a pattern of learning and reinforce expectations of the course. Sequencing is the order the in which materials are presented. Appropriate sequencing allows for smooth transitions between topics and facilitates scaffolding of content to allow students to develop foundational knowledge and continually develop their learning to take on more challenging tasks. When you are thinking about layout, structure and sequence, keep the following elements in mind:

  1. Ensure consistency of navigation and layout: Using a consistent navigational structure in an online learning environment allows learners to become familiarized with an intuitive layout and creates a comfortable setting where they can easily find the resources they require.
  2. 'Chunk' content: Breaking content into meaningful sections helps learners to process the presented information and build their understanding. When creating course pages consider how to effectively 'chunk' content into sections using headings, subheadings, lists, tables, and white space.
  3. Ease of use: A well-thought out and well-designed layout will be usable by everyone, taking into account the diversity of today's learners. Consider the degree of scrolling and clicking required to access information; is the amount appropriate for the amount of information learners are receiving? Learners with limited motion may find navigating and clicking a mouse difficult. Does the design allow for navigation with the keyboard? Do the course pages have appropriate headings and tags to allow easy reading with a screen reader?
  4. Use outlines, checkpoints and summaries: Providing an outline at the beginning of each unit and a summary of key concepts at the end, supports learners in structuring their learning for the unit. Placing understanding and comprehension checks in regular intervals in the course allows learners to self-monitor their progress towards the learning outcomes as well as identify areas of weakness. Concluding units, activities, videos, and other course elements with a summary of key points can help relate these key concepts to theories, practices and the broader learning outcomes.
  5. Make key points stand out: Communicating the pertinent information from a unit, section, or instructional resource, helps learners identify essential information and relate key concepts to the learning outcomes of the course. By highlighting key features and ideas learners can focus their efforts on mastering information that is critical to their success.
  6. Define new terms and acronyms and avoid jargon: Developing an online course environment that considers the diversity of potential learners means designing for various levels of background knowledge on a topic and a range of language and vocabulary skills. Defining terms that may be new and unfamiliar, avoiding or explaining jargon specific to an industry or subject, and defining acronyms provides clarity and support to learners who otherwise may struggle to comprehend the unfamiliar.


So now, you've designed and developed a course that takes into account a diversity of learners, what are some of the strategies you can use to create meaningful engagement with learners once the course has begun?


This next section discusses evidence-based practices in the Facilitation of Online Courses:

Communication between the instructor and learners, both at a course and individual level, is essential in an online course to establish presence and to develop a sense of community. The instructor's role is to convey information and news about the course schedule, assignments and content and provide encouragement and feedback to learners. There are a number of ways that you can do this:

  1. Establish a connection with learners: Learners at a distance face unique challenges, including their geographic location and studying independently. Feelings of detachment, loneliness, and a lack of engagement are key factors contributing to underperformance and dropping out. To some degree this can be addressed through group work and discussions, but establishing a connection between the learner and instructor is important as well, especially since the online learner and instructor are not likely to meet in person.
    Start with a welcoming message posted in the newsfeed of the learning management system, but also connect on an individual level. In courses with smaller numbers, write an individualized email, in larger courses, post in the discussion board.
    Provide opportunities for students to introduce themselves to you as well. This can be done in a number of ways:
    • Send out a survey to students before the course begins asking them a few questions about themselves, their previous experiences and what they want to learn (you can even be playful with your questions). This is an effective, low risk way to engage the students in an online learning environment. There are many free online tools that enable you to create quizzes: PollEverywhere, Google Forms, Survey Monkey (and there is even a survey tool in SLATE!)
    • Provide an opportunity for students to introduce themselves through an introductory activity
  2. Be available and approachable: To help build your connection with the learners in your course, be available and encourage them to ask questions. Let learners know when and how they can connect with you, and how quickly they can expect a response. Be open to connecting through multiple methods. This interaction benefits individual learners by allowing them to discuss and clarify content, assignments, and their individual progress. The instructor receives insight about how the course is progressing for individuals and the class as a whole, and has an opportunity to identify difficult areas or topics that may require more attention.
  3. Be active in discussions: Discussions, both asynchronous and synchronous, are useful for engaging the learner in the course content and topics. When facilitating a discussion, model good response practices; any postings or contributions should be an example for learners to follow. Promote inclusive and considerate practices. For example, if posting a video or audio response, include a transcript, or if posting resources, include a selection of alternative ways to access the content.
  4. Post regular class updates: Learning management systems typically have a communication platform on the course home page. Use this feature to communicate regularly with the entire class. Post a welcome message, prompt learners to begin readings or assignments, and remind learners about important dates or changes. This small interaction can help learners who have difficulties planning, to schedule their time appropriately. These types of regular posting can also keep learners engaged with the course and be a helpful reminder of course activities.
  5. Be consistent with naming conventions and use inclusive language: When communicating with learners, be consistent in your use of language. Ensure you are using the terminology and naming structures established in the learning management system, use topics and terms that have been defined in the course, and define any new terms you may use. Avoid the use of jargon that the learner may not fully comprehend.
    Learners bring a diverse range of experiences, cultures, beliefs, and perspectives to the learning environment. Consider an individual's uniqueness and be thoughtful and sensitive when selecting resources, designing content and assignments, and communicating with learners.

Feedback is the contact between the instructor and a learner in relation to the progress towards the learning outcomes, reflections on assignments and activity performance, and is intended to be supportive of progress and improvement. Consider the following when giving feedback:

  1. Offer constructive feedback: Everyone makes mistakes; use your feedback to guide your learner's progress. Offering insightful comments or thought provoking questions can help reframe a learner's thought process and help them navigate to a successful completion. Vague, unclear or highly critical comments can negatively affect the learning. Instead, use constructive criticism and helpful feedback to avoid creating confusion, discouragement, and disengagement.
  2. Provide feedback frequently and in a timely manner: Connect often with your learners and give frequent feedback on assignments, activities, and discussions. This gives them an update on their progress within the course and can help them build their learning strategy and work towards the learning outcomes.
    Both peer and instructor feedback can be beneficial in correcting misconceptions, clarifying tasks and assignments, and building knowledge, but in order to be useful it must be provided in a timely manner. Online environments can also provide automated feedback so that users can instantaneously assess their performance and understanding.


Content from Design, Development and Facilitation adapted from Universal Design - Best Practices for Online Learning, OpenEd, Open Learning and Educational Support, University of Guelph, Retrieved from