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C2C Digital Magazine (Spring / Summer 2018)

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Cover, page 10 of 23


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Common Challenges in Teaching Online

By Laura Widenor, Quality Coordinator, Global Campus, Kansas State University 

As online educators and administrators, we often deal with colleagues’ misconceptions about online teaching and education. Faculty are still unsure of taking on this new adventure for a number of reasons and rely on assumptions or myths regarding online education. For example, some faculty members feel online courses are lower quality and not as effective (Ubell, 2016), when in fact, there have been numerous studies that find online learning can produce equivalent and even superior outcomes to face-to-face courses (Bernard, et al., 2004; Somenarain, et al., 2010; Wingo, et al., 2017; Zhao, et al., 2005 to name a few). It is important to have a true sense of the challenges in teaching online as we move forward so that we can find strong solutions and set faculty up for success.

Online programs are growing and becoming a vital tool for student success and timely degree completion. Recent IPEDS data shows that 31% of all students are enrolled in at least one online course (Ginder, Kelly-Reid, & Mann, 2017). As student participation increases, it is likely that a faculty member will be asked, and in some instances required, to teach online or in a hybrid format (Ubell, 2016). Rather than debating about the value of online instruction versus face to face instruction, it may be more important to discuss what strategies can be implemented to better prepare faculty to be successful in the online environment. 

Studies, surveys and articles abound about the challenges and solutions for online learning. These are some of the concerns faculty share during developing and teaching an online course:

  • How much time it will take
  • How to create faculty presence
  • How to facilitate an online community
  • How to measure learning outcomes
  • How to make the course accessible
  • How to know if it works
  • How to get support

Each of these areas can be addressed with some of the following approaches in an online course.

Time Commitment

Getting started in the development of an online course can be tough. If the course is already taught in-person, it can still be challenging to decide how to convert the activities into an effective online format. A good practice is to start at least eight to sixteen weeks before offering the course – it can take seventy to one hundred hours to develop a brand new online course. Freeman (2015) found that 69 percent of the faculty said it took more time to teach an online course over a face-to-face course the first time, but that time commitment variance dropped to only eighteen percent by the third time they taught the same course. Although that may sound overwhelming, here are some steps to help prepare for smoother course implementation.

Figure 1: Time Spent on Online Course Development (Freeman 2015) 

Lay out the course completely to see how all assignments fit into the course outline. Many faculty members and instructional designers will use a Backward Design model ( to align their desired outcomes with the assignments (Kurt, 2017). If  this step is accomplished through the in-person course,  each assignment can be reviewed to determine how it needs to be adapted to the online course environment. The more organized the course is, the easier the implementation will be.

Think through course content and organization. If the plan is to record lectures, capture the essence of the in-person presentation and keep the recordings short. Remember that a 50 minute lecture isn’t really 50 minutes long – it is also filled with administrative tasks like turning in or explaining assignments, checking for understanding with group discussions, quizzing, and question and answer sessions – all of these take place in other areas of an online course. Consider breaking the lectures up by topics, instead of dates, to help organize the course more efficiently.  Explain to students how the course will be organized, so that you can avoid confusion later (Kumar & Skrocki, 2016).  

Make a clear plan for communication. The more detailed the syllabus, the more easy it is to  communicate with students. There are many additional areas of an online syllabus that help address questions students commonly have (Ko & Rossen, 2017). Think of it as the first day of class where the instructor sits with the students and explains how everything will run that semester. Also, creating a single location for questions can help avoid having to answer multiple times in individual emails. A well-organized course with consistent communication will help students and faculty stay on track.

It is okay to set limits. While an online student may be doing their homework at 11 pm, it doesn’t mean the faculty member has to be online 24/7 to help them. Set realistic expectations for office hours and communication so that students know when you will be available. It is important to consider having some flexibility in the evenings, but it isn’t required.  And while it is a good idea to set limits, make sure you are available to the students in a timely manner (Ragan, 2009).  

Faculty Presence

It is important to make it clear to students how and when the instructor will be available to them (Infande, 2013).  Here are some best practices for creating presence in the online classroom.

  • Have office hours through Zoom/Skype, etc. 
  • Post a picture and an introduction so students get to know the instructor. 
  • It is important to communicate with students frequently, but these communications can be concise (Morrison, 2012). 
  • Post weekly announcements that summarize the previous week and help students prepare for the next week. 
  • Establish guidelines that make it clear available times and methods of providing feedback on assignments. Reuse customized feedback from semester to semester, but also adapt it for a personal touch (Lehmann & Chamberlin, 2015).  
  • Set expectations for students to be responsible for their own learning, too – be the guide rather than the expert in an online environment if the course is well structured. 
Building an Online Community

Faculty presence also ties into helping students build a community between each other as learners – there are times when faculty need to get out of the way. Students can do a wonderful job of teaching each other too. The key is to be crystal clear about expectations for their participation in the community. Spell out expectations and then repeat them, especially for the first few weeks. Use rubrics and reminders to help them stay on track, but also ask engaging questions that challenge them to think about how they will apply their learning to their life. It’s okay to relax the boundaries a bit to get to know the students and to help them get to know each other. That being said, it’s still important to have guidelines such as this netiquette statement to prevent inappropriate online communication.

Figure 2:  Online Communities 

(This public domain image of "network friends" was released with a Creative Commons 0.0 license on Pixabay.)

Academic Performance

Several studies have found that there is no significant statistical difference between the outcomes of an well-built online course and a face-to-face course (Bernard, et al., 2004; Somenarain, et al., 2010; Zhao, et al., 2005). Strong instructor presence and community interaction are a key to stronger outcomes. The better the community, the stronger the faculty presence, and the more organized the course, the more likely the student will absorb and retain the learning provided in the course (Stuart & Streamer Veneruso, 2012). Also, help students succeed in the online environment by providing a variety of ways for them to show their learning beyond the standard quiz/exam. Challenge them to apply their learning to real world scenarios and allow flexibility in how they demonstrate learning. It is also important to set them up for success by giving them a strong structure, encouraging them to ask for help, and giving them opportunities to reflect on their learning and development (Wandler & Imbriale, 2017).


Setting students up for success is related to concepts of Universal Design – creating a structure in which all students can succeed. Make sure to build the course with accessibility in mind right from the beginning by providing things like closed-captioning and properly accessible documents. Look for materials that are already properly formatted. Make sure students know all of the resources that are available to them, from the access center to tutoring and beyond. If there is uncertainty as to how these services are provided, check with the appropriate center for assistance. 

Figure 3:  Online Accessibility 

(The word cloud illustration is by Jill Wright, who released this "accessibility cloud" image via Flickr with a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.)  


What strategies work best to determine if course design is successful? Ask! Be open and honest with students and ask for their feedback. Do a mid-course survey to allow students to give feedback anonymously. Check the analytics from the course to see where students spend the most time to see if the material is confusing and could be improved. Try to avoid course development while teaching, but it is okay to make improvements as you go based on student feedback.


It’s also great to ask the resources on campus to help determine if everything has been addressed  to create a strong course that is ready for students. Consider asking a trusted colleague who also teaches online to review the course. A course won’t be perfect the first time, and that is okay; it probably won’t ever be perfect, and that’s okay, too! During her presentation at OLC Innovate, Carolyn Speers from Wichita State University, quoted Voltaire – “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Being a perfectionist can sometimes prevent achieving wonderful things.  It can take time to get comfortable with online teaching; however, the 2017 Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology (Jaschik & Lederman, 2017) found that 71 percent of faculty members, that have taught online, feel that it has helped them improve their teaching across the board. Instructors will also find that the time spent on course development helps them manage their time and feel confident that they have created a strong learning environment. Even reluctant faculty can find that they adapt to, and even enjoy online teaching (Wingo, et al., 2017).  


Bernard R., Abrami P., Lou Y., Borokhovski E., Wade A., Wozney L., et al. (2004). How does distance education compare to classroom instruction? A meta-analysis of the empirical literature. Review of Educational Research, 74, 379–439.

Freeman, L. A. (2015). Instructor time requirements to develop and teach online courses. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 18(1). Retrieved December 05, 2017, from 

Ginder, S.A., Kelly-Reid, J.E., and Mann, F.B. (2017). Enrollment and Employees in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2016; and Financial Statistics and Academic Libraries, Fiscal Year 2016: First Look (Provisional Data) (NCES 2018- 002). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved June 21, 2018 from

Infande, A. (2013, July). A Dozen Strategies for Improving Online Student Retention. Retrieved December 06, 2017, from 

Jaschik, S., & Lederman, D. (2017). 2017 Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology: A study by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup(Rep.). Washington, DC: Gallup.

Ko, S., & Rossen, S. (2017). Chapter 5 - Creating an Effective Online Syllabus. In Teaching Online: A Practical Guide (4th ed., pp. 111-136). New York, NY: Routledge. Retrieved December 5, 2017, from  

Kumar, P., & Skrocki, M. (2016, May 6). Ensuring Student Success in Online Courses. Retrieved December 06, 2017, from 

Kurt, S. (2017, October 16). Backward Design and Backward Course Design - Educational Technology. Retrieved June 11, 2018, from

Lederman, D., & McKenzie, L. (2017, October). Faculty Buy-in Builds, Bit by Bit: Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology. Retrieved December 08, 2017, from 

Lehmann, K., & Chamberlin, L. (2015, November). Time Management Strategies for Online Instructors. Retrieved December 05, 2017, from 

Morrison, D. (2012). Got Time? A Time Management Strategy for Online Instructors. Retrieved December 05, 2017, from 

Ragan, L. (2009, June). 10 Principles of Effective Online Teaching: Best Practices in Distance Education. Retrieved December 06, 2017, from 

Somenarain, L., Akkaraju, S., & Gharbaran, R. (2010, June). Student Perceptions and Learning Outcomes in Asynchronous and Synchronous Online Learning Environments in a Biology Course. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching,6(2). Retrieved December 5, 2017, from 

Stuart Peery, T., & Streamer Veneruso, S. (2012, March). Managing Instructor Presence and Workload, Boosting Student Engagement. Retrieved December 05, 2017, from 

Ubell, R. (2016, December 13). Advice for faculty members about overcoming resistance to teaching online (essay) | Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved June 11, 2018, from 

Wandler, J., & Imbriale, W. (2017). Promoting undergraduate student self-regulation in online learning environments. Online Learning 21:2. DOI: 10.24059/olj.v21i2.881 

Wingo, N. P., Ivankova, N. V., & Moss, J. A. (2017) Faculty perceptions about teaching online: exploring the literature using the technology acceptance model as an organizing framework, Online Learning 21(1), 15-35. DOI: 10.10.24059/olj.v21i1.761 

Zhao, Y., Lei, J., Yan, B., Lai, C., & Tan, H. S. (2005). What makes the difference? A practical analysis of research on the effectiveness of distance education. Teachers College Record, 107(8), 1836-1884. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9620.2005.00544.x

About the Author 

Laura Widenor serves as the Quality Coordinator for Kansas State University Global Campus. Her primary responsibilities include assisting faculty in the design of online coursework, course reviews, and providing resources for best practices in online teaching. Laura served as the Faculty Services Coordinator for K-State Global Campus for 4 years. Prior to joining the K-State Global Campus, Laura acquired several years teaching experience in Idaho and held a variety of administrative positions in student life.

Laura holds a Master’s degree in Elementary Education, which she received through a hybrid online and on-campus program from University of Phoenix, Boise. She holds two certificates from the Online Learning Consortium in online teaching and instructional design. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Psychology from the University of California, Davis. 

She may be reached at  
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