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Compiling the Ultimate Online Teaching Toolkit

What are the "must-haves" for today's online teacher? I recently reviewed several articles with suggestions from seasoned online instructors as well as formal lists of competencies developed by schools and other groups. My goal was to create a summarized list of skills and characteristics that could serve as action items for instructors getting started with online courses. As you review my version below, think about how you exhibit these elements in your courses and what additions you might make.

Competency Areas

There are many existing descriptions of online teaching competencies available. While most cover similar territory, some are much more detailed than others, providing basic and advanced designations and close to 100 specific skills related to successful online teaching. The list below is a compilation of the items provided in three efforts to define online teaching competencies: "Master Online Teaching Competencies" by Virgil Varvel of the Illinois Online Network, Competencies for Online Teaching Success (COTS) by Larry Ragan with Penn State's World Campus, and "Effective Online Instructional Competencies as Perceived by Online University Faculty and Students" by Jeffrey Bailie from Kaplan University.


  • Manage online course requirements (e.g. class roster, reporting, grades)
  • Manage workload requirements (e.g. time management, deadlines, meetings and committees)
  • Know institutional and program policies and procedures for course administration
  • Refer students to appropriate support services (e.g. advising, counseling, library, disability, writing center)
  • Understand and follow ethical and legal standards
  • Understand and follow copyright laws, policies, and guidelines
  • Understand privacy issues and comply with requirements (e.g. FERPA)

Attitude and Personal Characteristics

  • Maintain an open-minded approach
  • Develop confidence
  • Mentor students and new instructors
  • Seek out opportunities to enhance your teaching skill set and stay current in your discipline and the content you are teaching
  • Maintain a commitment to teaching and providing quality education services

Technology Skills

  • Understand the school's Learning Management System
  • Know where to find assistance with technology
  • Know how to troubleshoot both hardware and software for your use and your students' use
  • Assess existing and emerging technologies for effectiveness in the learning environment

Instructional Design

  • Maintain use of established learning objectives
  • Design, develop, and evaluate various learning materials (e.g. discussion questions, presentations)
  • Understand appropriate and effective use of multiple instructional strategies


  • State learning objectives, clarify student expectations, and disseminate policies
  • Provide helpful feedback
  • Communicate effectively with multiple techniques and tools, both asynchronously and synchronously
  • Help students link their prior knowledge and experiences to content and learning objectives in your course
  • Serve as a subject matter expert

Learning Assessment

  • Understand the use of multiple assessment methods.
  • Create and map appropriate assignments to learning objectives
  • Assess student work, both formal and informal efforts, individually and in groups
  • Monitor individual student progress toward learning objectives
  • Make use of appropriate grading rubrics or other scoring guides

Community Building

  • Encourage all students to actively participate in the learning process
  • Create a safe environment for all students to participate and exchange ideas
  • Be aware of students' cultural diversity
  • Know techniques for enhancing student motivation, interaction, and engagement online
  • Manage any emerging student conflict within the course

Toolkit Fundamentals from the Pros

Fortunately, many of you write about your online teaching experiences and share your favorite resources, "how-tos," and lessons learned. Here are just a few that should be on your list, if they aren't already:

  • Develop Your Online Presence: Being present in the course site is just one of the best practice recommendations from experienced instructor and eLearning author Judith Boettcher. Online courses require a different kind of effort for connecting with students. Boettcher suggests being active in the course site multiple times per week, establishing clear expectations for students about your availability, and scheduling synchronous virtual office hours via online course room or phone to answer student questions. These are just a few of the techniques that can help you establish your online presence in a course and foster a learning community.
  • Evaluate Your Performance: Standard end-of-term evaluations can be generic in nature and the feedback collected from students can be delayed in reaching instructors. Consider adding your own evaluation when and where possible to gather the information you need to move your course and your skills forward. Traci Gardner, education author and editor, suggests 10 new course evaluation questions including: "What is the best advice you could give to students who take this course from me in the future?" And "What will you keep after this course is finished, and why? Be honest."
  • Be Technology Savvy: Inside Higher Ed recommends this as a critical part of landing an online teaching job. It's just as critical to continue learning and experimenting with new technologies, especially those being used in education, as your online teaching career advances. Hardware and software are constantly changing, creating new learning curves and opportunities for innovation.

Additional Resources

  • Check with your professional organizations for competencies that have been identified for teaching in your field and potentially aligned with content standards.
  • Check with the school(s) where you teach! There may be a list of skills and characteristics established by your program or institution that will be used to evaluate your performance and the courses in general.

Context, Content, and Competencies

Just as traditional classroom teachers and professors spend years practicing their profession and developing related skills and expertise, online instructors can also expect to learn and improve with practice over time. It's important to keep in mind that while a general list of competencies may apply to a wide range of situations, each institution, program, and course will have a somewhat unique combination of variables at work. The context of the learning environment, the learners themselves, the subject matter, and your role(s) in the course will dictate various levels of competency.

My list is far from inclusive at this point. What would you add? Help us to expand the resources available for future online instructors!