Documentation:Distance Learning Support/Effective Teaching Practices

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Introducing Yourself to Learners

Many instructors prepare a letter of introduction or short biography to be included with the course materials and/or posted to the course website. This serves as an introduction to you and establishes a beginning “presence” as course instructor – important to students who will not have the opportunity to meet with you in person. You may want to use this introduction as an opportunity to encourage students to contact you by email (to ensure you have up to date email addresses) and to let students know how you plan to organize your time – particularly with regard to communication via email and telephone. For example: some instructors respond to student email within 24 hours, others may only check email at set times each week. It is important to explain your preferences to students in order to manage expectations. You may also want to clarify your expectations regarding assignment submission, timelines, and penalties for late submissions.

Contact with Learners

Research (and our experience) shows that early contact with learners is an important factor in learner success and retention. For this reason, we ask that you make initial contact with your students preferably a few days before the course opens. You may do this via email from the Faculty Service Centre or by telephone. Telephone contact (following email attempts) is important if learners are not logging onto the course website within the first week.

Most learners who withdraw will make their decision within the first month – since most of their tuition fees for the course will be returned to them. For some learners who are “on the fence” with regard to withdrawal, early and supportive contact during this first month can influence their decision and provide them with additional information on which to base their decision. This is an important part of supporting learners in distance courses.

Letter of Introduction

It is expected that distance education instructors will contact students early in the course (or prior to the course in some cases). This can be done by email (via the Faculty Service Centre) or telephone depending on preference. Details of this Letter of Introduction should include:

  • Your contact info
  • Pertinent details regarding getting started
  • A list of materials required for the course

Refer to the Introducing Yourself to Learners section for more details.

Office hours

Opportunity for both email and telephone contact with you is very important to learners. However, you can certainly highlight your preferences and your approach to making yourself available to your students. This is typically done via:

  • A Letter of Introduction (see above)
  • An introductory bio page that you can prepare for inclusion in the course package or on the course website
  • Set “office hours” each week when students may contact you by phone, skype, chat, or email with questions. You can specify your preferred mode of contact and establish your own boundaries for contact outside those hours.

Please contact your instructional designer to include this material in the course package or on the course website before your course starts.


Careful planning and communication regarding how and when you will respond to email inquiries will go a long way towards setting up a manageable arrangement.

  • Some instructors find it helpful to develop FAQs to commonly asked questions about the course content – in this way this can be distributed to the whole group (via email attachment) or to individuals as needed.
  • Learners will often email instructors at the beginning of a course, prior to assignment due dates and around exam time. Many of their questions relate to course requirements, assignment requirements, grading structure, and exam issues. Providing clear and concise information regarding these issues on the course website will help reduce the volume of individual emails. At the very least, you can use the discussion forums to clarify these issues.

7 Principles for Good Practice

7 Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education were originally published in 1987 by Arthur Chickering and Zelda Gamson. These are widely accepted principles and they have been applied in various contexts. For your review (or if you haven't seen the original) the link to the original article (reprinted with permission by the Wingspread Journal: Johnson Foundation) is below for download:

Further adaptations have included considerations around technology and LMS features (such as those used in Connect):

Online Discussion

Following are some useful resources pertaining to online discussion.

Some resources for planning and thinking about online discussion:

Some examples of *rubrics* for evaluating online discussions:

Creating Social Presence

Online facilitators and instructors play important ‘social’ roles that are critical to the development of an effective learning environment:

  1. They must help learners create their individual ‘social presence’ in the online classroom, so that they participate as ‘real people’ in engaged collaborative discourse with peers – allowing learners to perceive themselves as a learning community.
  2. They must facilitate creation of, and sustain, the social context of learning – nothing less than the ‘culture’ of the course!

Creating Online Selves

The presentation and sharing of one's individual identity is intimately connected to the development of community or ‘sense of community.' Communities are not made up of homogeneous anonymous beings between whom communication and interaction ‘happens.' Rather, they are a heterogeneous mixture of individuals who may or may not share common values, worldviews, or perspectives.

Developing a sense of community demands that individuals come to know each other, and learn about their similarities and differences. Some educational researchers use the notion of transactional distance as a measure of learners' sense of community:

Transactional distance is the cognitive space between learning peers, teachers and content in a distance education setting. Coined by Michael G. Moore in 1980, transactional distance is a function of dialog and structure in distributed adult learning settings. Distance decreases with dialog and increases with structure so that a classroom with high interaction and less rigid format will be more engaging to learners. Wikipedia, 2007

Creating an online ‘self’ is a challenge, however, because we are very used to relying on material elements to give clues about our identity or at least to motivate curiosity, interest, and introductions: skin colour, complexion, body type, clothing and style, jewelery and other adornments, to name but a few. Our body language can also give clues about our character and about our comfort level in an educational setting: Casual or stiff? Bored or alert? Formal or informal? Shy or confident? Moreover, in interpersonal encounters, an individual’s authenticity – a term that in English connotes ‘truth’ and ‘accuracy of (self)representation’ and ‘trustworthiness’ – is supposed to be guaranteed by physical presence and the evidence of the senses.

But as we know, in the text-based communications of a virtual learning environment, bodily markers of identity such as physical attributes and vocal accent, are often invisible and bodily participation in gesture and ritual is usually impossible. The physical body is, in effect, “banned from the Internet."

Yet, study after study has shown that over time participating in online courses, learners’ sense of community increases, and their feeling of transactional distance decreases. For example, Chen’s (2001) quantitative study of adult learners in a web-based course demonstrated that 'extent of interaction' and 'skill level with the Internet' were the only two significant factors influencing learners’ perception of transactional distance.

In other words, it takes time and practice to ‘incorporate’ yourself online: to learn new ways of presenting your own identity, and of ‘getting to know’ others.

Advice from UBC’s Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology

The online education experts at UBC’s Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology offer the following advice to online instructors and facilitators for creating their own ‘presence’ online:

The establishing of instructor presence is a process. The process may begin with some sharing of information about:

  • You and your background.
  • Your expectation for interaction with learners.
  • Your style of teaching within the context of this course.

Some first steps in the process are:

  • The development of a biography – describing your background, interest in the course material, and (perhaps) something about you and your life which you may want your learners to know about.
  • Your first contact with learners (via telephone, email and/or posting within the course website). This should be welcoming, an opportunity for students to seek clarification from you regarding course requirements or content and a chance for you to impart something about who you are and opening the door for communication so that you can get a sense of who they are.

In addition, if you intend to communicate regularly with students online, you will want to consider:

  • Regular posting of announcements. This gives students guidance and keeps them on track.
  • Letting students know your online teaching style; whether you will be posting every day or weekly; whether you will respond to each post or only those where clarification, guidance, or comment is required.

Please refer to the Introducing Yourself to Learners section of the CTLT website for more information.

Student Evaluation of Teaching

Student evaluations for courses supported by the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology are distributed and collected online via CoursEval.

At the end of each term, survey data will be compiled and distributed as follows:

  • You will receive notification as to when you can access the online data for your course sections.
  • Your department head will receive a link to the data for all courses related to the department.

The evaluation of teaching is the responsibility of the academic departments to which the courses belong. The summary data is provided to the department heads to include in their regular processes for performance review. We recognize that the comments usually provide instructors with the most information, therefore comments are sent to you directly and also included in the full report to your head.

For more information on UBC’s Student Evaluations of Teaching as well as policy documents on this issue, visit the Student Evaluations of Teaching website.

Support resources can be found on the Resources section of the CTLT website.


In addition to the resources below, your instructional designer will be available to help you explore different learning tools and help you come up with learning activities which will best work with the tools.

Orientation to Teaching Online

Online Teaching Modules: Modular orientation content that was part of the Orientation to Teaching Online site, but can also be accessed directly through the UBC Wiki:

e-Learning Toolkit

Original photo by tunnelarmr

UBC's e-Learning Toolkit is for those new to using technology in education or those looking for new ideas and best practices. In the Toolkit, you will find a definition of each learning tool, sample uses, some benefits, tips on how to get started, and additional resources.

The tools UBC currently supports are:

If you find a tool or approach that you are interested in: