Teachers Are Enhancing Students' Success Through Effective Online Pedagogy

With the new wave of Covid-19, educators and students alike are finding themselves in virtual classrooms instead of physical classrooms. In this article, we provide insight on how you, as an educator, can be more effective when teaching online.

Imagine you are a student and want to learn a new topic such as beekeeping. Consider the difference between reading a textbook or participating in a live lecture (sans live bees!). The two mediums are very different and, as Marshall McLuhan famously captured in his phrase “the medium is the message,” the differences heavily influence the style of teaching and learning.  

Virtual teaching, by definition, restricts the medium to audio, video, slides, chat, and whatever other interaction tools you have within the virtual classroom. In contrast to a physical classroom, which has traditional cues for insight into the class, students in the virtual classroom invariably feel more distant. The same is true for the teacher.

However, despite the distance, your intellectual and emotional connection to students need not become equally distant. Let’s use the beekeeping example again. We typically don’t think of the beekeeping textbook and lecture as mutually exclusive – they both cover the same content, but because they are different mediums, they require different skill sets to master as the educator. You can imagine the textbook author needing different skills to be an effective teacher in a physical class (and vice-versa). In a similar manner, teaching online requires a different set of skills to master – though the same pedagogic theories and practices are shared between virtual and physical classes.

If we think of online education as a different medium, then how can you be more effective in this medium? The question starts with looking at effective online teaching.

What Constitutes Effective Online Teaching?

Being a passionate and effective educator means remaining a student forever; it means understanding how to bring your content to the learner in ways that engage, inspire, and teach them within the strengths/weaknesses of the medium.

According to Rhonda Bondie, researcher at Brown University and writer for Harvard’s GSE (Graduate School of Education), the qualities of an effective online teacher include possessing:

  • Content knowledge
  • Pedagogical knowledge
  • Cultural awareness
  • Self-awareness


Bondie acknowledges that technology in online learning helps to thread together these four components of decision-making.

“Teachers also need cultural awareness to ensure that their curriculum and teaching practices are both relevant and sustaining, and they need content knowledge to ensure that the technology-rich activities enable students to develop accurate conceptual understandings. Isolated technology skills that are not aligned and integrated into the teacher decision-making base are often unused or not used effectively during teaching”

Bondie is saying that technological skills (or lack thereof) that are not aligned with the medium of the virtual classroom will not yield effective teaching.  The reverse is also true.  The stronger you are in technological skills applying to online learning, the better you have to achieve effective online engagement.

The Principles of Effective Online Engagement

While there are many tools to help set up a better online classroom experience, the efficacy of such tools lies chiefly on the educator using it. To return to the beekeeping example, the author of a venerated beekeeping textbook must be both a competent writer and Apiarist. In a similar manner, an educator who envisages a successful online learning experience through technology must also be both a competent educator and utilizer of technology. Even if your technological skills are not where you would like them to be, having a great handle on the pedagogy can put you in a much more favourable position than those who don’t.

So what can you do as an educator? Some driving principles of effective online teaching include:

  • Allowing the learners to do the work to increase engagement and investment
  • Encouraging interactivity
  • Ensuring presence – teaching, cognitive and social
  • Sound and conscious decision-making – knowing how your decisions and choices impact your diverse students


Based on the above driving principles, educators should be cognizant about creating more opportunities for engagement:

  • Encouraging student autonomy – shifting from the “sage on a stage” teaching style which can slow the progress of student independence to instead a “guide on the side” approach that puts a larger emphasis on student agency
  • Personalizing your approach through different learning pathways and materials
  • Incorporating group collaboration
  • Relating online learning to real life
  • Listening more; ask questions to engage students
  • Building and nurturing relationships with learners
  • Planning time for students to socialize and connect
  • Use live metrics to monitor student engagement and retention in real time, and keeping an eye on how the metrics change during the class
  • Celebrating successes


Effective online engagement requires increasing your engagement with the virtual class beyond what you would normally do in the physical classroom.  To use an analogy with filming a scene in a movie, the actors are subtly and skillfully accentuating their movements, body language, and voice to communicate with the viewer through the limited medium of audio and video.

As a teacher in a virtual class, you may be self-conscious about engaging more than normally in a physical classroom, but in the online class, where the medium is more narrow, you need to more overtly engage students to compensate. 

From the student’s point of view, a common struggle is fewer ways to connect with the teacher, leading to a sense that the teacher does not care about their success.  Consider the humanity of your learners through:

  • Ensuring your own space is welcoming, including strategic lighting, an appropriate and appealing background, and adequate sound
  • Building a strong classroom community, including taking access, time zones, and ability levels into account
  • Building stretching and movement into your lesson plan
  • Supporting liveliness and excitement, even if rowdy
  • Building creative time into the plan
  • Taking periodic breaks to change the pace up 


These activities give your students a sense of your empathy to their needs. The effort is worth it, as the American Psychological Association (APA) notes that:

“Teachers who experience close relationships with students reported that their students were less likely to avoid school, appeared more self-directed, more cooperative and more engaged in learning”

What Makes an Effective Online Teacher?

It’s also clear that certain teacher traits contribute significantly to effective online learning. As lifelong students, teachers can continually strengthen their subject knowledge, technological proficiency, and time management. However, beyond these ‘givens’, two characteristics, in particular, are shown to enhance learning efficacy:
  •  Communication skills: This is an essential trait when communication tends to be online, often without visual cues. Proficient online teaching requires careful language, style, and tone to ensure clear and concise communication.
    • Empathy and compassion: Trust and open communication are often consequences of an online environment, allowing students to voice concerns in safety and confidence. Developing greater empathy is an advantage in understanding the learners’ point of view and managing the situation compassionately.
    • Patience: Developing and applying patience is a lifelong endeavor, and this is especially true for online teachers, particularly in asynchronous learning. A patient educator can make all the difference in learners’ lives, making this a vital skill to strengthen.
  • Engagement skills: Student passivity is a constant challenge in an online environment. You want to increase the amount of feedback — and frequency of feedback — you require from students via audio, video, chat, and especially via polls, quizzes, raise hands, and breakout rooms. Leverage the strengths of the medium which allow for quickly switching between these different forms of engagement – such as prompting users to respond to the poll, aggregating the results, and enabling you to publish with a few mouse clicks.

It’s an unfortunate reality in our world that students can be treated as numbers rather than what they actually are: human beings. Faced with constant pressures that challenge their well-being such as bullying and poverty, there is a needed responsibility on behalf of educators to operate with empathy and compassion in the classroom.

Kate Brierton, a psychologist at Cambridge University, explains the importance of compassion in organizations and why it should be a focus for educators. In her webinar Compassionate Schools: A Whole School Approach to Wellbeing, it’s noted that

“Increased levels of compassion within an organisation can help all members to thrive, achieving optimum levels of creativity, motivation and performance.”

Online Teaching Traps to Avoid

Virtual classes come with their own variety of pitfalls that, with much preparation, consistent practice, strong determination, and a dash of ingenuity, your chances of encountering these traps are slim. It is important to be aware of them to avoid falling into them:

  1.   Traditional content: Learning content is just a portion of an efficient learning experience. Nevertheless, many succumb to the knee-jerk reaction of uploading pages from their textbook. This direct application of traditional teaching is a surefire way to lose engagement in an online setting. Instead, consider the range of learning elements beyond the content to reinvent your content and planning. Consider online design tools such as Visme to help you create impactful, relevant, and engaging content and materials.
  2.   Traditional approaches: While there are many similarities between on and offline teaching, there are also significant differences. Hence, taking the same approach as used in the physical classroom could present a pitfall. For example, traditional assessment can fall short in the virtual classroom, while online tools deliver an array of alternative evaluation tools, such as polling. Therefore, the onus is on educators to continue their education and development in terms of the available tools and, more importantly, their successful use.
  3.   Standardization: As in a traditional classroom setting, one size of teaching approach does not fit all. Take your students’ uniqueness into account when designing materials, assignments, and learning paths. Education technology reaches beyond the classroom setting to provide increased opportunity for student personalization. Individualization is especially crucial where younger learners and special needs students are concerned. Effective teaching means structuring approaches to fit the student rather than bending the student to adjust to the methods.
  4.   Isolation: While online learning happens at a distance, learning need not occur in isolation. With the loss of vital human interaction in the schoolroom and on the playground, virtual classrooms may be overlooking this essential interaction for social and educational development. Conversely, education tools facilitate increased interaction and collaboration, and the virtual space invites and welcomes input from field experts to enhance engagement and enrich learning.
  5.   A lack of fun: Online teaching, due to the use of technology, can end up being overly serious, overlooking the value of light-heartedness and play, and potentially resulting in low engagement. However, online learning tools provide many opportunities for levity, including virtual recess to encourage social interaction and occasional fun polls to increase enjoyment. You can also break content up with humor and light-hearted discussion.

Effective Online Teaching Requires Intention and Effort

Aside from the pandemic, as our world becomes more connected, the paradigm of education will undoubtedly encompass more online teaching and learning.

As educators, the opportunity (and onus) is to master the medium to the benefit of the student. As Rhonda Bondie, Harvard Graduate School Director of professional learning and education lecturer,  writes:

“…teachers need to make deliberate decisions about how students will feel belonging in a classroom community in a space without walls, see themselves reflected in the virtual space, feel both independence and belonging, and share power dynamics intentionally.” 

In summary, online education requires a student-centric approach, emphasizing content, pedagogy, and assessment, enhanced through technology.  Each of these components requires planning and sound feedback-informed decision-making.

Such mastery will require risk-taking, courage, and investment of time.  As a teacher the rewards are great, and for your students, the rewards are even greater.  For in the end, while the medium of virtual classrooms is narrower than the physical classroom, its reach is global, enabling you to both magnify your skills as a teacher and to improve the lives of students anywhere in the world.

About BigBlueButton

BigBlueButton is the world’s only open source virtual classroom. Originally created in a Canadian university, it has been designed into Moodle Cloud, Canvas, Sakai, D2L, Jenzabar, and Schoology and is available in 55 languages, making it the preferred virtual classroom application in over 75% of global LMS platforms. For more information see: bigbluebutton.org/.