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Perspective | How educators learn to teach online

Several years ago, we began research on how university professors learn to teach online. At that time, the move to online teaching and learning in higher education was in full swing, and many professors were tasked with teaching online the courses they had previously taught face-to-face.  There were various reasons why courses, and even entire educational programs, moved online, and many instructors were excited about teaching online. 

Conversely, there were many who were not interested in it at all, and others in between those two extremes: Some were cautiously interested, others were not as interested but felt they didn’t have a choice, and some who didn’t care one way or the other. 

Our research demonstrated that negative views of online teaching were often correlated with lack of understanding, or even fear, of technology and of learning to teach in a new way.  Many instructors were comfortable teaching face-to-face, many enjoyed it and were very good at it. Additionally, some instructors did not believe their topics could be taught online.  They acknowledge that online learning worked well for some subjects, but could not envision it working for their subjects. 

In some cases, this is true, especially in courses and programs that involve labs, patient care, and interactions that can only be done face-to-face. However, even in such courses, we found instructors who were interested in teaching online came up with creative ways to do so. Still, there remained options for instructors who wanted to teach face-to-face and for those who wanted to teach online.

In the early months of 2020, COVID-19 began spreading rapidly around the country. In a short time, social distancing guidelines meant that educational institutions at all levels, from primary to graduate-level, quickly ended face-to-face instruction and moved online. 

Now, educators at all levels had no choice but to learn to teach online. For those already teaching online, this change was negligible, and they continued to teach as they had been doing before the pandemic. Many others, though, including those who were not interested in online teaching, and those who did not believe their courses could be taught online, were thrown into online teaching with little understanding of how to do so and little time to make it happen. 

So fast were the changes, and so chaotic were the situations, that this move was termed by some as “emergency remote learning” to distinguish it from online learning, which is typically more planned out, organized, and deliberate. 

We are now at a point where educational institutions at all levels are making plans to move forward, and those plans may involve online, blended, and face-to-face teaching and learning, with contingencies for moving from one method to another as conditions dictate. This means instructors will have to understand how to teach online, in blended learning situations, and face-to-face. As noted above, our research focuses on how instructors learn to teach online, and although we conducted it before COVID-19, what we have learned may help others who are making the move today.

We learned that there are some consistent steps or phases instructors go through when they learn to teach online, and the most helpful support provided to instructors at each of those steps or phases is different. We categorized the three general steps or stages in the process of learning to teach online as follows:

  1. Initial experiences
  2. Finding footing
  3. Continuous improvement

Initial experiences

Even before COVID-19, most faculty who moved to online teaching described their initial experience as challenging and difficult with feelings of being terrified, worried, and apprehensive. Regardless of the amount of time to prepare, they ended up feeling unprepared for the experience and were overwhelmed at the prospect of having to teach using a method they had not used before. 

The initial shock period was followed by a search for information and support. Most focused on support related to learning the technology that would allow them to teach online. Many looked into formal support in the form of “how-to” training modules, or other resources available at the institutional or university levels.

However, most in our study found these resources unhelpful; either because they were too broadly focused and/or out-of-date. Some asked for one-on-one help from colleagues in departments related to online teaching and learning, such as the college’s instructional technologies department or from colleagues at other institutions. A few engaged in different types of self-directed learning activities, such as reviewing articles and websites on online teaching.

Finding footing

At some point in this learning process, each participant began to find footing and got to a place where they could take a breath and consider their online teaching in more depth. At this point, many came to the realization that teaching online involved a variety of tasks, and they began to make distinctions between the different tasks associated with online teaching, including course design and development, as well as actual teaching. 

Whereas in the initial step, the focus was on learning technology, in this stage, as instructors got a better understanding of what it meant to teach online, the focus of their learning broadened to developing content, but also figuring out how to connect with learners online and how to teach them. At this point, participants sought out more targeted types of training related to specific aspects of online teaching. Learning was most often self-directed; and books, articles, online resources, and colleagues were all helpful during this stage.

Continuous improvement

Even the most experienced online instructors in these focus groups did not see themselves as “there” yet in terms of their online teaching abilities. Most agreed that with experience came more strategies and options they could employ. As online instructors matured in their experience, they could focus more on individual student needs. Because they had more tools at their disposal, they were able to differentiate instruction; using appropriate tools to meet the needs of individual learners.    


The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in what is likely the single greatest migration from face-to-face to online courses, and this happened at record speed. Institutes of higher education are now planning a path forward, and that path most likely involves continued use of online education. That means that instructors must be prepared to teach online, and educational institutions at all levels must provide support for them to learn to teach online.

Steven W. Schmidt

Steven W. Schmidt, Ph.D. is Professor and Coordinator of the Adult Education Program at East Carolina University. His research focuses on online teaching and learning, workplace training and development, and cultural competence.

Elizabeth M. Hodge

Elizabeth M. Hodge, Ph.D. is Professor and Assistant Dean of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives at East Carolina University. Hodge also serves as the lead administrator for the North Carolina New Teacher Support Program, which is a comprehensive, university-based induction program.

Christina M. Tschida

Christina M. Tschida, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Appalachian State University. Her research centers around improving teacher education through critical, equity-centered, anti-racist pedagogies; quality online instruction; and clinical practice reform through the use of co-teaching and coaching.