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Center for Teaching Excellence

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Distributed/Online Teaching and Learning

The Distributed/Online Learning section is designed to provide helpful resources to faculty, staff, and graduate teaching assistants who develop and deliver distributed learning courses at UofSC.

Links to literature, guides, and other resources related to best practices in teaching Distributed Learning/Online courses.

Active learning involves engaging students directly in the learning process through various activities or learning opportunities, which increases student learning outcomes. This technique applies to online classes as well. As with F2F classes, use active learning techniques strategically, as a method for both engagement and assessment. Active learning opportunities will allow you to break up the lecture while still checking for student learning. 

Active Learning Online:  If there are strategies you use in your traditional class, there’s a tool that you can find to help bring that practice online. Consult with an Instructional Designer for recommendations.  

  1. Online case study analysis can take place using Discussion Boards, Wikis, Journals, or even a multiple-choice test.
  2. Collaborative projects can occur in Blackboard Collaborate Whiteboard, Office365 ClassNote, Google Cloud’s Jamboard, or Goboard. See Low Stakes Formative Assessment Strategiesfor more ideas.
  3. Break-out rooms, Discussion Groups, Discussion Boards

Online Discussions can occur in Blackboard Discussion Boards, VoiceThread, GroupMe, Slack, or another tool. Small group discussions can occur asynchronously in Blackboard Groups or synchronously in Bb Collaborate Ultra breakout rooms. Note that these can be difficult to do with more than approximately 50 students – need multiple moderators (teaching assistants, explicit planning, and assessments or activities to be done in individual rooms). If you use break-out rooms or groups for collaborative work, specify rules and roles for students:  note taker, agenda setter, discussion facilitator, project lead, person to submit final project, etc.  Student can switch roles to gain experience in multiple roles.

Automated Student Response Systems (Polling Options) 

  • Blackboard Collaborate Polling
  • iClicker REEF: Two options are available for instructors: iClicker Classic and iClicker Cloud. Both run locally (you present from the applications you already use e.g.  PowerPoint) rather than having to author your question content in our platform. iClicker works best in a synchronous environment. View a short video on Using iClicker Cloud for Remote Instruction.
  • List of additional polling software options

There are practical considerations you need to make regarding assessments, course management, and time based on the size of your class, discipline, and whether you have teaching assistant support for grading. The assessments you choose and the grade percentage you assign them indicate to your students what you want them to learn, so make sure your assessments are sending the right message. Assessments should connect to your course learning outcomes – the action verb you use will indicate what type of assessment you apply. An instructional designer can provide you options to help you select the assessment types best suited for these considerations, based on your course learning outcomes. Consider allowing students to submit assignments online in different ways:  record a video of themselves discussing the answer, photo of their handwritten notes or work, etc. – numerous educational technology options exist for formative assessments and individual feedback.

Low-stakes, Formative Assessment Strategies:  Many formative assessments done in F2F settings are very adaptable for incorporating into the online environment. Small group activities, partner-work problem-solving, short answer responses, etc. can be done using tools in Blackboard (tests, assignments, discussion boards), online educational technologies and other assessment tools. These low-stakes assessment techniques can be included as or part of weekly quizzes or other low-stakes assessments, assignments, or group discussion summaries. Certain grading scales lend themselves to more efficient grading, especially for low-stakes assignments. For example, it can be easier to decide if a short in-class paper deserves a mark of “check-plus” or “check-minus " compared to determining whether it deserves a numerical or letter grade. 

Examples of good low stakes active learning strategies that can be modified for class assessments can be found in these websites:

High-stake Tests and Summative Assessments: Organize tests and summative assessments in such a way to allow students multiple opportunities to learn and show mastery or evidence of progress throughout the term, and not just at the end of the semester.   

  • Writing test questions: 
    • Use Bloom’s Taxonomy Table to help you craft multiple-choice questions that address the higher levels of application or learning you desire.
    • Include case studies, problem sets whose questions build on each other with respect to thought processes and strategies.
    • Test Pools and Test Builder: Create tests from Test Pools and use the Blackboard Test Builder to streamline and shorten your exam development time.
  • Automatic grading: Blackboard has numerous functionalities for automatic grading and feedback options.

Use Peer Review and Peer Assessments for Grading

Students are perfectly capable of supplying feedback for each other. Peer review not only takes some of the pressure off you as being the sole feedback-giver, it also is a great formative learning experience for students and helps them more critically assess their own work. Peer review is an important and vital aspect of building community and enhancing social presence in online courses. With peer review, students are tasked to consider the amount, level, value, worth, quality or success of the products or outcomes of learning of peers of similar status (Topping, 1998). Peer review is a process where students communicate with one another and participate in dialogue related to performance and standards (Liu & Carless, 2006).


  • Enhances student participation
  • When students assess their co-students' work, the process becomes reflexive: they learn by teaching and by assessing (Topping, 1998).
  • Increases the timeliness of feedback, providing new learning opportunities for both givers and receivers of feedback, humanizes the environment, and builds community (Corgan, Hammer, Margolies, & Crossley, 2004).
  • Allows students the unique opportunity to discuss the attributes of good or poor performance and to evaluate their own performances against concrete examples from their peer group (Topping, 1998) and become strong assessors of their own work.


  • In online courses, it is recommended that students be placed in small groups for discussion and peer review activities (Matsuba, R., Suzuki, Y., Kubota, S.-I., & Miyazaki, M., 2015).
  • Peer reviewing requires explicit rubrics that clearly outline to all the students the criteria they need to look at and how to judge the quality of those various criteria.
  • The Blackboard Self and Peer Assessment Tool allows students to review and grade the work of their peers. The tool is designed to enhance the reflective learning skills of students. Learn more about the tool here: How to use the Blackboard Self and Peer Assessment Tool.

Additional Resources

Are you teaching a 100% synchronous course? Here are some best practices for teaching synchronous courses.

Course Design and Syllabus Development

  • Consider your full course design. As you plan your course, decide which portion will be synchronous and which part will be asynchronous. For example, in a live session, you might work on math problems together and then assign homework to students. You might also have students watch a video outside the synchronous time and then hold a discussion during the live session.
  • Align each synchronous session with course learning outcomes and module learning objectives.Synchronous sessions should not just happen in a vacuum. Connect with your current, past, or future objectives.
  • Determine which technology you will use to hold each live synchronous session. The Division of Information Technology (DoIT) supports Blackboard Collaborate Ultra and Microsoft Teams. Ensure that the technology you plan to use is accessible for any synchronous sessions and activities. Let students know the technology requirements ahead of time.
  • Keep accessibility in mind. If you need support, work with the Student Disability Resource Center. Determine the accessibility needs of students.
  • Think about logistics. How will students know where and how to access the live session? Will you use the same link for each session?
  • Make sure syllabus policies reflect synchronous sessions. Specify the course delivery method. Include the dates, times, and location for synchronous class sessions based on the registrar information given to students (i.e., MW 8:00 am - 9:15 am.). Provide a clear attendance policy in the syllabus.

Plan Your Class Sessions

  • Inform students of dates and times. Provide dates and times for synchronous sessions in the course syllabus and the learning management system.
  • Decide the session format. Consider how you want to present your content. Present content in multiple ways/formats. This could be through lectures, activities, and/or reflection. If you need to lecture, make sure that participants are also involved, even as small as answering a question. Provide instructions for students to follow for all activities and interactions.
  • Focus on interaction and active participation. Plan for instructor-student, student-student, and student-content interactions. Map out active learning strategies to help eliminate passive listening. During live sessions, use polls (Collaborate, Poll Everywhere), interactive, synchronous discuss boards (Padlet, Flipgrid), collaborative documents (Office 365), chat, live quizzes (Kahoot). Integrate group collaboration activities using breakout rooms.
  • Practice before the session. Make sure you know your content and technology. Consider holding a practice session for students. Some students may need time to learn the tools and technology ahead of time. Practicing with a colleague is beneficial as well.
  • Set clear expectations. Students should know what to expect in the session and what is expected of them. Share any resources or materials needed for the session.
  • Seek support. Build support relationships. You are not in it alone.Refer to the Center for Teaching Excellence, Office of Distributed Learning, eLearning Services at DoIT, Student Accessibility Office, and Library for assistance.
  • Prepare students for the session. Let students know what you plan to cover and ask them to prepare before the session. Assign a reading beforehand, post an outline of what will be covered, or ask students to prepare a question or talking point.

Facilitate Your Class Sessions

  • Prepare for the session. Check your surroundings before you go on camera. Clean up your desktop if you plan to share your computer. Close all programs you do not intend to use. Log in early to the technology for the session and get everything set up and ready to go. Preload your materials (i.e., load PowerPoint presentation). Login to any websites you plan to use. This will save valuable class time and help eliminate any last-minute issues.
  • Arrive early and stay after. Give students a chance to build community or ask questions outside of class time. Students can unmute themselves to talk, type in the chat, or send an email message.
  • Recording attendance. If you have an attendance policy, you can use attendance reports in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra for check-in based attendance. To boost student engagement, participation-based attendance is recommended.
  • Keep students active. Use technology tools for active engagement and participation. Include multiple activities and opportunities for student response. Use a structure in lecture-based classes that include variety, such as introduction, mini-lecture (part 1), student activity, such as poll, another mini-lecture (part 2), and then a wrap-up.
  • Be aware of the time. Allow plenty of time for students to set up technology and for the completion of activities.Do not keep students longer than the scheduled time.
  • Record it. Always record your live sessions and let students know before recording each session. Make recordings easily accessible to students.Use the learning management system to post recordings, post an announcement, and/or send an email.
  • Be flexible. Even though you plan your session, the session might go differently than you envisioned. That's okay. Adapt to the needs of your students. Don't be afraid to make changes as you go.
  • Provide feedback. Pause throughout the live class session. Let students know when they can ask questions and take notes of students' responses to address later. Acknowledge students who participate and are active in the class.
  • Avoid tests. Don’t use live class sessions for student test taking. Synchronous online courses have asynchronous components. Resources on assessment best practices in online courses and assessments and grading.
  • Keep students informed. Provide in-class and out-of-class reminders about class meetings and due dates.Remind students about assignment due dates and asynchronous activities and assignments. Connect students with accessibility resources.
  • Share any resources or materials used during the session. Use the learning management system to post or link to resources and materials after each session. Students can efficiently utilize them for studying, assignments, or review.
  • Self-reflection and follow-up. After the live session, consider what went well and what could have gone better. Check-in with students and ask how the session structure worked for them. Update your materials or make notes for next time.

Adapted from:

PDF Version:  Best Practices for Synchronous Online Courses [pdf]

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