Online learning for beginners: 6. How do I start?

July 29, 2016 Tony Bates


Seek professional help from your institutional teaching and learning support staff

Seek professional help from your institutional teaching and learning support staff

This is the sixth in a series of a dozen blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The other five are:

Warming up

If you have been following this series of blog posts, you have already started. It shows that you have an interest. However, you should see these blog posts more as a warm-up than the real game. Warm-ups are valuable. They save you getting hurt when you start playing, but they are not the real thing. So here are at least two quite different strategies for getting started into the real ‘game’ of teaching online.

1. The professional strategy

I have outlined these as a series of steps, but some of these can be taken concurrently; they are more in order of importance than in sequence.

Step 1: Contact the professionals

There should be in your institution a group of people who specialize in supporting online learning. There may be a unit in your faculty or department, or a central unit, with a title similar to ‘Centre for Teaching and Learning’ or ‘Centre for Learning Technologies.’ However  the people with the real expertise are often found in Continuing Studies or Extension departments, under such names as the Centre for Distance Learning or the Centre for Digital Learning. This is because historically such units were responsible for the design, development or delivery of distance learning, but as a result they were often the first adopters of online learning. They often work with faculties in helping develop for-credit online courses as well as non-credit courses.

Be careful, though. Some faculty development offices are staffed entirely by people who are experts in face-to-face teaching, but have no experience or may even be hostile to online learning – so make sure they do have the expertise. If not, some other steps are suggested below. Similarly, some IT support groups may have expertise in online learning, but others may do no more than provide training in the use of a learning management system or lecture capture system. You will need more assistance than that, although learning how to use the technology is important.

The reasons for contacting the professionals are obvious but still worth stating. First they may have access to money to provide release time for you to spend the necessary time to develop your first online course. Second, they should have instructional designers who can walk you through all the necessary steps to ensure a high quality online course. These professional departments should also have technical support staff who can help with the use of specific online tools, such as a learning management system, video recording, wikis and blogs, and web design.

When you first approach them, tell them of your interest. The first meeting needs to be an open, exploratory discussion between you and someone from the support unit. Keep an open mind. Listen to what they suggest and what they can offer, and whether this fits with your interests and needs. (Reading these blog posts and dipping into ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘ would be a very good preparation for this initial meeting.)

Step 2: Get your department onside

Talk to your department head about what you are thinking of doing, and find out if there are colleagues in the department who are already doing online learning in some form or other. It will be much easier for you to get help and encouragement if the academic department already has a strategy or plan for online or flexible learning. Indeed, academic departments should be thinking about online learning at a program level. How much online learning should there be at each level as students progress through a degree program? Where would your course fit in this plan?

Unfortunately, academic departments often don’t have such a plan or strategy. But once you start moving into online learning, you should have a voice in initiating or shaping such a plan. The earlier you make contact with your department head and colleagues and let them know of your intentions, the better.

Step 3: Think about what kind of online course you are interested in

In the first and fourth posts in this series, I described a number of different types of online course, from blended, to hybrid to fully online, using recorded lectures (not recommended) or an instructional design approach (highly recommended). Also think carefully about the needs of your students as well as the pedagogical reasons for going online. What type of online learning will best suit your students? Teaching in a Digital Age will be particularly useful in helping you make these kinds of decisions (see Follow Up below).

However, in your context, whatever I may personally recommend, which makes the most sense to you in your context? For instance, if you are unfortunate enough to be in an institution where instructional design support is not available to you, then recorded lectures may be a better option.

Also, NOT doing online learning, because the support is just not there, should also be an option. Better not to do it than to do it badly. But make sure you have explored all the possibilities before coming to this decision, and let your head of department know why you are making this decision.

Step 4: Develop a work plan

All teaching, face-to-face or online, needs careful thought and preparation, but moving into teaching online for the first time is particularly demanding. Depending on whether there is already a curriculum and learning materials in place or not, it can take up to nine months preparation before an online course opens. If the course is to have a substantial amount of online work for students, then they need to know well in advance before enrolling. Students also need to be prepared for online learning (covered later in these posts).

This is where having instructional design support becomes particularly valuable. A good instructional designer will walk you through the process and guide you on what and when you need to prepare. But even if (or especially if) you don’t have instructional design support, a flexible but detailed plan of what you will need to do is essential. And give yourself plenty of time to get all the ducks in line.

2. The amateur strategy: just do it!

Your institution may not be able to provide you with any support or all this might seem too much or unnecessary or you just want to get on with it, in which case, just go ahead. However, this should be a fall-back position out of necessity, not a first choice.

If you do decide to go it alone, I do strongly recommend you read Teaching in a Digital Age before starting, so you have some idea about what the possibilities are and some of the dangers. In particular, read Chapter 11, ‘Ensuring quality teaching in a digital age’, which includes nine steps to quality teaching, and Appendix 1, Building an Effective Learning Environment. This is not enough, of course, but better than doing nothing in the way of preparation.


  1. Teaching online is a professional activity with a strong knowledge base. It is not something to be done lightly or without proper preparation.
  2. In most cases, there should be professional help available. Seek it out and listen to what they have to say. If there is none in your institution, perhaps it’s better not to go down this route.
  3. Your online teaching strategy should really be part of a wider strategy for teaching and learning within your academic department. Your first online course should fit within this strategy; if there is no strategy or plan for online learning, get involved in creating one.


Hard to know where to begin here, other than read through ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ In particular read:

Contact Uncle Tony

As a last resort, if you have tried to follow all the steps in this post, but still have problems, drop me a line at I will need to know about the context you are working in, the particular problems you are facing, and why you can’t get help in your own institution or locally. I will then do my best to advise you.

Up next

‘Why not just record my lectures?’

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.

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