Are you ready for online teaching? Here are some tips to help smooth the way

If you’ve never taught online and suddenly you’re gearing up for weeks — if not months — of e-learning this spring, it can be very intimidating. 

You might be tempted to default to assigning an entire pre-made online curriculum package, assuming the kids will watch videos and do worksheets at home. 

I hope you won’t.

Passive online learning is not very effective — fewer than 5% of people complete the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) they register for — because this style of learning does not engage your brain.

I’ve taught a variety of online and partially online classes for kids and teachers since 2011, and the one thing I’ve learned is: Planning an online course is a lot like planning your normal, face-to-face course. 

  • You have to decide what you want your students to learn and digest in each session. 
  • You have to provide small steps and deadlines, not leave everything self-paced. 
  • You have to decide how you will assess student learning — and be aware of the lack of testing security. 
  • You have to curate and develop multiple forms of instruction and practice, so that students actually engage with the material — without finding yourself down the rabbit hole. 
  • And finally, you have to emphasize learning and intrinsic motivation (rather than grades and accountability), and hope that you can leverage the relationships you’ve already built. 

Deciding what you want students to learn each day, in a digestible amount, is critical. Don’t rely on curriculum publishers, even good ones, to do it for you. You know your students, and they don’t.

For example, how much time do AP Microeconomics need to learn elasticity? 

When I was designing my online Micro course nearly 10 years ago, I decided they needed about one week, or five days. Here’s what that week looks like:

  1. Lecture notes on elasticity — in my case delivered in person, but also available as a video to review later — and a short textbook reading. (*Note to AP Micro teachers – this video predates the College Board move away from the midpoint formula)
  2. A set of short answer questions (submitted online) to review the concepts. Here are my thought questions on elasticity:
    1. According to economists, newspapers have a price elasticity of demand of 0.10. What does this elasticity indicate, and how would you explain this? Which determinant(s) are most influential in this case?
    2. According to economists, restaurant meals have a price elasticity of demand of 2.27. What does this elasticity indicate, and what determinants do you think cause this?
    3. Why is it a good idea to put taxes on products that are price inelastic?
    4. Based on what you know about elasticity, what value would you predict for the coefficient of price elasticity of demand for cigarettes? 
    5. If the government increases taxes on cigarettes (as it has), is that more likely to raise a lot of revenue, or cause people to quit smoking? Which goal do you think the government is trying to accomplish?
  3. An open-notes quiz with 20 multiple-choice questions similar to AP test questions. Students get instant feedback on their results, and they can take the quiz a second time. (I’ve since added MYAP practice questions as well.)
  4. An online discussion on the topic: Should sugary soft drinks be taxed? The discussion assignment includes links to news reports on this topic.
  5. Practice free-response questions, like 2016 Question 1, with a link to the scoring guidelines included. 
  6. An open discussion board where students can send me their questions.

My emphasis is on giving students multiple opportunities to engage with the content — both in a holistic, conceptual way and in a precise, applied way. I want them to think about elasticity, talk about it, apply it and ask questions.

Because my AP Micro class typically meets once a week face-to-face, we have always had follow up time for students to surface their individual questions. Obviously, none of us will have that luxury in the coming weeks. 

Instead, plan online office hours or set up individual Google hangouts, Facetime or Zoom meetings with students who need one-on-one help. Don’t wait for them to reach out to you — reach out to them.

I’ve also always been able to give my summative assessments in person. If I need to give tests this spring, I am going to try to enlist parents in proctoring their students’ test settings. I know it’s not a perfect solution, but most families appreciate the constraints we’re working under, and I believe they will follow through with integrity.

I know these tips are only helpful if you’re in a situation where students have access to online learning. However, all of these materials are accessible by phone. That still won’t cover every kid, but GeekWire says 95% of American teenagers have access to a smartphone, so we can reach a huge majority.

A few more tips about resources:

    • Look for videos that fit what you want; don’t design your content around existing videos. If you can’t find the right content after previewing 2-3 of them, don’t be afraid to make your own. Kids actually prefer learning from their own teachers, and with free resources like, it’s actually not hard at all. 
    • Look beyond the textbook. Current news articles are almost always more engaging than canned textbook content.
    • Focus on learning, not assessment. Make answer keys available, and let students know you aren’t grading them on their attempts to learn new material. Your goal is to help them learn, and the assessment will come later. You can give free online quizzes through sites like to give additional feedback.
    • Find ways to build collaboration. If possible, assign students to work together on assignments (via Google docs), so each kid has a thought partner and someone to hold them accountable. Let them grade each other’s free-response questions too.



I hope this helps, and I hope it will give you more confidence in your ability to teach online during this awful season. It’s not perfect, and in my opinion, e-learning will never be an adequate replacement for the classroom. But it’s a whole lot better than giving up months of educating our students.

Don’t hesitate to contact me with questions: