4 tips for teaching virtually, from a pro

Professor Courtney Harrington, co-director of two online programs at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro shares her best tips for moving your course online in this uncertain time.

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Our new normal is uncharted territory. We’re all being tasked with doing what we’ve been doing in the world we’re used to, but virtually. Communication has been the most pervasive change, and with so many tools available to us, it’s not always intuitive which medium is the best for getting our point across.

For professors trying to teach high level concepts to college and university students, this can be a real challenge, especially if they are new to teaching online. To help guide teachers who aren't yet proficient in teaching in a virtual classroom, we caught up with Professor Courtney Harrington of University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She co-directs two programs, Bachelor’s in Integrated Professional Studies and Master’s in Applied Arts & Sciences, that are 100% asynchronous online (meaning, the courses do not have any set meeting times throughout the semester.)

Here are Professor Harrington’s tips to ensure a successful start to teaching virtually:

1. Start simple.

Don’t get too concerned with all of the exciting and fancy things you can do online - there will be time to explore that once this emergency situation has passed.

“The goal right now is [for professors] to get their point across to students, meet our learning objectives and get the students where they need to be in a different medium.” Trying new things you’re not well-versed in can be overwhelming for you and your students in a time when they’re learning how to log in for the first time and process new tools in new learning management systems.

2. Rethink your presentation approach.

“Opening up your video camera Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10-10:50 because that’s when your class was likely isn’t going to be engaging for students.” Find different ways to present your materials like creating short, pre-recorded videos, typing up lecture notes students can download, and uploading photos of figures you would normally draw on a chalkboard.

Underscore the main point you want your students to get from the materials you share with them. Also, consider pointing to materials that already exist, which can also provide a novelty factor for engagement as well as save you some time.

“You really have to get a bit detached from the way you’re used to teaching and get used to presenting things to students in multiple different ways [to create that reinforcement.]”

3. Rethink how you assess students’ retention.

While online exams may be the natural default, there are other ways of ensuring your students are learning. Discussion boards, in some cases, may be a viable alternative, with guidelines.

“Model for students what you expect: be respectful, don’t be antagonistic, but also ask questions, be critical, engage their thinking, and they tend to follow suit. But you also have to be explicit about your expectations [of what you want to see in a post and overall engagement level in the discussion.]”

When you set those expectations, discussion boards can be incredibly valuable.

4. Be flexible with your students, and yourself.

Students are experiencing unusual circumstances after many have been asked to leave their residency halls and move back home.

Some may not have the tools they had at school, like a strong internet connection, or access to the same devices. Expecting a video response from every student who entered the semester going to a face-to-face class may not be reasonable right now.

With some caring for children or elderly parents, it’s important to relax your late work policies and due date windows for the time being as well.

“The thing we have to remember is that as much as we are overwhelmed, students are also overwhelmed.” Likewise, if you’re new to teaching online, there is going to be some inevitable trial and error. Just remember: you’re new to this. “It’s okay to give yourself some grace. We’re all navigating new waters; it’s okay to not be perfect.”

We’re all figuring it out, together

Professor Harrington also noted that most universities have come out with guides for their instructors to move their courses online.

“Right now we need to make sure that our students are learning what we need them to learn and however we do that is the best way because ultimately that’s what it’s about. All of the other stuff is just icing on the cake... and sometimes just plain cake is okay.”

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