Tracing Successful Online Teaching in Higher Education: Voices of Exemplary Online Teachers

Mar. 01, 2013

Source: Teachers College Record, Volume 115, No. 3, March 2013, pages 1-41.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The main purpose of this study was to investigate exemplary online teachers’ transition to online teaching with a specific focus on the successful practices.

The research investigated two central questions:
(1) What are the successful practices that exemplary online teachers employ in their online teaching?
(2) How do exemplary online teachers make a transition to online teaching in such a way that they create successful practices?

Research Design
The study followed a qualitative multiple-case study approach examining six different cases of exemplary online teachers and their teaching contexts within a large research university in the Midwestern United States.
Using multiple cases allowed for comparison of similar and contrasting online teaching situations and conditions within the university’s different colleges.

Data Collection
The data sources of the study consisted of
(1) semi-structured interviews conducted with six online program coordinators to collect contextual information and gather nominations for successful online teachers in each college,
and (2) ethnographic interviews conducted with 6 online teachers nominated as exemplary to gather teacher-expressed needs, knowledge, and successful practices.


The findings of this study indicated that while holding on to their earlier assumptions about how students learn in traditional classrooms, the teachers prioritized and emphasized some of the tasks for online teaching because they lacked the tools and conditions that exist in traditional classrooms.

The findings show that when teachers described their successful practices, they often attended to their changing roles and representation of their “selves” within an online classroom.
Their portrayal of the teacher self, both building on the plethora of previous experiences and being reformed with the affordances and limitations of the online environments, went through a process whereby they were constantly challenged to make themselves heard, known, and felt by the students.

Moreover, by taking on different roles, teachers created their online teacher personas, building on the different types of organizational, historical, social, and cultural factors within their contexts.


The findings of this study indicated that one of the factors that played a critical role in teachers’ selection and implementation of the successful practices was their context and various support mechanisms within the context that encouraged and sustained their successful online teaching practices.
Different disciplines, organizational cultures, and support mechanisms within the programs impacted how teachers employed successful practices and created their online teacher personas.

Therefore, a systematic approach is needed in constructing evaluation instruments that are specifically designed to evaluate online courses.


This article suggests that programs that prepare faculty to teach online could encourage them to reflect on their past experiences, assumptions, and beliefs toward learning and teaching, and transform their perspectives by engaging in pedagogical inquiry and problem solving.

By incorporating collaborative work groups, community building, and group discussions into professional development programs and sustaining their continuity, teachers will have an opportunity to participate in communities of practice and thus transform their teaching by socially constructing their knowledge and practices.

Updated: Oct. 16, 2013