Best Practices in Online Learning (Special contribution to D-E.c)

June 10, 2012

Dr. Stephen Kemp

Excerpted on 5/16/2012 from Kemp, S.J. (2012).  “Social Presence in Online Learning,” chapter in Mark A. Maddix, James R. Estep, and Mary E. Lowe (Eds). Best Practices of Online Education:  A Guide for Christian Education.  Charlotte, NC: Information Age.

This excerpt follows sections on the distance education context and learning theory related to the social presence of online learning.  In this section, I will address best practices related to social presence in online learning based on my experience.  I will also provide a few suggestions of what I consider to be next best practices, by which I mean best practices that may not yet be in use even by the better online learning programs.


In mentored online seminars, students complete reading assignments and/or view video lectures, post initial responses in a threaded discussion forum to a question from a faculty member, post additional responses in discussion with students and the faculty member, and complete other course-length assignments, such as papers and tests also administered online.  It is best to give additional guidance regarding the threaded discussion forum.  For instance, if lessons are to be completed weekly, students should be expected to make their initial postings early in the week so that there is plenty of time for “substantive” response later in the week.

Another best practice is to give specific expectations for the length of responses.  This prevents students from simply posting “I agree” or “nice post.”  It also helps to control the prolific posters who write mini-dissertations for each response.

In larger classes that use small groups for much of the interaction on lessons, it is often good to have some forums for the entire class to participate together.  This is particularly helpful for the facilitator to give content or guidance to the entire class without having to post in each small group.  It also can be used to help students find affinity with other students.

Advanced netiquette help students to know how to avoid unnecessary conflict by not using inflammatory language, personal attacks, jumping to conclusions, antagonistic responses, etc.  It also teaches students how to use constructive approaches to disagreement, such as asking questions for the sake of learning rather than arguing or making your own point more clear.  Further, it is good to give guidance on how to resolve conflict or misunderstanding once it happens, such as posting apologies, moving the discussion from the public forum to private email or phone, and relying on the faculty facilitator to monitor the interaction.

Faculty facilitators need to take the lead in presenting personal information about themselves and making personal connections with students.  If they do so early in the course, it sets the pace for the social presence of the course for everyone.  The more engaged the faculty member is, the more robust the social presence of the course is likely to be.

A best practice in online learning is to be committed as an institution to being online 24/7.  This means that faculty facilitators need to be present often.  If they are posting daily, students are much more likely to be checking daily.  Faculty facilitators also need to provide means for students to have prompt, personal interaction with students as needed by phone or personal email addresses.  Further, the institution itself needs to do everything it can to avoid being offline.  Seamless administrative and technological service is often underestimated in terms of its importance to the overall social presence of the course.

Online learning institutions can also provide support for faculty facilitators.  Part-time staff can monitor the discussion forums and alert the faculty facilitator to jump in at particular places.  They can also track inactive students to identify problems and encourage their participation in the course (and retention for the program).

A best practice of online learning institutions is to establish cohorts, not just offer courses.  One of the limitations of non-cohort programs is that even though vibrant learning communities are established in individual courses, they nearly have to be rebuilt with each new course.  Cohorts allow learning communities to be carried from one course to another and built throughout the program.


Next best practices are best practices that may not yet be in use even by the better online learning programs.

In mentored online seminars, it is even better to give specific direction to help responses in the threaded discussion board to be substantive.  For instance, students can be assigned to respond to the initial posting of another student whose post fits particular criteria, such as most similar, most different, most helpful, most intriguing, most challenging, etc.  Or responses can be made on the basis of personal relation, such as to someone who is at a similar (or different) age, occupation, place of life, etc.  Other direction can call for students to respond to the posts with which they most agree (adding rationale that the student may not have included) or disagree (focusing on the rationale, not making personal attacks or dismissive comments).  Students can also be instructed to respond in a particular manner, such as with humor, sarcasm, encouragement.  A variety of responses can be built into the course in order to add to the variety and effectiveness of the interaction, but also to help students develop in a wide range of communication techniques.

Often, threaded email discussions in classes with more than 10 students can become rather difficult for students to manage because of the magnitude of postings.   Rather than simply break the class into small groups, it may be more effective to help students create a buddy system.  Essentially, they should read and interact with everything that is posted in response to their initial post in each thread.  They should also pick a few other students as “buddies” for whom they will read and interact with everything that is posted in threads started by them.  And, of course, they should read and respond as necessary to anything posted by the faculty member who is facilitating the course.

In online independent study courses, it is good to include collaborative activities.  This can be done with students who are enrolled at the same time.  Or it can be done by pushing students to engage in learning activities with those around them, even if they aren’t enrolled.  This is particularly valuable for learning that is likely to take place better in a real life context than in an abstract academic environment.

Further, online independent study courses can be designed with components that wrap-around the social context of the students.   For instance, an enrolled married student can be expected to have interaction on the course material with their unenrolled spouse and reflect on that interaction in written assignments.  Rather than letting the course be something that drives a couple apart so that one can study, these assignments draw the couple together.  Of course, they need to be done with sensitivity and flexibility to the busyness and interests of the unenrolled spouse.  Similarly, students can be expected to have interactions with others who have particular interest in the subject and/or the student’s development related to those subjects.

Similarly, in mentored online seminar courses, students should not just be asked to post and respond to each other.  Perhaps they should be required to have particular interactions with those in their real life learning communities (family members, neighbors, friends, co-workers, etc.) based on the material of the lesson, and then post their thoughts that include reflection on these interactions.  This turns the threaded discussion forum into a venue for processing growth in real life situations and primary social relationships rather than just having an abstract academic conversation.

In conclusion, it is clear that social presence is a crucial dimension of effective online learning.  This article has focused on how distance can be broken down in online learning and how presence can be supported and optimized in online and real life social contexts.  Hopefully the consideration of historical perspective, learning theory, and best practices (especially next best practices) can be used to stimulate improvement for weak programs and to strengthen programs that are already strong.


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Kemp, S.J. (2012).  “Social Presence in Online Learning,” chapter in Best Practices of Online Education:  A Guide for Christian Education.  Charlotte, NC: Information Age.

Kemp, S.J. (2007).  Experiential learning and the role of primary social relationships as contexts for situated learning in distance education courses of evangelical theological education institutions.  Ph.D. Dissertation.  Loyola University/Chicago.

Kemp, S. J. (2001). Learning communities in distance education.  Wheaton, IL:  ACCESS Monograph Series, No. 6.

Kemp, S.J.  (2010).  Situated learning:  Optimizing experiential learning through God-given learning community.  Christian Education Journal, 7 (118-143).

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Dr. Stephen Kemp joined BILD International in November 2002 to help partner churches obtain academic credit from formal institutions for their non-formal church-based theological education. In September 2006, he became the founding Academic Dean for BILD’s Antioch School of Church Planting and Leadership Development. The Antioch School is the first truly church-based and truly competency-based ministry training institution to be accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council. Kemp serves on the DETC Research and Educational Standards Committee. He also served on the Criteria Review Committee of the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges (AABC), now known as the Association of Biblical Higher Education (ABHE).

Formerly he served as Vice-President and Dean of External Studies for Moody Bible Institute, overseeing its massive correspondence school, extensive off-campus sites, global online courses, and Radio School of the Bible. Previously, he served for nine years as Associate Dean of Nontraditional and Distance Education for Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He continues to teach online courses for Moody Bible Institute, having taught 1415 students in 140 sections of 16 courses.

Kemp has served on the D.Min. thesis committees for six leaders of church-based theological education programs, including several associated with the largest church planting movements in India. He currently works with these and others leaders to implement and sustain truly church-based and competency-based training programs.

He has served in various capacities for ACCESS, the Christian distance education professional association and is currently the President. He has given seminars on topics such as “Instructional Design and Spiritual Formation,” “Experiential Learning in Distance Education,” “The 24/7 Learning Community: In-Context Learning,” “Making the Most of God-Given Learning Communities,” “The Wide World of Educational Partnerships with Churches,” “Learning Communities in Distance Education,” and “Being Where? Culture and Formation in Ministry Training.”

Steve has served both as a pastor and church elder in various churches in Illinois. He currently serves as a house church leader and a network leader of the Ames-Des Moines CityChurch in Iowa.

He completed the Ph.D. Higher Education program at Loyola University with a dissertation on “Experiential Learning and the Role of Primary Social Relationships as Contexts for Situated Learning in Distance Education Courses of Evangelical Theological Education Institutions.” Recently, he has contributed “Situated Learning: Optimizing God-Given Learning Communities” for Christian Education Journal and “Social Presence in Online Learning” for Best Practices of Online Education: A Guide for Christian Education.

Steve and his wife Judy have two children, Michael and Sarah, one dachshund named Mack, and reside in Ames, Iowa.