Interactions in Online Courses


In the face-to-face environment, student-to-student, student-faculty, and student-content interactions occur synchronously and often develop organically (Moore, 1989). The challenge with online education is how to create opportunities for interaction that yield effective and rich learning experiences.

This article outlines five research-based best practices for meaningful interactions in online courses. These practices were derived from two sources:

  • Several main theoretical frameworks for course design and teaching:
  • Social constructivism
  • Moore’s three types of interactions
  • The Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education
  • Quality Matters Course Design Standards

Survey feedback from Johns Hopkins Engineering for Professionals (EP) faculty (n=94) and students (n=327). Survey results were coded using open coding protocol.

Best Practice #1: Develop a Communication Plan

  1. Determine your preferred method of communication (e.g., email, Zoom, Teams, phone).
    • Tech Tip: If emailing students, use your official Johns Hopkins University email account to comply with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
  2. Be clear, concise, and consistent about instructions, assignments, assessments, due dates, course pages, and office hours.
  3. Determine your response time to student communications (e.g., respond within 48 hours).
  4. Establish communication expectations and requirements for students. Add the communication plan to the course syllabus.

Best Practice #2: Create Regular Individual and Group meetings

  1. Poll students on the best dates/times for meetings with you and/or other instructors/teaching assistants (TAs).
  2. Schedule weekly Office Hours via Zoom.

Best Practice #3: Build a Sense of Community

  1. Use a modern communication platform for interaction and community building.
  2. Create a personalized bio and statement that welcomes students to the course in text or video format.
  3. Ask students to share a personalized bio, video introductions, or other ways to introduce themselves at the beginning of the course.

Best Practice #4: Provide Timely and Meaningful Feedback

  1. Be consistent with your stated communication plan. If you are not able to respond in a timely manner, communicate that to students.
  2. Proactively address problems as they emerge and be responsive to student concerns.
  3. Provide individual feedback and course-based feedback.
  4. Update grades frequently.
  5. Make grades easily accessible.

Best Practice #5: Include Authentic Assessments and Active learning to Support All Types of Interactions

Recommendations for these types of assessments include course discussions and group/collaborative work.

Course Discussions

  1. Create thought-provoking, open-ended discussion prompts that are related to the learning outcomes.
  2. Evaluate the need to require posts/responses and grading of the discussion.
  3. Promote collaboration on homework questions or parts of assignments within a discussion.

Group/Collaborative Work

  1. Creating groups. If pre-selecting groups, consider your students’ geography and time zones. Or consider allowing students to self-select groups.
  2. State clear expectations for collaborative group work.
  3. Recommend technology tools to support group work.
    • Tech Tip: JHU’s Office 365 subscription includes collaborative documents (e.g., Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint) and is integrated within Microsoft Teams. 

Appendix A: Sample Communication Plan in Course Syllabus

  • Lecture Times Mondays and Fridays 1:30-2:45pm [room or Zoom link) Professor [Name]
    Office [building and #]
  • Office Hours (day/time will be determined after student survey) Phone
  • Email [email]
  • TA Office Hours Thursday 5-7pm & Sunday 5-7pm
  • TAs [Name] & [email], [Name] & [email] E-mail

In general questions of a non-private nature regarding projects, lectures, reading or other curricular aspects of the class should not be sent by e-mail. Students are required to post these questions to the course website via the Discussions tool. If you would like to expedite the response to your question you may e-mail the instructor to alert him to the fact that you have recently posted a question on the board. Students may also post answers to questions on the discussion board. Only questions of an individual or personal nature, for example regarding your grade or your need to take an exam early, should be sent directly by e-mail. This policy is enforced to make the course website as useful as possible as a place where students can look for answers to frequently asked questions.

Office Hours via Zoom

This course will use Zoom to facilitate weekly, synchronous office hours. You are not required to participate in Office Hours; however, you may find them greatly beneficial for receiving more timely answers to questions related to the course content and assignments.

Course Structure

The course will be structured to permit students with numerous opportunities to engage in active discussions of thermodynamics to clarify the underlying concepts. Students are expected to watch the video-linked lectures provided online via the learning management system. These are PDF files containing notes where each page is hyperlinked to a video that provides an explanation of the notes. Students are also expected to read the assigned chapters from the text prior to class. In addition, an assignment will be associated with each lecture. All students are responsible for submitting solutions to the assignment via the learning management system. At the start of class, one student will act as the “presenter” who is assigned the responsibility of presenting the solutions to the class. The class will start with a short lecture recap. The remainder of class time will be spent working on other related problems. Class participation will be monitored and will constitute part of each student’s grade.

Appendix B: Clear Expectations for Collaborative Group Work

Example from Gateway Computing: MATLAB

  • Step 1 (10 minutes) - Do not use your computers! Work in your group on the whiteboard to think about:
    • What is your plan for writing the function?
    • How will you test if the function works?
  • Step 2 (10 minutes) - Divide into teams of 2 (if there are an odd number of people you can form a 3-person team) to translate the pseudocode into a MATLAB script. Start by discussing who feels that they are most confused or need the most practice. This person should operate the computer. The other person(s) should work with them and suggest what needs to be written in the code. Work as a team to write and test the code. At least one team should project their work on the wall. You may talk to the others in your group outside of your team.
  • Step 3 (10 minutes) - We will then share our ideas about solutions to this problem as a class and perhaps step through writing the code.
  • Step 4 (10 minutes) - Now return to your entire group and talk about how you might change your code to [meet a secondary objective.]
  • Step 5 (10 minutes) - Work in your team to implement the code you discussed in your group.


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