Teaching an Online Course for the Very First Time

An instructor’s perspective from Armando Diaz

Armando Diaz previously taught the classroom versions of two of our courses (College Admissions Advising A and College Admissions Advising B) for the Certificate Program in College Admissions and Career Planning.

When Sigrid Mueller, Program Director for Education, invited him to begin teaching these two courses in the online environment, he thought that it might be challenging to recreate the same level of student engagement. However, with careful planning, he was very satisfied with the experience and outcome.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Armando. What is your background? When did you start teaching for us? How did you become interested in online teaching?

I originally began my career in education as a high-school English teacher in 1998, then slowly transitioned into school counseling in 2008. While I still enjoy working with high-school students in both capacities, I've always been interested in trying new things and stretching myself as an educator.

While I maintained my passion for student advocacy, I felt eager for a new challenge. I was intrigued with the idea of using my experience as an English teacher, school counselor and college counselor to work with adults—to not only just participate in the field, but to also play a role in training counselors. I began teaching for Extension in 2017, and I continue to work with my student cohorts today. 

When Sigrid Mueller (Program Director for Education) and I met to discuss the possibility of bringing these two courses online, I was intrigued with the idea. By transferring the college-advising coursework into an online platform, we could combine new, innovative 21st-century instructional design practices along with "tried-and-true" classroom teaching strategies that we knew worked well with students. The combination of both worlds was an exciting prospect for me, and I was happy to be a part of it.


I understand that these two online courses were originally designed by Amy McVeigh with the help of our instructional designer, Chris Worthen. Did you have any input in the design or review of these courses? What was it like to teach an online course that was designed by someone else?

Yes, Amy and Chris really came at this with a very team-oriented approach. They wanted to use what went well in the in-person course—including what really resonated with the students—and combine that with their expertise in online content development.

They took a close look at my curriculum and used that as a jumping-off point for conversations—both in-person and via Zoom—to identify what would translate well online and what direction to take with each course. They were both always very respectful of my expertise and came at this project with incredibly open mindsets.

Ultimately, Amy and Chris were excellent at bringing all of these complex pieces together and crafting classes that used the best of both worlds: "on-ground" content that students enjoyed but re-envisioned in a new format.  


What did you initially view as a potential challenge in teaching College Admissions Advising A and College Admissions Advising B to online students?

My larger concern—and one I would highly recommend educators new to this format consider first and foremost—is the degree to which their students know and are familiar with online classes.

As adults, most (if not all) of us were taught in the traditional teacher-led paradigm and have subsequently taught others in that same framework. We lectured, and when a hand was raised we answered questions and everything went relatively smoothly. However, in online education, an adult student’s interaction with an instructor in the online classroom may be very limited.

I was concerned that even the most veteran of school counselors, some with decades of experience in their field, would be fairly new to learning in the online format and may not necessarily trust that real learning and real interaction could develop in an online class, just as it does in an in-person classroom.

We knew that crafting a challenging and comprehensive curriculum was just one part of the process. Another part was having the instructor make the students feel safe and build in them a real confidence that online classes can be just as meaningful, if not more so, than a traditional classroom experience. 


How long did it take you to prepare for teaching the course online? Were there any useful resources that you used? Did you consult with anyone prior to starting?

I started by asking myself this key question: "How do I become as familiar as possible with a learning format that is new to both me and my students?"

I tried taking a holistic approach. I started by researching national standards for online instruction and learning about what I can do to align my teaching with those proven, sound benchmarks. After spending some time researching that, I reached out to my network of colleagues and found out who has taught online classes before. I would pick their brains on the pros and cons of online teaching, their best practices and what I needed to factor in as I began my first class. That was fun!

Lastly, I took short, online classes and professional training via LinkedIn to prepare me for the experience. Feeling confident that I was taking a standards-based approach that was rooted in both my own learning and the experiences of those currently in the field, I was ready to go.


What’s a typical week like for an online instructor? How much time do you spend per week in the course engaging with your students?

First off, it was important to look very closely at my personal and professional world to assess where I had time for this new commitment. I am married with three children and still continue to work full time as a school counselor. Learning where to “fit this in” was a crucial first step.

Typically in the mornings, I spend 60 to 75 minutes either grading assignments, commenting on student work or providing feedback to the Extension team about the flow of the course content. Approximately once a week, I record a short video update via Canvas in which I check in with the cohort, give them a “heads-up” of the content to come or just expand on a topic that I feel the group needs more information on. Mornings are best for me, and I do my best to follow my own self-imposed Golden Rule: Do a little something every day no matter what! 


Did you receive an orientation or additional support from the department, online help and/or our Instructional Design Team (IDT)?

Yes, the Extension team was great in helping us launch these courses. We really positioned ourselves to be open to feedback before, during and at the close of each class.

Amy and I spent many hours reflecting on the previous curriculum and looked at what did and didn’t translate into an online format. Chris was always available to ensure that what we were hoping to do was possible and was great at taking our ideas and exploring how Canvas can actualize our instructional goals.

At the close of the first class, we spent some time processing what we could change or alter going into the second class, with Amy creating a real-time Instructor’s Notes section that allowed me to give her comments and suggestions for each module.

I wasn’t afraid to call Canvas’ support line on occasions when I needed help, and they were always great at giving me support, especially on weekends and early mornings when I could focus more closely on the class.  


How were you able to re-create the same or similar level of student engagement in your online class as in your classroom course? Is there a specific example or strategy that you used?

Our intense focus on quality control in the initial planning stages really set the stage for all of the work to come.

We were guided by this overarching question: How do we provide as collaborative of an experience as possible given the online format? We wanted to see if the students could still see, hear and learn from their classmates and the instructor in ways that feel as intimate as a classroom setting. 

As already mentioned, I came up with the idea to post weekly check-in videos on Canvas where I freely discuss a variety of topics, much in the same way a student would experience in an on-ground classroom. I would summarize the week’s topics, give students tips as to what I was looking for in modules to come or simply give my professional view on a topic that really resonated with the group during their online discussions.

Sometimes during the course of the class it was clear that all the students needed was a little encouragement and congratulations for doing such good work! The weekly video forum allowed for that to happen in a very natural and fluid way. This helped all of us feel more connected to each other and present in the online experience. 


What do you think are the pros and cons of teaching courses online versus in the classroom?

In a traditional classroom, discussions can move very naturally: One topic can lead into another at the drop of a hat. There are times when I’m reviewing an online discussion or assignment when I say to myself, “I would have loved to talk about this more in class.”

That natural give and take is hard to replicate, and we as a team will continue to brainstorm how to better foster student engagement in the classes to come. But in many ways, the fact that every student had to not only post an assignment for each activity but also comment on a classmate’s thoughts allowed for even greater participation.

Online classrooms really equalize the experience for everyone in that no one student can dominate the time and energy like a student can in a classroom setting. Everyone gets the time and space to say what they want and can measure their responses accordingly. As an online instructor, I feel I have the pulse on everyone in the classroom, not just the more vocal and extroverted students.


When you first started teaching the online courses, did you experience any unforeseen bumps or challenges?

I was really forced to take a long, hard look at where I was or wasn’t wasting time. I had to learn to become as disciplined as I’ve ever been, and in many ways it’s made me a better professional across the board.

When it came to teaching the courses, it was a fairly seamless experience. I knew that the channels of communication between Amy, Chris and myself were very open and that we were eager for feedback in all directions. My video check-ins assured the students that I was right alongside them, clarifying topics that needed it and making necessary adjustments in real time.

Computer problems arose and individual students needed a bit more guidance with the pace of online learning, but for the most part everything went well. We stayed focused on the students’ overall experiences during all phases of the development, implementation and evaluation of these classes, and that was a huge factor in our success.


Are you satisfied with the quality of the online learning experience for both yourself as an instructor and for your students?

Very much so, in that the students were engaged in the same types of activities that they would have been in a traditional classroom setting. The feedback for both classes has been very positive.

Having such rich conversations during the formation stage and providing feedback throughout the process really paid off in the actual experience of the student. Our team really committed to crafting a curriculum that was relevant, flexible and challenging, while I strove to be present to the progress of each student and available both online and via Zoom.

We replicated, as best as we could, an intimate classroom environment where students could partake in the “give and take” of a traditional classroom setting, but with the possibility of taking the class from a remote location.


Armando, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us! Do you have any final words of advice for anyone who might be thinking about teaching online for the first time?

Yes, don’t be afraid to try something new if online instruction interests you!

At this point in the field, there is a very eager audience who wants to learn everything about online instruction. If you decide to take on this challenge, not only will you have a new skill set that makes you marketable in this 21st-century world of education, but school leaders of all shapes and sizes will be eager to learn from you about what it is like to be an online instructor and how they can design and implement online courses on their school sites.

I’ve already taken what I learned through this experience and led a team to create our first online course at my school, with the idea of adding more in the years to come. It will be an immensely rewarding experience for both you and your students; all you need to do is jump in!

Armando Diaz holds a M.A. in school counseling and a PPS from St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif. He has worked in the field of education for more than 20 years: nine years as a secondary-school English teacher and 11 years as a school counselor. Diaz is in his 16th year at Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento, where he assists many students and their families through the college-admission process. He is passionate about student advocacy—both directly with students and training teachers—to best support students in their educational and college goals. He also designs and presents many professional-development seminars on parent communication and conflict management.