Getting Smart With Teacher Observations Online

Given that online schooling has become the norm for much of the country, there is a stark need for educators and administrators to update their evaluation policies for online classrooms. Online teaching has a different dynamic than in-person teaching, and thus administrators and evaluators need a different framework to compensate for differences to make sure they are still getting the actionable data that they need.

For many educators, they are not prepared to achieve continuous learning for online education. That is why we put together this list of important ways that educators can take advantage of online learning and incorporate those insights into evaluations. 

Challenges with Online Observation

One of the biggest challenges for switching to online classroom observations is the lack of familiarity. Most administrators are familiar with the evaluation of in-person courses. During a normal classroom observation, the evaluatory may schedule a prior meeting time (in the case of formal evaluations) or drop in on the classroom unannounced (for informal observation). The observation itself involves physically being present in the classroom and noting the type and quality of teacher instruction, student engagement, and supplemental media usage.

In an online context, many of these traditional features are outside of the process. Most important, evaluators in an online context are not present in any physical classroom and online courses usually have a different focus and direction than in-person instruction. Administrators in an online context may be wondering how they can “visit” a virtual classroom or may wonder how to properly account for the instructor’s presence in an online environment. Other pertinent issues might be:

  • How can I gauge multimedia usage in an online environment?
  • How do I ascertain the quality of instruction at-a-distance?
  • How can I evaluate online instruction if I myself have never given inline instruction?
  • How often do I need to evaluate online instruction to get a full picture of teacher performance?
  • How do I handle questions on the scoring rubric that do not apply in an online context? (e.g. classroom arrangement, safety requirements, etc.).

In some cases, the answers to these kinds of questions are fairly straightforward. With respect to the length of online evaluation, evaluators can set up times based on the length of the instruction period, just as they would for an in-person evaluation. For example, one-hour sessions in an in-person context should be the same length as online evaluation for a course with the same amount of credit hours.

Another pressing issue is how to make sure that online instruction is meeting up to state or district-mandated teaching standards, considering that those standards were most likely designed with in-person instruction in mind.

Principles of Online Teaching Evaluation

Fortunately for educators and administrators, education experts have been working on methods for online classroom evaluation for many years now, ever since the advent of online courses and distance learning.

A 2001 article entitled “Seven principles of effective teaching: A practical lens for evaluating online courses”, authors Charles Graham and Kursat Cagiltay offer a comprehensive overview of strategies for online classroom evaluation. The authors also provide concrete examples of how these principles can be put into practice.

So we will take a look at these principles and offer a cursory examination of how these principles can be put into practice.

  1. Good Practice Encourages Student-Faculty Contact
  2. Given the lack of in-person contact, educators should set clear expectations of how students can contact the teacher. This includes setting specific timelines for teacher-student contact.
  3. Good Practice Encourages Cooperation Among Students
  4. Just as in in-person classes, teachers in online environments should facilitate meaningful cooperation between students. For example, participation grades, group discussions, and group projects are essential.
  5. Good Practice Encourages Active Learning
  6. Projects and presentations are important in both an in-person and online context. Even if formal presentations may not work as well online, presentation structure can be modified for an online environment.
  7. Good Practice Gives Prompt Feedback
  8. Informational feedback and “acknowledgement” feedback are two importan types of feedback. Informational feedback provides evaluation of information presented by students and acknowledgement feedback recognizes that an event has occurred.
  9. Good Practice Emphasizes Time on Task
  10. Flexibility is touted as a benefit of online purses, however setting regular deadlines keeps students on task and contributes to their overall engagement.
  11. Good Practice Communicates High Expectations
  12. As is the case for in-person evaluations, it is important to highlight the kinds of challenges teachers are providing students. This includes providing examples and models for students and praising exemplary work from students.
  13. Good Practice Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning
  14. Instructors can provide guidelines for students choosing project topics, but giving students a voice in the kind of project topics they pursue can help students share their unique learning and educational perspectives.

These are general principles and need to be properly applied in each particular online environment, but they provide a general scheme for educators and evaluators to follow when undertaking online classroom observation.

One may notice that given these principles, online classroom observation is based on and focuses on the same principles as in-person observation, just in a different context. As is the case in online classroom observation, one of the most important metrics is to gauge the level of student-teacher interaction. A teacher with poor student-teacher interaction would not encourage students to engage with one another and would not have lessons and instruction that require two-way interaction. Conversely, High levels of interactivity are characterized by encouraging student-on-student engagement.


Changing technological demand requires a similar change in the methods that administrators use to evaluate teachers in an online context. That being said, the core of the evaluation process should remain the same, regardless of the learning environment. Moreover, these core tenets can be quantified and measured using reliable metrics.

Online instruction seems to be here to stay, at least for the immediate future. Administrators and other education experts can apply lessons of traditional classroom evaluation and supplant them in an online context. The principles outlined in this article can provide a good baseline for formulating a rubric for online teaching evaluation.

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