Before I started working in instructional design, I was an online student. In my work now, I often draw upon my online learning experiences when working with instructors to build and design their courses.
Over the span of my academic career, I have taken nearly a dozen courses online. As an adult, I chose online courses over face-to-face courses because of the demands for my time – professional and personal. Online learning provided me the ability to “do it all” and I was grateful for it. I still take courses online – and for the same reasons.
However, there are stark differences between the online classes I enjoy and the classes I can’t wait to end. Here are the reasons why:
- Rules of the Road. As a student, I want to be told what is expected of me right away. Give me an overview of the expectations for the course and, if you want, establish weekly benchmarks, but please establish the ‘rules of the road’ immediately. Although I am a working adult and manage a busy schedule, I also expect to be able to be successful in class. Confusion and lack of communication makes it impossible to succeed. If I do not know the ‘rules of road,’ I cannot follow them. For example, I had a professor who was “trying out” a new grading system. By mid-semester, he hadn’t yet informed us about the grading system or shared with us any feedback about our work. When I inquired about my performance, I was told: “Don’t worry. If you were in jeopardy, I would have reached out to you by now.” As hard as it is to believe, this is a true story. In fact, this was my first online class ever. Lucky, I tried another online class after that mess.
- Too little too late. Feedback is a critical element in the learning process. Only then can a student attempt to do better on assignments in the future. For example, I received feedback from a video professor two weeks after a project was turned in. However, in the time it took to receive feedback in those two weeks, I had turned in two completed video assignments and had completed shooting a third. The feedback I received indicated that I should shoot from a different angle. This meant that the two assignments I had already turned in were going to be downgraded because I didn’t receive the professors critique soon enough to be able to incorporate it into my work and the third project would have to be reshot.
- Me, Myself, and I. Online coursework and independent study are not the same. The most engaging, interesting and enjoyable courses have carefully constructed interactions between students as a part of curriculum activities. For me, isolation isn’t an effective learning tool. Students learn from other students online too! Courses should require student-student interaction and student-faculty interaction – frequently.
- Give me something to talk about. On the other hand, I’ve been in courses where there are a lot of “discussion board” assignments that don’t require peer interaction and the discussion questions are ho-hum. This doesn’t count as student engagement. Interaction should be thoughtfully designed by the professor and thought provoking for the student. Unfortunately, I have had several professors who use the discussion assignments to check to see if we did the reading. This is called busy work, even online. The discussion questions should incorporate the reading, but challenge students to think critically too.
- I don’t own a crystal ball. One of my biggest pet peeves as an online student is when a professor doesn’t use the correct terminology for course tools or activities. It is confusing and frustrating to have to try to decipher what the professor means, rather than taking his/her word. For example, I had a professor who used the term “blog” and “wiki” interchangeably. However, these are different tools – not the same thing.
It takes a great deal of energy and effort to build an online course that is interesting and engaging. So, pay careful attention to these types of elements that greatly impact the learner experience as you ready online courses for the fall semester.