Over six million higher education students in the US take at least one course online.
Distance education, like its counterpart in the classroom, should deliver, through instructors, the best opportunity to learn possible. Providing a positive online experience can help students navigate online coursework, have an engaging learning experience and have less frustration due to distance. Here is my top ten list of how to help you do just that, which is derived from completing a Ph.D. partially online:
10. Keep the online coursework time flexible. Students take online courses because they can work at their jobs, care for their children, and otherwise arrange their lives apart from the institution. However, if you set an arbitrary date for a required live discussion that is convenient to you, realize it could be disastrous for the online student.
One course I took online required all posts and responses to those posts due at the exact same time: midnight on a Saturday night. Students were required to respond to any reply on their post. That meant staying up until midnight to watch for the invariably late poster who decided to bless me with a reply to my post. I had to sometimes hurriedly research and write a reply in fifteen minutes (from 11:45 until midnight). That was not fun, since I was used to retiring at ten each night.
In another course, I participated in a discussion with two students in the military. They lived in an opposite time zone as the professor, so they were up in the middle of the night to meet this professor’s inflexible discussion requirement.
Think about how your deadlines impact online students.
9. Always set a word count. You know that guy that monopolizes the live classroom discussion? He is alive and well online and he (or she) needs a word limit. Word limits also tighten student’s writing skills, which help their posts get attention.
8. Allow students to participate in any discussion without grading once their required portions are done.
Imagine being told to “post early and often” and then be penalized for posting early and often. How does that happen? Early posters sometimes get more responses, so they are “penalized” in a sense because they must respond to each one. Late posters get fewer responses and, thus, don’t have to spend their valuable time replying to posts.
Students who post more than the required number of times also may be penalized if all their responses don’t contain the required elements, even if only two are required and five responses are posted.
Because of these common discussion requirements, allowing students to post free from penalty once the requirements are met keeps discussion boards more akin to real “in-person” discussions. It also does not discourage participation.
7. Provide a grading rubric for all assignments. Rubrics help students “get the feel” for a new professor. They don’t know how you will grade, but a rubric keeps them, and you as a professor, honest. Since grading is subjective, it’s more fairly done with a rubric.
If you have not created a rubric, take a few students’ top-quality work, identify the aspects that you require to be included in the work, and assign points to each aspect. Show your students the rubric and the example work.
6. Keep the first-semester student in mind. Don’t assume a student is familiar with how online courses work. Reach out to first-semester students in particular. Welcome them to your online classes and invite them to contact you if they have any issues navigating the course. They are in a new environment and they need encouragement.
5. Help newer students (particularly in graduate classes) find scholarly journals that are most likely to help them learn the foundational content of their discipline. Assign some specific journal articles that everyone should read, particularly if it is a classic work in the discipline.
4. If the course has a set content, don’t drift too far from it. The student needs to learn foundational knowledge, even though it is all-too-familiar ground to you. It is tempting to offer extra information and choices to keep things varied for you, but it doesn’t necessarily help the student.
3. Be a real live human being. Share some personal information, struggles, and insights that you experienced when you studied the material on your own. Some students need that personal touch, and all students appreciate knowing you better
2. Own your mistakes and communicate your changes. Because classroom content can be more visual than verbal, any written mistake you make is obvious. Don’t let your miscue become a student’s misfortune. Fix it and apologize to everyone.
Material for online courses matter much more than material posted online in an “in-person” course, so ensure the syllabus is correct, including due dates and all extra information. Announce any changes to the entire class as soon as possible.
Imagine the anxiety produced when a student who gets ahead on assignments now discovers that a book was swapped, a due date was moved, or the instructions changed. This happened to me. I downloaded the syllabus and put assignments and due dates on my calendar the first day the site opened. Several weeks into the semester, I downloaded the syllabus again and realized that some books were changed and a due date had been moved. No notification to the class as a whole was made. When some students inevitably missed that changed due date and posted on the forum about it, the instructor simply said, “Look at the syllabus” (that had been corrected after they downloaded it). Many of us knew what had happened and it made the instructor look bad.
1. Post grades from the first two assignments as quickly as possible. One of the most frustrating complaints from all students is waiting for grades. Students need feedback. They need it quickly because they are working on their next assignment and don’t want to repeat mistakes. If they were in a live classroom, they might get some early verbal feedback from you in your office or classroom, but in an online setting, the only feedback some students get is when graded work is returned online.
Sometimes after a long tenure of teaching, we as instructors can become jaded to the call for grades. But I have had students tell me that they experienced having to wait almost an entire online class without receiving any graded work. Consequently, they have no idea how well they are doing in the course. This is discouraging. If they were on campus, they could come by your office and get some reassurance. But they have invested in an online course instead.
Take a moment to remember your first online teaching experience or learning experience. Put yourself in your students’ shoes and help them to succeed in your alternative online class setting.
 “NEW STUDY: OVER SIX MILLION STUDENTS NOW ENROLLED IN DISTANCE EDUCATION” Online LearningTM Consortium, May 2, 2017, https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/news_item/new-study-six-million-students-now-enrolled-distance-education