Student Experience in Online Courses

All of us have experienced a face to face classroom at some point in our lives, be it college or K-12. Something we should always keep in the forefront of our mind when designing online courses though, is that many students have never experienced an online course before yours. The course you are teaching may be their first experience online ever.

In a face to face classroom, there is a typical set up and set of norms that students have been trained, by experience, to expect. There are probably chairs, some sort of “stage” area near the front of the room, whiteboards, a projector, etc. It’s clear when they walk in, even if the room is empty, what they are expected to do.

Take this same experience and put it in the online environment. When students enter the “room” of your online class, you don’t want them to find it empty, with no chairs, lights off, and no clear purpose to the space. Since it might be their first time in an online course, students are likely a little anxious as well. For that reason, it’s best if you’re there “waiting” for them with an introduction.

Many of the resources in this orientation are present to help alleviate the anxiety of the empty classroom. There are instructor introductions, a place for students to introduce themselves, and support or help resources if things go wrong. This “Getting Started” experience is vital to student success in online courses.

But what about after?

You may have heard from students that they expect online courses to be easier than face to face, but in reality, that’s not true for a lot of students. Everything in an online course is an “assignment”. Everything is something that students have to do. Without a clear structure to the course, many students will fall victim to procrastination.

Here are some tips to guide students toward success in online courses:

  • Be accessible to students via email and try to reply promptly (within 24 hours). Remember that email may be the only way students have to reach you.
  • Spend some time thinking about how you would present assignments and readings in a face to face course, and work to translate all of that information in some way online, be it through written instructions or videos.
  • When possible be flexible with student misunderstandings. Students may have read something incorrectly, misunderstood instructions, or overlooked a needed resource.
  • Provide a structure for activities and stick to it throughout the entire semester. Pick days of the week that certain types of activities will be due. For example, always have initial discussion forum posts due on Tuesdays and the replies on Friday and/or always have students complete quizzes on Fridays.
  • Keep in mind your facilitation load. Students don’t see you in person to hear your comments that help to clarify misunderstandings, they rely heavily on your feedback on their work to learn. Without that feedback, online courses are a very one way experience for students. When planning your course, be sure to balance student workload with your own workload, so you’re not assigning students work when you are incapable of providing feedback. Rely on Canvas’s auto graded quizzing features and peer-review tool to provide feedback when you’re not able.

Online Learning 101 for Students: The UNC System Office has created this brief overview for prospective and current students to help them understand what it means to be an online student.