Understanding & Navigating The Online Course

Before you sign up for an online course, understand the program outline and structure.


  Daryl had the excitement reminiscent of a major event – a birthday or family holiday – when he received his user ID and password for his first college course: “Building Construction for the Fire Service. Taught entirely online.” What a time saver, he thought. Now college courses he...


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Daryl had the excitement reminiscent of a major event – a birthday or family holiday – when he received his user ID and password for his first college course: “Building Construction for the Fire Service. Taught entirely online.” What a time saver, he thought. Now college courses he had been remiss in attending would be available anytime and anywhere he had an Internet connection. Sweet!

The sweetness soon soured into a blizzard of symbols and a lexicon he had never experienced: “DQs,” “alternative assessment,” course information documents and a syllabus that looked as long as the last book he had read. Daryl, a career firefighter who asked that his real name not be used, snapped shut the lid of his netbook, picked up the phone and called his college advisor. When his advisor answered, Daryl said accusingly, “You didn’t tell me how hard this online class would be, only that I could do this class at home or the station. I don’t know where to start.”

Daryl is not alone. Yet online courses follow a somewhat certain design. They are constructed first of a foundation that offers the strength for successive floors, walls, utilities and a roof. As the late fire science building construction patriarch Francis L. Brannigan pointed out, the failure of a continuous transmission of building loads to a foundation will result in partial or total collapse. The same can be said for the build-out of an online course; the foundation for course construction is the syllabus.

The Syllabus As a Tool

Nicola Martinez, Ph.D., faculty member and former director of curriculum and instructional design at Empire State College in New York, sees the syllabus as one of the most important documents in an online class.

“We call these course information documents,” she says. Regardless of the title used they are, “a really comprehensive set of documents that show student requirements” and how the course will progress throughout the term. The University of Texas, in a recent presentation by professors at its Health Science Center in Houston, explains that in a face-to-face environment, the syllabus can be abbreviated because verbal explanation is usually provided by the instructor. However, in the online course, no verbal clues are present so the syllabus must be a standalone document. Another professor writing about best practices in course design says that student failure to completely read the syllabus accounts for a majority of the confusion in her online courses.

Whatever terminology is associated with the syllabus, it constitutes a detailed blueprint of the course structure. It’s also a social contract between student and teacher. It spells out course goals and objectives, faculty and student roles and expectations, resources and due dates. Yet, these documents are not perfect and are subject to revision. As a result, students need to be attuned to course developments weekly, if not daily, to see any syllabus and course revisions.

Ed Kaplan, Section Chief/Education, Training and Partnerships, U.S. Fire Administration/National Fire Academy (NFA), says, “All of the associate’s and bachelor’s course outlines are found on the FESHE (Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education) model curriculum webpage and these serve as the format for their respective developments. For the associate’s courses outlines developed by the FESHE National Fire Science Degree Program Committee, the major fire service publishers write textbooks and develop instructor supplements from which fire science faculty can teach the courses. The bachelor’s courses are completely web-based courses developed by NFA in partnership with the seven Degrees at a Distance Program school faculty. Keeping both curriculums current is challenging and labor intensive requiring lengthy timelines for completion.”

Grading at a Distance

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