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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Issues of grading should be detailed in the syllabus too. This is often done via a grading rubric. A rubric can be a simple table that encompasses reallocation by topics such as class participation, midterm exam, quizzes, and final project or exam. A sample course grading rubric may look like this:

Activity PORTION of Grade

Participation 30%

Completes all DQs (10 points)

Uses cited research (10 points)

Contributes substantially

to course discussions (10 points)

Midterm Exam 20%

Quizzes 15%

Quiz 1 (5 points)

Quiz 2 (5 points)

Quiz 3 (5 points)

Capstone Project 35%

Thesis (5 points)

Organization (5 points)

Research: (10 points)

Writing quality (10 points)

Conclusion (5 points)

Total 100%

Discussion Questions

Online discussion questions (DQs) are a crucial part of education at a distance. Because there is no face-to-face interaction, written conversations are the currency of the DQ. They are used to express ideas, elicit comments, pose further questions and promote critical thinking.

“These often weekly questions, which relate course content, provide a timed discussion between students, are often moderated by the instructor,” Martinez says, noting that DQs provide a valuable learning tool for course participants. “Many times, discussion questions pose a question that students research to support their opinions. Especially in a course offering (large amounts of information), discussion questions can help bridge the theoretical to practical.”

Martinez has designed more than 1,000 online courses and was heavily involved in the FESHE program. She explains that discussion questions can also be a means of alternative assessment.

“Our research in effective online discussions shows that a good discussion takes about two weeks to mature,” Martinez says. “Discussions are generally paced over two weeks to allow students with busy schedules plenty of time to read comments by their peers and make their contributions. Faculty peer reviewers evaluate a course before it is opened to students to make sure that the pacing and workload are appropriate for the course level and credits.”

Kaplan says, “Framed discussions are one of the most effective ways by which we apply critical thinking and higher learning to the online version of our FESHE bachelor’s courses. In most instances, students must respond to an open-ended question, posed problem or scenario within each of the five modules with a 250-word reply in which your argument is punctually and grammatically correct and backed up with properly cited sources. You are also required to respond to two other classmates’ postings to the same question with a 125-word reply that meets the same academic rigor as your original posting. Contrast this with the traditional classroom participation format where students raise their hands and offer their thoughts and opinions verbally. In the online classroom, you’re thinking through your response and making your case in writing with supporting evidence and having to do so succinctly. Both offer two different skills sets, one requires succinct critical thought and presentation and the other, thinking on your feet and presenting oral arguments. Both are essential skills for leaders in any organization.”

Discussion questions also predominate at Empire State.

“We rely heavily on discussion to evaluate students,” Martinez says. “We might ask students to answer, in a minimum of 125 words, a posed question, then answer at least two other classmates using research. This might be 30% of their grade. This allows an instructor to evaluate students, because their responses will clearly indicate if they are reading material and learning it.”

Other alternative assessments, which are related to discussion questions, are reflective journals, student-created blogs and participation in a pro-con debate, according to Martinez.

“In my ‘Privacy, Security and Freedom: Social Concerns for the 21st Century’ course, students participate in a group policy development; they develop a policy based on a threat scenario that they develop,” Martinez says. “These kinds of assessments clearly indicate learning at a higher level and deeper (understanding) than a quiz or test might indicate.”