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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In what educators call the constructivist learning model, online discussions provide an arena where knowledge is shared among participants, especially when they provide solutions for real-life problem-solving. When designed correctly, discussion questions can also contribute to critical thinking and the formation of a sense of community in the virtual classroom. They are the basis for participation in many well-designed college courses.

Developing a strategy for posting discussion questions is something all online students should examine. One case study from the British Journal of Educational Technology (http://mason.gmu.edu/~ndabbagh/wblg/online-protocol.html) suggests several key attributes:

• Postings should be evenly distributed during the class

• Posting should be a minimum of one short paragraph and a maximum of two paragraphs

• Avoid postings that are limited to “I agree” or “great idea”

• Build on others’ responses to create threads

• Bringing related prior knowledge such as work experience.

Research Papers

Conducting researching for online course papers is not greatly different from the research one would do for a face-to-face course. However, the volume and quality of available research material via the Internet is a mixed blessing for online students. Some sources should not be cited in a college-level paper. Students should avoid blogs, wikis and other sources that cannot be authenticated. Sources generally cited in research papers include original research, review articles and case studies. Original research is usually reported in professional journals and includes raw data. Review articles are written by experienced researchers usually selected by journal editors and summarize major findings of a particular topic. Of course, case studies provide a narrative focused on a work or social unit depicting success or failure in an incident.

When Daryl prepared to write a paper concerning structural collapse based on various construction techniques at commercial structure fires, he used Google to research the topic. His findings included a December packing plant fire in Orlando, FL, that helped him expand his topic. His research included the Windsor Tower fire in Madrid, Spain, World Trade Center towers collapse and First Interstate Bank fire in Los Angeles, CA. When he found a passage that was useful to his topic, he made sure to quote or paraphrase the publication, include an in-text citation, and list the full reference on his reference page.

Teacher Presence

Martinez says that good curriculum design may allow an online course to stand alone, but in her experience the best courses are facilitated by an expert instructor.

“If we’re looking at teaching and learning, the teacher-to-learner experience is very valuable for the student,” she says. “The learner feels he or she has someone in the learning process who they can rely on. Quite a number of student surveys show that quality of instruction and teacher presence are highly related to student satisfaction.” Teacher presence is manifested in many ways, she says, including, “instructor announcements, which provide direction for students, prompt responses to emails, and qualitative feedback on assignments.”

Much scholarly writing is available concerning the appropriate level of teacher involvement in discussions. Some students feel the need to have an instructor provide a “correct answer.” Often, when discussion questions are open-ended, there is no correct answer. And too much instructor involvement in the discussion area can stifle student involvement and learning. It may be compared to reading test answers prior to a test.

Course Readings

Because an actual lecture may be limited to a streaming video or a written overview of a module’s content in the online environment, course readings are the lifeblood of asynchronous delivery. Reading assignments may be limited to the textbook, but usually include case studies, magazine articles, blogs, industry expert opinions and technical manuals.

Examples of case studies in fire science courses such as tactics, building construction, and private fire protection systems, include Firefighter Close Calls (http://www.firefighterclosecalls.com/home.php) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) (http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/). Some of the readings will be available online as a document or via a web link. The importance of case studies is how they relate to adult learning. Adults tend to perceive information as meaningful when it relates to their work. For example, when a firefighter reads an account of an “ordinary house fire” that results in injury of another firefighter, this information is far from theoretical.