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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Regardless of source, students often find the amount of reading stifling. Martinez suggests students become familiar with skimming and scanning reading strategies to assist them in tackling voluminous reading assignments.

Course Pacing & Communication

According to the University of Maryland University College’s Center for Teaching and Learning, some of the best-designed courses that lead to highest student satisfaction include these components: “When the instructor spells out a timeline for completing successive steps toward meeting objectives; opportunities where collaboration with others include alternative explanations of experience; and the sharing of experience and perceptions through discussions and well-designed group activities...” In other words, when students are left to complete the course of study using their own timelines, they are often dissatisfied with the course.

Yet flexible pacing is most often seen by students as an important component to a desirable online course. The flexibility students often cite involves being able to work ahead of syllabus deadlines. Because many adult online students are inherently disciplined and self-directed, their need to achieve course goals prior to due dates is an understandable trait. This ability to shift course demands is an obvious reason for students to choose an online course. However, if students leave a majority of the course work until the last few days of class, understandably, their learning experience is less than positive.

“Participating in an online course community contributes to student satisfaction, and going through a course with the same pacing as fellow students helps them stay on track for a successful course completion,” Martinez explains.

Another important component seen by students who have participated in online delivery is instructor-student communication. This feedback must be timely and consistent for the instructor to meet student expectations, which usually translates into overall student satisfaction. Communication policies should be spelled out in the syllabus. Often, an instructor will provide feedback within 24 hours. However, because students and instructor can miss each other by seconds in the online environment ? added to the reality of differing time zones ? the best-laid communication plans are left asunder. Feedback by an instructor to obvious course questions is important as well as feedback concerning discussion questions, written submissions and other areas crucial to student evaluation.

“Two-way communication in the online environment is vital to the success of the course,” says Gregory E. Gorbett, an assistant professor in the Fire Protection and Safety Engineering Technology Program at Eastern Kentucky University. “In the brick-and-mortar classrooms, it is easy to look at your audience and identify if they understand the directions for an assignment or the information presented. However, in the online classroom that visual cue is not present. To facilitate this aspect in online courses, the instructor and student must communicate in various other forms (i.e., discussion boards, email, telephone, video chat). It is the responsibility of the instructor to establish this atmosphere of open communication, where students feel comfortable asking questions. The instructor can do this through a variety of ways, but the most important is the feedback that the instructor provides each individual student in response to their discussion posts, assignments, and examinations. This lets the student know that the instructor truly does care about their education and success.”

The successful online course, which is measured in various ways such as student satisfaction, course outcomes, memorable content and relevance to adult learners, entails the dynamic interaction of course building blocks. The “enhanced syllabus” approach to online delivery has about as much relevance as a hot-riveted beam has to modern high-rise construction techniques. The best courses use many of these components to some degree. Courses that contain very little structure do not have the ability to propel the learner beyond the foundation of learning.