On Being An Online Student

I was an early adopter of the online learning course delivery model. Many aspects of online learning course delivery I had to swallow and get over, such as sharing my lecture notes. Lecture notes were my babies and represented hours of time spent in research. Not everything one reads in a textbook is representative of current knowledge, especially if the book is close to a double-digit edition. Textbook authors do not generally rebuild each edition from scratch.

Delivery online course content is a significant time investment for faculty. Yes, we do have course shells from major publishers from which to draw content. Faculty cannot simply dump the content on the student without first being familiar with the content – at least doing so is not a good idea. Thus, we build our own content using a variety of familiar material: the textbook, our own research, publisher content, and exercises, exams, and assignments built around our institution’s sacred Student Learning Objectives (SLOs.)

If you ever wonder why some assignments seem odd, SLOs might be the driver. SLOs are self-identified; that is, faculty determine what we think is important. We are then to decide how to measure students uptake of knowledge; exams, papers, discussion board, presentations are typical measurement devices. We typically have a scoring rubric to tell our accrediting organization how we evaluate the activity. More than you want to know.

Online learning is becoming ever so popular. As popularity increases students expectations seem to remain static, or even drop, as my personal anecdotal evidence suggests. I provide the above background only to show evidence institutions treat online courses precisely the same as “on-ground” or “traditional” courses.

I say personal evidence. Between 2004-present, I’ve taught an average of 9 hours of online courses per semester. Yes, I teach  a bunch. Generally speaking, students appear to expect less work and fewer assignments with online courses. My Rule of Thumb (RoT) is “85% of students don’t invest enough time in an online course.” My RoT results from student evaluations and complaints of too much rigor, and emails from students stating the amount of work required for an online course does not match time constraints of their personal life.

To address lack of preparedness of potential online students, I’ve prepared a list of thoughts for those wanting to be successful in an online course, now I’ve provided a brief primer of backstage to an online course.

  1. The course syllabus is not a contract. I really don’t care what any administration states, the courts and legal system do not view a syllabus as a contract. Your syllabus may even state, “My syllabus is my contract between you and my students.” I can say my dog is a cat  but saying so does not make my dog a cat. Thus, if faculty updates, modifies, alters, or changes course content you as the student need to be prepared. The only true contract is between the student and the institution. Read my “What Exactly Is A Syllabus” article for more details.
  2. Read the Syllabus. All you need to know for success completion of an online course should be found in the syllabus. Syllabi for online courses can be radically different from the syllabi of an “on-ground” course, even the same course. Read with a highlighter, know your Educator’s name and email address. Universities require a minimum amount of information and online course usually have copious amounts of additional details. Furthermore, you most likely will be tested on your syllabus. The first exam my students take covers the syllabus. Once the syllabus exam is passed, learning units become available.
         Many institutions require online faculty to test students over the syllabus for two reasons. Institutions need immediate proof you are attending for student loan purposes. Secondly, I need proof you have initial intent of course participation and you understand the requirements.
  3. Create a calendar. Online courses may not allow you to work at your own pace. Many assignments have due dates. Dates are usually declared well in advance. Missing an exam or assignment due date is a sign of poor planning and is taken with no less severity than if you had missed an on-ground course due date. That your life is so busy people, events, conditions interfere with your ability to manage your education is not the Educator’s problem. Your job is to manage the details of your Life, of which Education is of singular importance.
  4. Make a Study Plan. The Formula for Study is: “number of credit hours” x “number of study hours” = equals the amount of time you should spend involved in coursework. Oh, and the “number of study hours” equals 3. Therefore, for example, if you as a student  enroll in 15 hours of college classes, you should expect to spend a minimum of 45 hours per week in course-related study. Yes, being a full-time student is the equivalent of a full-time job. U.S. college students increasingly appear not to understand the commitment and investment of an education. I’m afraid the displacement of Education down the list of priorities has already damaged the U.S. Economic Infrastructure, though.
  5. A Class Is A Job. Show up and do the work. Plan ahead and do not wait until the last minute. Students complain about not learning anything. Education is not a One-Way Street; at least two parties are present: me, and you. If you show up late for work, or wait until the last minute to handle work-related projects, how long do you think you will be gainfully employed? And, forget about a recommendation.
  6. Faculty Are Not Technical Support. An Educators’s position is not to be the Help Desk for the course management system /  learning management system. As a student, some roles are incumbent upon you, especially learning how to use a computer, a keyboard, a mouse, and using the Internet. The use of technology for online learning is an intrinsic part of the online experience. Do not ask for more time, leniency, or complain about technology; find someone to help you learn Blackboard, for example. Watch a YouTube instructional video. Take possession of your learning experience and do not abrogate control to others.
  7. Discussion Boards Are Not Whiny Boards. Courses often are required to present a Discussion Board to satisfy some Learning Objective. DBs are not to be used to share exam answers (generally,) talk about other students, parking, or complain about the course.
  8. Online Course Should Mimic the Traditional/On-ground Course. Students should not expect a “lite” version of the course. I say that knowing full-well some of my peers reduce the content of their online course offerings. From the faculty standpoint, managing an online course can be just as time-consuming as a on-ground course. Grading can be more time-consuming, handling backstage LMS/CMS issues can be frustrating, and merely developing content can take months. However, you should expect the same level of content as the on-ground course.
  9. You are not the only student. Most of my peers have online courses with as few as 30 students to as many as 250 students. Thus, we have communication criteria which must be met to receive replies. We typically always reply to topical questions about study or lesson material. Complaints about grading, or grades, or Firefox, etc. you should expect to go unanswered, or count your lucky stars if you do get a reply.
  10. Emails are devoid of emotion. Do not attempt to apply any “attitude” to emails received from faculty. A quick reply is not a terse reply, or a rude reply. Refer to #9 – you are not the only student, and you are not the only person a faculty member has to deal with in the course of a day. So, don’t get enraged if the reply seems brief, or if you don’t get an email back right away. You aren’t emailing your sister, mom, granny; an email to faculty is more like an email to a business or government agency. If your email falls inside our criteria for replies, then in 24-48 hours you’ll get a reply. I set up an auto-reply so at least my students know their email got through. And, be respectful. Students seem to have developed a sense of entitlement which is not warranted. I thank students for pleasant emails, yet some “demand to take an exam again,” or “demand an extension on the due date.” Nope, not going to happen. I attribute initial student rudeness to a number of factors, but mostly Facebook, and the poor social graces created by the lack of face-to-face contact. Don’t be rude, be polite.

If you cannot manage your Life, an online class is probably not for you. If your child’s soccer practice, your social life, and taking vacations on a moment’s notice are part of your life, an online course is not going to work well for you. If you allow Mom, Dad, Granny, your fraternity or sorority to run and control your life, or your spouse, or drugs, not only are you going to be challenged by an online course, on-ground courses are not going to work, either. Don’t allow toxic people and the situations they create to poison your life and future.

My best online students follow the syllabus. They email questions. They complete their assignments BEFORE the due date, not seconds before midnight. They designate study time each week. They find good places to study. They protect the investment they make in themselves. Very simple investments which pay off later.


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