As many of you know, I am working on my EdD in Instructional Technology. Typically, these courses are online, a perfect learning environment since I'm an online instructor. What better way to learn about online instruction than to be a student learning about online instruction?! It's fascinating seeing how other instructors organize and design their courses. What I have found is that many online instructors fail to understand a student's perspective when designing an effective online course.

After having approximately 15 online graduate credits under my belt, I thought I'd let you in on some secrets about online learning from a student's perspective

1) Always provide clear expectations. This message may seem obvious, but it isn't. In the classroom, when you explain an assignment, you can see the confused looks on students' faces and then try to explain it a different way; however, online you can't and you have to rely on your understanding of "clear expectations." Therefore, it's important to assume nothing.
  • Provide an assignment sheet that is very clear.
  • A very detailed assignment sheet will yield clear expectations. (You might be amazed how many instructors don't provide an assignment sheet such as this one.)

  • Placing the assignment sheet in a folder titled "Assignments" from the main menu also helps.

  • An FAQ section with questions such as "Where can I find the assignments?" or "What are your expectations for the assignments?" also help. Assignments need to be found quickly and left available for multiple views throughout the semester. If they're buried in weekly or unit files, students will get lost.

2) Always provide prompt feedback. I have to admit that sometimes my feedback is slow. Just like my students, I'm busy, but I usually have large written projects back within 10 days. I think this is reasonable, but a study conducted by Patricia Webb Boyd in 2008 demonstrates that students expect immediate feedback while instructors had a different view (often 24-72 hours or more, depending on the assignment). This makes sense when considering most students are used to instantaneous communication; however, as we all know, grading takes time. Students don't always consider the amount of time it takes to grade an assignment. They want to know their score right away, and they're nervous about it. Therefore, refer back to rule #1 and let students know how long it usually takes you to provide feedback. In fact, it's a good idea to include it in your FAQ.

  • Of course, sometimes life happens, and we don't get grading done when expected. If this happens, inform students early and let them know when they can expect feedback and perhaps why it's taking so long. They're likely to understand and they can plan ahead, which leads to point #3.
3) Allow students to see the reading and assignment schedule several weeks in advance. As an instructor, sometimes I barely stay ahead of my students, especially with a new course. However, as a student, I plan at least one month in advance. If I can, I'll plan the entire semester's homework around my teaching schedule. Like I said before, I'm busy, and it's nice to know when a large project is due so I can plan for large chunks of time to complete it. When an assignment isn't available until just before it's due, planning ahead is impossible. Many students have jobs, children, ailing family members, and other personal issues that demand their time. If they can plan ahead, then they can avoid some conflicts. We may think students procrastinate because they're goofing off, but many are simply trying to balance life, work, and education. The least we can do is have some compassion and that compassion comes in the form of a well-planned course in advance. (Try Google Calendar for online planning.)

I use the LMS Calendar to show major assignment due dates. This is in addition to a weekly "To Do List" accessed in each week's link.

I have at least the Calendar complete before the course goes live even if I don't have every week or unit complete. Having the Calendar finished also helps me plan my teaching schedule.

4) Follow through and do what you say. Above I stated that if you struggle with getting the grading done early, let students know when you expect to have things graded. After that, keep that date. Make it sacred and do what you have to do to live up to your promise. I have spent many all-nighters grading in order to meet those deadlines. Knowing that you're living up to your word, makes those sleepless nights worth it. Remember that after submitting an assignment, students are anxious about your opinion and they question every stroke of the keyboard until they know what you think about their work. They may also need that feedback before moving on, and if they know you follow through, they can plan ahead to the next project with reduced anxiety.
These are the top four lessons I have learned so far, and as an instructor, I know these are high expectations. However, following these rules will not only make you a better instructor, but it will also help your students be better students.

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