Walk A Mile

When online students are in their class, they aren’t anywhere near the faculty member. The students aren’t there physically. Most online students do their coursework when they are alone, and that means either at home or in a public space such as a library or a local coffee shop. These online students are not able to simply raise a hand and ask a question or turn to another student who is seated next to them and ask for clarification. This creates a strong sense of isolation and sometimes overwhelming need for support. Much different then when classes are conducted in the traditional in-person setting.

Faculty that have taught in a traditional classroom setting can pick up on those nonverbal cues from students. It is much easier to determine if students are tuning out, becoming bored, not understanding or just confused. Faculty can make adjustments on-the-fly much easier in a traditional classroom setting. When working with online students, faculty aren’t able to determine if students are puzzled over what has been presented to them or if providing simple clarification is needed. 

The question then becomes how do online faculty support online students just as they would in a traditional classroom setting. By walking a mile in the shoes of an online student faculty will be able to anticipate their isolation and plan for it in better course design.

Instructional designers will encourage faculty members to try to make sense of what is being presented on a computer screen. It’s necessary for faculty to get outside of their own head where their own online course makes perfect sense to them and everything is clear. Faculty need to try to envision how their students will experience the course. Some questions to consider:

  • If your online course uses discussions is it crystal-clear how long the students’ responses should be? And should students cite their sources?
  • Are there detailed grading rubrics being used for all assignments? Will students be able to view the grading rubric before beginning work on any particular assignment?
  • Will examples of successful projects from previous semesters be provided to the students?

Faculty that are offering their courses online should work closely with an instructional designer, and if possible ask a trusted colleague to evaluate their online course and explore the course as if they were students. Faculty may be surprised by the feedback they get by following through on this course review exercise. Common feedback may include things such as course materials being presented in an unorganized fashion, intimidating tones being used in assignment instructions and a lack of clarity of what to do on the very first day of the course. Faculty should take whatever feedback is provided and consider making a few adjustments to the course.

In a perfect situation, students should know exactly what is being taught and what they are supposed to do as a result. Online faculty must be intentional and put themselves in the shoes of the student and designing for clarity must be the priority.