Students have much to say about what they like and don’t like about online learning faculty: "[I] had to wait too long for assignments to be graded!" "[The instructor] took two days to respond to my email," or a common one, "the assignment instructions weren’t clear."
Sound familiar? But what about online faculty? Surely, there is another side to this story. What complaints do instructors have about online student behavior? Now, I don’t mean to suggest that faculty complain about their students as individuals, or that they dislike teaching online — actually quite the opposite is true. Online instructors care about their students’ learning; they want them to succeed. The things online faculty "wish" their students would do are the very habits that would make them, well… better students. I work closely with online faculty, and as on online student myself, I’ve heard complaints from both camps. Online instructors' gripes about students can usually be very easily solved by only a minimal effort on the student's part, making both the instructor's and student's lives easier. The following recommendations from online instructors have the potential to make everyone a more effective online student and improve the distance learning experience for students and faculty alike.
Faculty: “I wish they [students] would read the syllabus. So many questions can be answered if they just read the syllabus.” Online students are often frustrated by seemingly unresponsive online faculty when they have questions about when an assignment is due. Your instructors are busy people, many only teach part-time while holding another job, so sometimes they may take a while to get back to you. And many online faculty feel that if students actually read the course syllabus (yes, that document that's gathering dust that you haven't seen since the first day of class), they could probably answer the majority of their questions for themselves. The syllabus is the most important document of the entire course. It is the road map or ‘game plan’ for the course - get to know it well. Print a hard copy on the first day of class and read through it twice. Once the course gets going, review assignment instructions at the beginning of each week. Consult grading guidelines and check due dates. You’ll be amazed how much easier assignments become once you are familiar with the instructions. So instead of twiddling your thumbs while waiting for a response (or better yet, before you even email your professor) check the syllabus to see if you can't find the answer to what you're looking for.
Faculty: “Only a few students end up participating in threaded discussions, I really wish all students would engage and participate, this is how they’ll learn…” Lack of social interaction with other students and with professors is a common complaint among online students. But while you probably can't form a weekly study group at one of your classmate's houses, that doesn't mean you have to struggle along in isolation. Though threaded discussions might appear intimidating –everyone has something of value to contribute. Online students report that participating in discussions help them learn the course content far better than if they did not get involved. By logging on consistently each week, reading and responding to classmate postings you will begin to feel part of a community, and discover that your learning is enriched.
Faculty: “Why do students ask for an extension after the assignment due date?” Keeping track of due dates and completing assignments in an online class is challenging, even more so when juggling multiple responsibilities within work, school, and family. Time management is vital for the online student, and writing down the due dates of assignments in a personal calendar, at the beginning of the course is the first essential step. If you know it will be impossible to submit an assignment because of an emergency, (illness, work disaster, etc.) contact your instructor as soon as possible, before the assignment is due. You will get far more consideration from online faculty by contacting him or her prior to, rather than after an incident.
Faculty: “It’s really frustrating when students hand in assignments that don’t meet the requirements – clearly not what I asked for.” Not understanding assignments is a common complaint of students as well as faculty. Students often state that instructions are vague and unclear. Online faculty complain that the assignments they receive don’t meet course requirements. The truth is that each side shares responsibility. The first step, on the student’s part, is to read the assignment instructions carefully, that means more than once. At first read an assignment might seem impossible, but do not panic! After the first couple weeks the course concepts will begin to make sense and the assignments will not seem as daunting. Think about the purpose of the assignment, what the goal is and how it fits into the overall online course. Review the instructions again, and course materials carefully for hints and clues. If the assignment remains unclear, ask for clarification well before the due date. (Read strategy #5 below!)
Faculty: “I consistently encourage to students to ask questions – through email, Skype, even over the phone. I give ample opportunity…. Then when they get a grade they don’t like, I’m flooded with questions. It’s always after the fact.” Instructors want to help. Faculty want students to be successful. They expect their online students to ask questions. The virtual “space” inherent in distance education can be a barrier, but only if you let it. You have to be prepared to overcome this barrier. If you have a question about online course content, or if you need clarification – ask. And when you do ask a question, make it count. Before you post a question, know what you are asking and why. Be clear and concise. You’ll be glad you asked! I heartily encourage you to practice and apply the online learning strategies outlined above in your courses. By doing so, you will enrich the online learning experience, and become a more efficient and effective online student. Keep learning online my fellow students - the rewards are great. Additional Resources for Online Faculty & Students How students develop online learning skills, Alan Roper, EDUCAUSE Tips for online learning students, Teaching with Technology Wiki, Wikispaces
About the Author: Debbie Morrison is lead instructional designer for online curriculum development at The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, California. Morrison collaborates with faculty to transition face-to-face courses to an online format, and provides professional development for course instructors in online learning pedagogy. She provides training and skill development for adjunct faculty in Moodle. Morrison holds a master’s degree in education and human development with a focus in educational technology from George Washington University. She has a bachelor’s degree in organizational management, and is a certified instructional designer by Langevin Learning Services. Morrison hosts her own blog about open and online education at Online Learning Insights.