What makes a good online class?

Posted: August 26, 2008 by rcannady in Student/Faculty Liason

The faculty wants our input on the very important issue: What makes a good online class? The more specific you are, the better your impact can be.

Here are some ideas to get your creative juices flowing:

* What are the do’s and don’ts for instructors from a student’s point of view?

* What are specific instances of  instruction, group work, assignments, or other “things” that worked well?

Your comments will help in the creation of a “best practices” document for on-line teaching.

Thank you for adding your input!

Rachel Cannady
LSO: Faculty/Student Liaison

  1. Kind of anxious student! says:

    From a student’s point of view . . .

    — Timely posting of syllabus, content and reading materials (ideally a few days — at least! — before the course starts) so that materials may be garnered, organized and a study timeline can be worked out with the student’s schedule. This also allows time for any discrepancies to be noted by the student or instructor, questions can be asked and clarified, etc. before the onset of the course itself.
    — Clear, non-conflicting posting of all deadlines for assignments, exam dates, etc.
    — Online reading assignments — links should be provided or these items should be placed in course reserves. Frustrating when a citation is provided, yet content cannot be found anywhere online and there is no course reserves.
    — Instructor should check their U of A or D2L email daily (or provide GA contact information) so that students’ questions may be addressed promptly. Quick answers are much appreciated! We know instructors, like us, are pressed for time, and really appreciate their efforts in getting back to us quickly — even if it’s just a note that says, “I got your question, I’m working on it and will get back to you in two days.”
    — Expectations and learning objectives should be stated at the onset of the course. All content should be available in D2L by the first day of the course at the latest. Frustrating to log in and just see a general syllabus, with no further course info or reading material two days into a course. Some students like to plan ahead and pace themselves (and this was stated as important for online students in our 504 readings), yet this is impossible when all couse material isn’t posted at the onset of the course.
    –The instructor should be as much a part of the course as the students — like the students, they should be expected to log in daily, check the progress of the course, answer students’ questions or check in with the GA’s, etc. This also lets students know that the instructor is interested in them and in the course, which makes the students feel good and gives them an additional incentive for learning. This also helps spur students on in discussions, etc. to make the experience truly interactive and stimulating.
    –The Summer II 504 course was really good in all of these areas and really helped me be a successful student. I also then expected all courses to work this way. Now I see that they don’t all run this smoothly and it is a little unnerving.

  2. Anonymous says:

    –provide examples of major projects
    –provide feedback/grades on assignments in a timely manner, I have submitted a major assignment and didn’t get a grade until almost two months later!
    –“I agree” statements should not be considered for participation points unless it provides new insight into the discussion

  3. Anon Y. Mous says:

    -examples of assignments whenever possible
    -Providing voice overs for power points is really great.
    -Make sure the power points make sense. Sometimes they look like they were made for a face-to-face class and so they don’t translate too well into virtual learning.

  4. A says:

    Be lenient with posting requirements. Some times there is really nothing more that can be said about a topic that is useful or worth the time to type. If you are going to be strict with requirements then provide lots of prompts and different discussion threads.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Timely instructor response to questions about course content or assignments are most important in reducing student stress and frustration. This also helps prevent a student taking too much time in spinning her wheels in the wrong direction.

  6. Catherine Petersen says:

    What makes a good online class?

    Variation of format: some text, some audio or podcast/vodcast, some powerpoints; mix it up – stream something or point to a brief film segment.
    Timely response
    Clear organization of information
    Flexibility: the opportunity to access material at your own pace and on your own time.
    Limited ‘busy work” discussions – make them meaty and thoughtful questions/topic; not quantity
    Don’t require weekly anything – present information/assignments/lectures or readings in variations of junks; ex. first week – one assignment, over the following 2 weeks another assignment , during a four week period a project. When we have to access a lecture or assignment weekly it becomes tedious. It keeps us more interested and on our toes if the work is broken into different junks of time. Keep due dates on a consistent time and day though.
    Be present

  7. Fairly new to this says:

    I have to agree that variety is nice but most important is the presentation of projects and assignments at the start of the semester with clarification of the assignment if requested. Online students generally are online because their schedule does not fit neatly into days and times of consistent access. I am only starting my second online course since 504 and have little to compare.
    I also agree that new and differing points on discussion topics are not always productive. I read all posts and have made comments or asked questions when there was something to say or clarify but do not like the idea that something must be said every time.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I agree that a variety of formats should be used, including audiovisual presentations – if I want to read a book I can do that without paying a few thousand dollars.

    Examples for assignments and timely feedback are both important with assignments.

    Group assignments are tricky – online classes allow for more flexibility of scheduling, which means everyone in a group will have different schedules, may be on different times, and may have different approaches to deadlines. I’d suggest group assignments only if the assignment truly requires a group, or a group really adds something meaningful to the assignment and not just because the professor wants a group assignment (I’d suggest this for in person classes too for that matter).

    Also, early morning deadlines are deceptive – if something is due 8am on December 25, my first thought is “I have until December 25” but unless I plan on getting up early it’s really due December 24. If I wait and check on the morning of the 25, the assignment is now late.

  9. Anon says:

    1. Feedback, feedback, feedback – we live with a tunnel vision of the SIRLS world, and lacking verbal, or visual cues, require lots of (or in some cases just any) feedback.

    2. We know when you’re not paying attention Professors – most of my profs have exhibited social presence online, indicating engagement in the whole process, but some are not. Please know that for the rare few profs who are not paying attention, we know you’re not there, don’t kid yourself or us (its insulting).

    3. Synchronous learning is where its at – Much better way to create a community of learners than the random postings on a discussion list.

    4. Group assignments don’t work online

    5. Don’t move my cheese – in a couple of courses, the professor continually changed the syllabus/expectations of the class while the class was evolving. It was very disconcerting to have a plan, and then find that it constantly changed.

  10. Anonymous says:

    – Don’t use confusing or complex technology. While we live in a digital world, it’s still better to fall back on standard software that is compatable for all computers and that most people know how to use rather than trying some new fangled thing that people have trouble downloading and getting to work.

    – Provide lots of feedback in a timely matter (few days for a short assignment, a week for a longer assignment). It’s really frustrating when assignments go ungraded for weeks. As a student, I have no idea where I stand in the class and if my work is up to the instructor’s standards without feedback on my assignments. I also think that instructors should respond to student questions within 24-hours. It’s frustrating waiting on an answer to your question for two or three days when you’re trying to complete your assignment. If the instructor anticipates being unavailable for a few days, notify the class so people’s expectations of response time are appropriate.

    – Group assignments are extremely difficult to coordinate for most students, on or off campus. Use them sparingly.

    – For large classes, discussions are often better when the class is broken into discussion groups. It is difficult trying to read a hundred posts in one week.

    – For online classes, don’t have meeting requirements. The reason that most students take online classes is because they don’t have time to attend structured campus classes. Don’t further the frustration by requiring online meetings at specific times.

    – Be more flexible with posting requirements. Sometimes people just don’t have anything to say about a particular topic.

    – Clear deadlines. Don’t just say that something is due every second Monday. Give concrete dates (ex., August 25) to avoid confusion.

  11. Virtually Anonymous says:

    – I adamantly agree with the comments regarding variety of content, timely feedback from the instructor (particularly on assignments) and clear timed/dated deadlines.

    – I would recommend having a discussion area for off-topic discussions. I may choose to enhance my online connection to my classmates, but don’t want to force others to read/review/comment on non-relevant posts.

    – As far as non-relevant posts are concerned, I think it is the instructor’s responsibility to bring the discussion back to the topic at hand when it strays way too far afield. I agree that expanding the discussion can help foster new ideas. However, I doubt that many face-to-face classes would end up as far out in left field as some online discussion posts have carried us.

    – I think that having all the lectures available all semester is VERY helpful, especially those with additional links.

    – I think that having closing dates for discussions is also VERY helpful. If someone doesn’t start posting until two weeks before the end of the semester, I don’t feel it is fair to the rest of the class to have to go back that far to respond to their opening-day-insights.

    – Please post the syllabus as far in advance as possible. For those of us that have to order our books online, having the information the weekend before class starts causes undue stress (we have enough, thank you!)

  12. Anonymous says:

    – Make the SIRLS web site more user friendly! I have spent hours searching for things and then later told that the instructions on the website are not completely accurate. Use the National Archives web site as an example. http://www.archives.gov

    – Have whole college decide on a TIME that assignments are due. It is very difficult to keep track of times due when one class is at 8 AM, another at 5 PM. Most classes have assignments due at 11:59 PM on the due date. I think this is best and should be a college RULE.

    – If the instructor wants something a certain way they need to provide very precise instuctions. Otherwise, when something is not exactly as they want it, they should be flexible and not take off points for not following instructions (when the instructions were confusing in the first place).

    – Be realistic on posting requirements. In every class I have had thus far, discusson boards take up more of my time than any face-to-face meeting would. The posting requirements are more than any one person would ever contribute in a face-to-face class. I understand that class participation is an important part of the grade but I think the posting requirements need to be more realistic.

    – In regards to posting, students need to be told to choose the option where the previous message is NOT added to their own comment. Also, to keep on topic.

    – New discussion topics should be at the top of the list, when they are at the bottom, by the end of the class, it is diffucult to know if/when a new topic is posted.

    – Do not use group assignments just because you “think” we want to get to know other students. Use them only when they are needed to relate to real life situations we may come across in our careers.

    – Provide more “real-life” classes, such as cataloging, acquisitions, etc. Theory is great but many of us need to learn the basics in order to get a job.

    – Provide feedback on last assignment at least a week prior to the next assignment is due.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I think one of the most important factors in a good online class is the effort put forth by the professor. If s/he devotes as much time to an online class as s/he would to a face-to-face class, then students are more likely to get their money’s worth out of the class.

    I think students get shortchanged when professors rely on the “peer-to-peer” teaching method for online courses. Professors should teach, not just moderate, in D2L. While I have learned from other students in online classes, I’ve learned far more from face-to-face classes with professors who give several hours’ worth of instruction each week. Providing instruction should entail more than assigning a bunch of weekly readings and requiring students to post thoughts about them.

    In the best online classes I’ve taken, professors have provided weekly online lectures, with links to key websites and additional resources. If something requires step-by-step instructions, it’s helpful to provide podcasts, PowerPoint presentations, short movies, or screen shots to walk us through the process. Please note the length of files we should listen to or watch. It’s really helpful to know whether it’ll take 30 minutes or 4 minutes. Personally, I prefer shorter files. I’d rather watch/listen to 3 10-minute sessions than 1 30-minute one because I’m more likely to get interrupted during a long session and (depending on how user-friendly the file is) have to start all over again.

    Assignments should be graded promptly (ideally within one week, or at least a week before the next major assignment is due). Please leave comments/feedback for each student instead of just a number or grade, so that students know what they’re doing well and what they need to improve upon. It’s also helpful if the professor posts an overall assessment of that batch of assignments for the class (commonly misunderstood concepts, common errors, etc.).

    Deadlines should be very specific. We need to know the exact time, as well as the date. Please don’t use 12:00 a.m. as a deadline – there’s too much confusion about which day this falls upon.

    Please make assignments very specific too. Please tell us the length it should be, the format it should be in, and whether you want a particular style (APA, for example). It’s helpful when Questions About This Assignment discussion threads are created, or when professors post answers to questions they’ve received by e-mail.

    I agree with previous posters that setting specific times for mandatory online class meetings doesn’t work well. Many of us take online classes because we need the flexibility and have prior commitments to work, family, or other activities. I’ve yet to take an online class where every single student could meet at the agreed-upon time. If an all-class session must be scheduled, please take time zones into account. A meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Tucson time means East Coast students have to stay up until 10-11 p.m. For those who are unable to attend the online meeting, please provide a transcript of the discussion or a brief summary.

    Professors should be monitoring D2L discussions daily. Please don’t let questions go unanswered for days. Please step in when discussions start getting too heated or mean-spirited so that other students don’t feel intimidated. Please instruct students to use e-mail if they want to carry on a conversation with another classmate, not to fill D2L with postings that have no relevance to the rest of the class. It’s frustrating to log on to D2L and see 20 new postings, then find that none are related to the class itself.

    If professors re-use PowerPoints or materials from previous classes, please update them and make sure there are no references to assignments that the new class doesn’t have.

    Like others have said, I really appreciate it when professors make readings available via links or eReserves. When posting a PDF, though, please make sure the pages are legible (pages are sometimes too fuzzy or text is incomplete because it’s been cut off). When providing a link, please check to see that it works.

    I REALLY dislike group projects in online classes. Yes, I know they give us experience in using wikis and dealing with the frustrations of collaborating on group projects, but I suspect they’re primarily assigned for the professor’s convenience and to save grading time. As a student, I usually get more out of doing individual assignments. If a group project is vital to the class, consider requiring group members to grade each other on their contributions. A student who doesn’t carry his/her weight in a group project should be penalized in some way (losing class participation points, perhaps, or receiving a lower grade on the project than other group members).

  14. Suz says:

    I agree with the suggestion that group projects be avoided in online courses. The reason I’m taking my classes online is because I need flexibility in scheduling my schoolwork, and trying to coordinate with three or four other people for chats or meeting times greatly diminishes that flexibility.

    I would ask that professors post the syllabus and textbook requirements at least a couple weeks prior to the course. I order used textbooks online and it takes at least a week to receive them in the mail.

    I expect the professor to guide the discussion topics and to participate fully in the postings by providing feedback and posing thought-provoking questions. Some professors have been very good at this, and I’ve really enjoyed those classes.

  15. Marie says:

    – Provide an outline of what is expected in class from the beginning
    – Provide a description of projects at least 3 weeks in advance of its due date
    – Post syllabus at least a couple of weeks before class so we can order the book online
    – Participate in online discussion frequently and check messages often
    – Be very specific in requirements for assignments and post examples if appropriate
    – Allow enough time for group projects. Being from out of state (and in a different time zone) makes it very difficult to meet. Deadlines should take that extra effort in consideration.
    – Think carefully about including group projects (see above). Make sure you have a goal with a group project. Don’t have them just because.
    – Provide written lectures to expand readings. I have had some courses where the learning was up to us and little instruction was provided. I did not enjoy these classes.
    – Provide several opportunities for grades. It is scary to have a class with only two big projects.
    – Grade assignments promptly and notify us if you’re running behind.
    – Use the notice section of D2L for any updates to make sure the class knows what new things have been posted.
    -Overall, be there… we know when you’re not

  16. anonymous says:

    I have not read the other comments, so excuse me if this is redundant.

    Keep D2L organized and simple (starting a new semester with a million things to read is overwhelming and overkill)
    Post a message at the start of each new week to orient students on what is expected of them and keep them on track
    Require that each student posts a picture of themselves (in a private, secure area) so we can all feel a little more connected (and say “hi” if we pass by each other on campus)
    Post each unit up one at a time (not all at once)

  17. A says:

    If you are going to do group assignments don’t just put up a thread and tell the students to find a partner. It is too hectic and delays the actual start of the project. For example, in one class someone sent me an email saying lets be partners, I responded yes, but I didn’t get a response to my subsequent emails for 3 or 4 days so I found another partner. Turns out I was sending to their UA email and they were only checking D2L email. My original partner got hosed and I felt like a jerk.

    Instead, put the groups together yourself either randomly or based on common interest, time of day available for chatting online, etc.
    I can see how this would be a lot of work for the instructor, but I know some instructors do this already and so I’m not too sympathetic. If they don’t want that added workload they can just not assign group work.

  18. A says:

    A weekly message on what is due this week, where you should be on long term projects, what the reading is, etc is really helpful. Chances are you do something similar in face to face classes or do it because of in class questions anyways, so it would be noce to have that every week in an online class.

  19. anony says:

    It would be helpful when doing group assignments if we could see the other group pojects as well. It provides us with more exposure than just doing our own project.

    Feedback times have been a little lax and it makes you unsure if you are doing subsequent assignemnts correctly especially if they build upon one another.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Have D2L setup BEFORE the course starts!

  21. Judy says:

    I definitely agree that all materials should be posted by the beginning of class. Please, no syllabus revisions or added readings. We need to be able to plan and budget our time. Also, why can’t all of the assignments be posted at the beginning? If I have some extra time I might want to read or work ahead. And then we will know what we need to emphasize in our studying. Most instructors don’t say what the big final project is going to be until very late in the semester. We should know from day 1.

    Another common situation is assigning way too much reading. Some instructors have literally assigned me bales of readings. I don’t believe anyone could have finished them. We have other classes, work, and lives to lead. How about ranking them in terms of importance or making some optional? And when we don’t know yet what the major assignments will be, we don’t know what to emphasize. One instructor said that he knew it was too much, and to “just skim over” most of it. At the graduate level, most readings are too dense to skim. And when I do that I usually don’t remember much of it later. Selectivity in reading assignments would help.

    Guidelines for discussions are helpful. One of my instructors provided a matrix for what a discussion post should hold. This was very helpful. Also, faculty need to monitor and guide the discussions to keep them productive.

    Please don’t assign group projects unless they really are appropriate for that project. It takes so much time to get students together and deal with each other’s feedback.

    D2L needs to put back in the ability to delete your own posts.

    Thanks for asking for our feedback!

  22. Anonymous says:

    We are halfway through the semester and I am REALLY disappointed with my D2L class. Instructor posts weekly readings randomly — no way to get ahead in the class because not everything is up. Assignments are the same way. No way to guide my readings to help me with my assignments because the assignments aren’t posted ahead of time. Our first assignment was turned in almost 2 weeks ago and we still have no grade or feedback (or even any announcements about when we will be getting feedback). How do we plan to do better on our second assignment if we don’t know where we stand on the first? I’m paying good money for classes and this is complete chaos. I’m highly disappointed. This is one of the 4 core SIRLS courses — how can a core course be such a disaster?????