Monday, January 31, 2011

Mestopholita's 3 Tips for Taking Online Classes

Recently, our college has started offering online classes. I thought this would be a great way for me to earn my keep and offer me more flexibility. Unfortunately, I instead find myself stuck in front of my laptop much more than I’d like.

I’ve received quite a few student emails claiming that they can’t figure out how to work the site, don’t know how to post on the forum, don’t know how to find out when things are due, don’t have internet at home, so are at the mercy of the library, etc. This leads me to 3 tips for taking online classes.

3. Be prepared to read, a lot. Yep, you must read the book. You also must actually read the syllabus, the assignment instructions, the forum posts, the supplementary information I post, and anything else related to this class. See, you aren’t sitting in a classroom where you hear the information. How else do you expect to know what to do? The computer isn’t going to magically transmit the information from the website to your brain. We just don’t have the budget for that kind of technology. Read, damn it!

2. Plan for “technological issues.” It will undoubtedly happen that your internet goes down, your computer crashes, or the school’s server goes kaput for a period of time this term. There is no way around it. My syllabus states problems with technology will not be accepted as excuses for not submitting work on time. I don’t care if you “worked so hard” on it and “don’t think it’s fair” that you’re penalized for something that you “couldn’t help.” Don’t wait until the last minute to submit your work, and you won’t have to worry about it when your processor decides to burst into flames 5 minutes before the deadline.

1. Avoid taking an online class if you don’t know how to use a computer, the internet, or email. I just can’t abide this level of stupidity. I had a student tell me that they’ve never even been on a computer before this class. Are you kidding me? I’ve received numerous phone calls asking how to get to the website, how to attach a file to an email, and what it means to download an assignment. Really? I don’t teach a computer class. If you aren’t familiar with a computer or the internet, take a computer class before you even think about enrolling in an online class. You can pay for one here, or take them free at the public library.

For those of you suffering with me, what additional tips would you provide to students who’ve chosen to learn online?


  1. From your lips to the snowflakes' ears, Mestopholita!

    I just got a comment from an online student that instructors expect too detailed "nearly graduate level" work.

    I responded by sharing the reality that during my (non-online) undergraduate studies, we were repeatedly admonished that one's studies be considered our full-time job. If we chose to engage in extracurricular activities and/or outside employment, adjustments would have to be made.

    While online delivery has undoubtedly provided educational access to many who otherwise would not have had it, it has also led to a "TweetTwit" mindset that college-level work should have no more impact on one's life than sending a text message.

    Strike that, a text message often gets MORE attention.

  2. Actually, isn't most of what Mestopholita posted the same as day-to-day stuff (requirements) in brick-and-mortar universities. They sure don't get much help from IT support (yes, again: DIE, IT, DIE).

    We all have assignments and things online, like in Blackholeboard or Moodle or Sakai and a lot of us have assignments submitted through various programs.

    No matter what folks say about "Digital Natives", I've had to explain TWICE in the last week about right-clicking and saving a file to disk. This should be second nature (even to the Mac folks who have had to occasionally cross over to the Evil Empire's OS).

    Of course, the funniest thing recently that I encountered (and slightly unrelated to this discussion) was when a semi-Digital native (on the edge based on her birth year) messed up her iPhone and tried to figure out how to open it to get to the battery!

  3. I have them sign a contract saying that they are experienced with the internet and they do not expect me to teach them how to use it, or how to do basic things like navigate the course website and download/upload assignments. I warn them that if they cannot meet that basic requirement they need to take the course face-to-face.

  4. Like Stella, I send an introductory/warning letter that makes many of the points Mestopholita did (and, early on, includes a paragraph that says something along the lines of "as you may notice, this email is quite long, and contains a good deal of detailed, and important, information. If you're not comfortable receiving information in this form, you may want to consider taking the class in another format." The letter generally seems to work, but the written evaluations last year did contain a comment from somebody that the introductory email was too long and detailed). I've been experimenting with screencasts a bit this semester, but the bottom line is still that they're going to have to do a lot of reading (and I have to do a lot of writing instructions. I actually like the online format, but efficient it ain't).

    On the whole, I think I've been lucky, in part because my university emphasizes tech tools pretty heavily (and supports them pretty well), and in part because the class I teach online is directed at juniors, who've had some time to get familiar with current teaching technology. Online strikes me as a much better way to finish a college degree than to start one.

  5. P.S. Something on the page (not my shopping habits, I swear), has triggered a ad for "protective underwear." I'm trying to figure out whether the connection is to the Big National Conference post, the Paid Vacation post, or this one. Based on my experience -- which, like Mestopholita's, includes feeling tethered to my laptop -- I'm betting on this one.

  6. Let them know upfront that this is not a self-paced course. They have due dates, often every week, and they cannot drop into the course several weeks late and think that will be okay. Tell them also that text-speak is not acceptable on discussion boards. Apostrophes, capitalization, punctuation, spelling... these matter and will affect their grades. No matter how many times I tell them this, they continue to ignore me and guess what? It affects their grades.

    I actually like teaching online though. I get far more "mature" students who want to be there and deal with me on an adult-to-adult level.

  7. Speaking as someone who has spent a WEEK trying to sort out a problem for a student in a half online class, I have to say EXACTLY to Mestopholita's 3 points.

    This dude in my class made 3 accounts on the courseware, and then couldn't accurately identify which of them he was actually planning to use to do his classwork. He's still more computer literate than the girl last semester who made 5 gmail accounts because she made a new one every time she forgot her password, though.


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