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Preparing Students for Online Learning

You are prepared to teach online.  Are your students prepared to learn online? 

In Getting Started: Student Readiness to Learn, we discussed skills and attributes of successful online students.  Taking it one step further, there are specific practices that you can do to prepare your students for online learning.

You should recognize that student problems online quickly become your problems as well, so it helps to be proactive.  Student problems generally fall into three categories:

  • Technical Problems
    Students arrive at your online class with a broad range of technical skills.  It helps first to be upfront in your expectations and clear in your directions.  Our Blackboard learning management system has a TAB called Downloads and Help, with FAQs  (Frequently Asked Questions) and links to the HelpDesk.  Do not be afraid to act as a referral service and send your students to the HelpDesk!
  • Learning Style Problems
    Some students expect the teacher-directed lecture and test process they experienced in K-12, and find the self-directed nature of online learning difficult.  Providing clear instructions and then following up when those instructions are not followed can help in the long run.
  • Communication Problems
    Unless you use a form of web conferncing, most online communications lack the visual feedback mechanisms we use in class.  There are time delays inherent in online communication.  Providing specific expectations - “I will respond to email in 24 hours and return graded assignments in one week” – and of course, following your own guidelines, will mitigate communication issues.
    Your presence again makes a huge difference.  If you positively stroke those communicating in discussion boards and privately email those who are not participating, it will send the signal that you care…and your students will rise to your expectations.

Some of your students will be experienced online learners, while others are new to online learning.  A good suggestion is to provide an orientation to your class in the “Syllabus” section of your online class.  Ko and Rossen (2007) suggest your orientation include:

  • Overview of course schedule
  • Expectations on time commitments, assisgnment due dates, and interaction with other students
  • Expectations on communications to and from you as the faculty
  • A tutorial on how you will use Blackboard
  • Expectations regarding computer, other hardware (such as a headset), and software; as well as expectations on student minimum technical skills required.
    For instance, your students should already know these basic technical skills:
    1. Use browser (Firefox or Internet Explorer)
    2. Use a search engine (Google, Yahoo, etc.)
    3. Send and receive email (including attaching files)
    4. Save files to a hard drive or flash drive
    5. Find files on a hard drive or flash drive (navigate folders)
    6. Use word processing software that can save files in the MS Word format.
    7. Update computer with anti-virus software
  • An initial assignment that tests their technical skills

Remember that an orientation does not have to be text-based.  Effective orientations can be built using LessonBuilder or screencasts using products like Camtasia or Jing.

You might expect that there would be some technical issues, given the online environment, but do not overlook the typical behavioral or motivational problems that you might have experienced in your face-to-face classes.  Some students will drop online classes earlier in the semester than you are used to, as they quickly decide if online is a good fit for them.  Others will try but fall behind and be frustrated.  Your design and your practice can help alleviate these motivational issues:

  • Provide opportunities for student collaboration and facilitate their collaborative learning processes.
  • Provide opportunities for students to collaborate in real-time through online collaboration tools such as Wimba Classroom.
  • Choose the right tone of conversation in online communication to make students feel comfortable with the learning environment, to establish trust in communication, and to reduce feelings of isolation and enhance a sense of community
  • Provide meaningful feedback on graded assignments with recognition of good work as well as specific suggestions for improvement
  • Provide a weekly “wrap up” before the next lesson begins
  • Take an active role in helping your students think and learn actively through careful task structuring, questioning, and scaffolding.
  • In online discussions, consider:
    • Designing thought-provoking questions to elicit student discussions on the topics of your focus
    • Providing a weekly summary of discussion topics to demonstrate your participation
    • Redirecting off-topic discussion through gentle reminders or a recast of the question
    • Assessing messages by both quantity and quality
    • In addition, consider providing a social space where students can bond and feel open to discussing topics outside the course bounds.  It is also good practice to provide a faculty "office" in the discussion forums.
Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 09/22/2009
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