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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 15|No 5|June|2006

The Online Professor
Takes a Course

About Author

© Cindy C. Emmans, 2006

What Happened

There must be an appropriate phrase for this ….

“What's good for the goose is good for the gander,” perhaps,
or “You have to be one to know one.”

After having taught DOZENS of online courses and then finally enrolling in one as a student, I now more fully understand the issues of motivation and time management for online students.

My own online course materials include the following advisory: “Make sure that you have carved out specific times that can be devoted to the course. Since you're not leaving the house every Tuesday night or Saturdays (or whenever) for class meetings, it may be difficult for others in your household to understand that you really do have an obligation to ATTEND class on a regular basis.”

Hmmm . . .

Why did I think that this did not apply to ME when I took a course online? Not that I consciously decided not to carve out time; rather I was smug enough to think that I had the situation well in hand and that I would just naturally gravitate to the course assignments and obligations on a regular basis in the same way that I have always demanded of my online students. I was wrong!

Not only did I have a tendency to forget about the course altogether, but on the occasions when I realized I'd better get busy I would find at least 101 things that seemingly had priority. My goodness, I had to read my personal email, re-organize a file drawer, change my socks, take out the garbage - the list of items that ordinarily would have low priority or would be ignored altogether were suddenly very important. Before I knew it, the time had flown and my window of opportunity to do an assignment had passed. It could wait until tomorrow!

Tomorrow came and went, and usually by the weekend I got serious. I would log onto the course, download a few lessons, and attempt to complete some assignments. More than once I had a software glitch (or operator error?!) and got stuck - I could not complete the assignment as per the directions given in the course. What did I do? Try again? Once, to no avail. Keep at it? No. Give up for the day? Yes! A few days later I tried again with a measure of success, but by this time I was truly behind.

Preventive Research

While the irony of the situation had not escaped me, this experience caused me to do some research and reflection on the factors that affect student participation in online courses. There are guides available that are meant to assist online students as well as instructors; many of these have been produced by the institutions that are offering online courses.

A notable example is offered by the Center for Teaching and Learning of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities ( which consists of several pages of valuable information entitled “Student Success Factors in an Online Environment.” Within the website is an excellent list called “Characteristics of Students” that is provided for faculty members who are interested in learning about teaching online. It could also be helpful from the standpoint of a student; anyone signing up for online courses should realize that these characteristics are vital to a positive online educational experience. The elements that describe a successful online student are printed below (in a slightly different order than the original):

An online student should:

1. be self-directed and motivated
2. have good basic computer skills
3. have good time management skills
4. be able to read and write well
5. have continual access to a computer with Internet access
6. feel comfortable asking questions when they need help
7. be inquisitive
8. be willing to share his or her experiences with their instructor and fellow students
9. not need to rely on face-to-face interaction with their instructor or fellow students

As I thought about my own failed experience as an online student, I couldn't help but compare my own proclivities with this list. I certainly consider myself to be self-directed and motivated, can manage my time well, have excellent computer, reading and writing skills, and have continual computer access. The remaining qualifications, mostly related to interaction, are completely subjective and may have played a greater role in my lack of success than I would have predicted prior to this experience. In the end it also became apparent that my “good time management skills” definitely needed improvement.

Course Factors That Had An Effect

Subject area, the reason(s) for taking a course, and the course objectives will make a difference in the "climate" of an online course. The course that I took was a computer applications course with a hands-on tutorial for creating Websites, based on “Dreamweaver” software. It was extremely well-organized and the instructor had a very personable style in all of the online lectures and other materials. My comments about the course are NOT meant to reflect negatively in any way on either the course or the instructor. The course is not new and it clearly has worked well for hundreds and perhaps thousands of students since its inception.

The interface of the course included an open-topic discussion board where students were encouraged to post any and all questions and concerns. Somehow this forum made me feel shy. (Me?! Shy?) I did not feel comfortable airing my questions in front of everyone, partly because I was afraid that the answers were obvious to everyone but me. All my exhortations over the years to my students that “there's no such thing as a dumb question” seemingly did not apply to yours truly.

Student/ Instructor Interaction

Does more or less interaction affect the online course either positively or negatively?

Interaction is a major concern for online education - how is it best handled? Should it be required at all, and if so how much interaction should be expected? The type of course and the type of program will affect the answers to these questions; what's recommended in one situation may not work in another. For instance, a seminar in best classroom practices that is offered to teachers would benefit greatly from online interaction among the participants because one could assume that they would have had direct experiences that are well worth sharing. On the other hand, a course on a straightforward topic such as human anatomy may not be enhanced by student interaction - bones are bones and the facts are cut and dried. This doesn't preclude the necessity for opportunities to ask questions or otherwise interact in the online environment, but some courses clearly lend themselves better to lively discussions and even arguments (arguments conducted in a professional manner, of course).

A study by Michael Beaudoin found that not enough research has been done on whether on-line interaction enhances the quality of learning, or if on the other hand a lack of interaction affects on-line learning in a negative way (Beaudoin, 2002). While platforms such as eCollege and Blackboard make it easy to track student involvement in a course, just because a student is logged on does not guarantee that he or she is actually learning. It could also be possible that students who log on or participate less frequently than other students may actually be learning more because they are studying harder, reading more, doing better quality work on their assignments, etc. - all activities that are better performed off-line. Simply being on-line does not guarantee learning.

In my online student experience, there was virtually no requirement for interaction; the opportunity to interact was there for students who wished to avail themselves of it, but class discussions were not a required feature of the class. As an online professor I have always made class discussions an integral part of the course, with specific topics assigned on a weekly basis. This is not necessarily a fair comparison to my student experience since the course I took online was for personal enrichment and the courses that I have taught were part of a graduate degree program. Clearly the need for discussions and interaction is quite different in a degree program. Upon reflection, however, I can see that a requirement for interaction would have helped me stay on track and stay engaged in this course. This is not to say that the nature of the course lent itself to interaction or that it should have been required; rather, I learned that this probably made a difference to me personally.


Why was my online student experience so terribly different from my online teaching experience?

Reflecting on my online teaching experiences, my commitment to regular daily interaction with the students was motivated by several factors. First of all, it was a paid position, and as a responsible individual I honored my commitment to the university and fulfilled the expectations and then some. Carrots - or sticks - such as student evaluations and the hope to be re-hired played a role too. I also made an effort to personalize the online experience for my students, and this resulted in email correspondence beyond the course itself. While this meant that I spent more time dealing with the students, it made me much more involved and definitely enhanced the online teaching experience. I believe it increased student involvement and student satisfaction as well.

Online Delivery as a New Medium

One factor that affects success in online learning is its newness as a method for course delivery.

Many or even most students may be a taking an online course for the first time, and as with most new experiences, time must be allowed to get acclimated (Beaudoin, 2002). While online courses are more and more common and by definition more and more students have had at least one online course experience, this is an area of education that continues to grow. There is no lack of potential students for whom an online experience is brand new, given that the majority of education in our society is still delivered face to face. To date, most if not all high schools and universities are not preparing their students for online courses unless it's experiential - i.e., if the institution offers online courses and the students take them, the students “prepare” for the online experience as they take the course.

Preparation to take a traditional course is built into our society; most people from kindergarten onwards have participated in a classroom experience and have learned over and over again what the protocols and expectations of a typical classroom experience are. This is not to say that the success rate could not be improved; the point is that there is no need for traditional “how-to” courses because in our society we learn how to take classes by taking them. This is also true for online courses - we learn how to take them by taking them - but typically as adults, and typically after taking hundreds of traditional classes over the years that have not necessarily prepared us for an online experience.

Perhaps more effort toward “how-to” courses for the online environment would be helpful; indeed, the institutions that are 100% online tend to require such introductory activities, particularly for students who intend to pursue degrees online. If the “newness” factor is obviated through hands-on preparation and students start their first online course with a certain comfort level, it is likely - although not guaranteed - that their experience will be more positive and that they will continue successfully in an online learning environment. There has been some research done on the retention of online students; clearly institutions who rely wholly or in part on offering classes at a distance have a very real need to know how to keep students enrolled in their courses and how to encourage them to re-enroll in subsequent classes. The jury is still out on what works and what does not work, although interaction with the instructors seems to make a positive difference in retention rates.

Consequences and Recommendations

Luckily because my online class was a course that I was taking for personal enrichment, I was not jeopardizing a degree or my academic career goals. Nevertheless, the “rules” for being a responsible student should apply to any course, regardless of the reason for taking it. Since this course was scheduled to last for a little more than 5 weeks, time was short and by falling behind I jeopardized my ability to complete the work on time (even when granted an extension). A rule that I applied to myself when I was working on my dissertation - advice which I have repeated to many a doctoral student - is appropriate here: “Do SOMETHING every single day.” Some days that effort may have only consisted of a few minutes of work; other days the intention to add merely a paragraph turned into hours of quality writing. My own exhortation of making an effort every day worked very well and I kept my nose to the grindstone until the dissertation was completed.

Here are a few ideas that may prove helpful for students as well as instructors who want to improve the online experience.

1. Investigate all aspects of the course thoroughly.

The materials, the activities and assignments, the due dates, the expectations, the grading system, etc. should be read and completely understood at the outset of the course. Depending on the level of responsibility for course design, instructors are likely to have input into all of these areas; students are likely to be "stuck" with the course as it appears. In both cases, familiarity is tantamount to a positive teaching and learning experience.

2. Plan your time.

Whether teaching or learning, an overall plan of the time to be devoted to the course as well as a definite schedule for the day-to-day responsibilities is advised.

3. Analyze your style.

If you're new to online education this may be an ongoing process as the course continues, but pay attention to your feelings and reactions to the course structure. Do you dread contributing to and/or reading the discussions? Do you relish getting to know others through text and/or chats? Do you love being able to work in your pajamas? The answers to these questions should help determine whether online education is a good option for you.

Unfortunately I did not apply this advice to my own online student situation soon enough. Next time I will investigate, plan, and analyze as soon as the course begins or perhaps even prior to enrollment. For the course described in this article, I was able to re-enroll in a section that began 2 months after my false start. Armed with my newfound awareness of time management and student-teacher interaction, I was able to finish the course in a timely fashion. Whew.


Beaudoin, M.F. (2002). Learning or lurking? Tracking the “invisible” online student. Internet and Higher Education, 5, 147-155.
Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, Center for Teaching and Learning, Getting started online. Retrieved April 14, 2006 from