Online Education — From the Educator Side

This semester I am teaching an online class. This is my first fully online course, though I have worked in hybrid courses.  It has me thinking about the online and distance education options available to aspiring midwives. Of course I decided to share my experiences of problems with you, to help you decide if online education is the right mode for your training. Yes, these suggestions do come from real problems and real students.

  1. Do not under estimate the amount of time a class will take.
    One of the enticing aspects of online and distance education is the flexibility it affords.  Without a classroom to attend, the student is able to work when it is convenient whether that be 2 am or 2 pm. Unfortunately, it is too easy to translate “I can work anytime” into “I can fit the workload into my existing schedule.”  This isn’t necessarily true.  In a traditional classroom, the credit hours are set based on the amount of contact time (face to face) with an instructor using a calculation for Carnegie Units.  Built into the credit hours is the expectation that for every one hour of contact time you are completing two hours of work on your own. So a course that is 3 credits should take you 9 hours per week to complete.
  2. Pay attention to the start and stop dates.
    Using the credit hour calculations I described you can determine the approximate number of hours per week on a standard semester system (15 week course).  But many online courses use a short course term — the class I am teaching has only 10 weeks.  While this is appealing because you can finish the course more quickly than a traditional classroom course, be prepared for more work per week. In the case of our 3 credit course example, if you had a 10 week instead of a 15 week course you need to fit in 5 weeks of work (or 45 hours) on top of the 9 hours a week you are already doing. This means you should expect about 13 hours of work a week.  The workload is even heavier if the course is shortened further. In addition to the actual workload, pay attention to the amount of learning you expect to do.  Shortened semesters make it difficult to actually master the material assigned, leaving many to rely on fast but less effective learning methods that allow them to pass the exam, but don’t help them build the knowledge needed for the next level class.
  3. You are still expected to participate in the learning community.
    Just like in a traditional classroom, your online instructor will expect you to “participate” in class activities.  These may be discussion boards, chat rooms, file sharing, or other ways to interact with the other students. This is likely to be asynchronous, like a discussion board, but not necessarily. You will have deadlines for participation and will likely lose points if you skip this part of the course. This may be challenging for those who get writer’s block when they need to respond to emails.
  4. You will need to learn new technology.
    Online courses are generally hosted within learning management systems.  At the very least you will need to learn to navigate the learning management system used by your school. You may need to use the institution’s email program to communicate with your instructor. Many online courses also use other technology to help overcome the absence of a “classroom.” Popular technologies are locking browsers for test taking (to prevent searching online for answers), Voice Thread (as a discussion platform), and uploading photos and videos.  Depending on your comfort level (and the age of your computer), you may need time to practice and adjust settings before you are ready to participate in the class.
  5. You must take initiative to be successful. 
    In any classroom, be it digital or analog, there will be hiccups and technology problems.  In an online classroom, the assistance available to you may be limited to the IT department at your institution. The instructor is usually just an email away — but if you are taking your exam at 11 pm when the deadline is midnight the instructor is unlikely to see your email asking for help with an IT issue before you need to submit the exam. It is in your best interest to stay ahead of the schedule so you have time to problem solve when issues arrive. You will also need to take the time to understand the course layout — be sure to read the syllabus and assignments, asking questions if you have any.  Unlike a traditional classroom, your instructor will not be “introducing” the assignments in lecture. It is too easy to think you are doing well, only to find out two weeks later that you have missed assignments because you didn’t actually read the syllabus.