Over the last decade, I’ve worked as an online education reporter, teacher, and instructional designer. I’ve seen hundreds of online courses and spoken to many students and faculty members about their experiences in distance learning classrooms.
Sometimes, online students become frustrated because they can’t find a way to connect with their professors and don’t really see the person behind the letters entered into a virtual gradebook. Likewise, online professors are often frustrated at the high drop-out rates and low levels of engagement in their online classes.
What’s going on behind the scenes? Here are a few rarely-discussed observations I’ve made by examining my own classroom as well as the classrooms of other online instructors.
Your professors didn’t necessarily create the courses they are teaching. In many online classes, the curriculum is created by instructional designers. Your actual “instructor” may have had little to no say in the content and assignments you’re seeing. They may love the curriculum, or they may be resentful about parts that they find ineffective or outside of their teaching style. If you’re struggling with the assignments or sequence, passing that on to the instructor (in a friendly manner) may help him make future changes or pass on the complaint to the people that have the power to edit the course.
Grades are almost always subjective. Especially in humanities courses, there is usually a bit of leeway when it comes to grades. Although some instructors would prefer you to believe that there is an exact science behind the letters showing up on your papers, the difference between a B and a B- is often negligible. There’s little chance of an instructor turning your D into a B. But, if you ask about your grade and inquire about improving / extra credit / feedback, many teachers are at least a little flexible.
What they say about the squeaky wheel is true. You don’t want to become a nuisance, but it’s important to speak up. If you have a problem, a question, or a concern about the class, get in contact with your professor as soon as possible. If you haven’t heard back in a reasonable timeframe, send a follow up email. Professors are often overworked and overwhelmed by their inbox and can sometimes lose an email – don’t be afraid to remind them when you’re waiting on a response.
The online students that are remembered are the students that are vulnerable. Researcher Brene Brown recently gave a powerful TED talk about vulnerability that I think online students and professors alike could learn a lot from. When a professor is dealing with 75+ faceless students every semester, the ones that stand out are the ones that have the courage to make themselves vulnerable. That doesn’t mean you need to rant about the woes of your life on the discussion board (in fact, please don’t do that). Instead, it means being willing to speak up, share your unique insights, and take the time to show who you are rather than simply completing the minimal requirements with voiceless, anonymous responses.
Effort often affects grades. Instructors can usually tell when you’re making an effort. Few things are more frustrating to an online teacher than seeing discussion board posts that parrot those before them and are written in all lower case letters. A primarily well-written paper that clearly falls short of the student’s actual ability is a sad thing indeed. Many instructors are willing to go to great effort to help students that demonstrate their own dedication. If you are seeking extra help through tutoring, attending writing center sessions, going to the math lab, etc. be sure to mention it so that you can receive extra guidance (and attention) from your professor.
Online professors crave interaction too. While some students feel like anonymous numbers in a sea of screens, some professors feel like little more than grade dispensers to their online students. It can often be frustrating for professors that go the extra mile to receive little back from their students. If you want to connect with your professor, receive additional help, and create a networking opportunity (hello, letters of recommendation), take the time to treat your professor like a human.
Online professors judge their student based on their writing. Unless your class uses video conferencing, the way you write is the way you are presenting yourself as a student. Careless grammar and sloppy sentences are the online equivalent of coming in late and slouching in the back of the room. Even if they aren’t making a conscious decision to do so, the majority of teachers I’ve met judge their students based on their emails, discussion board posts, and chat room responses. If you have an issue that makes writing a challenge (i.e. you’re an English language learner), noting that may help your professor see past minor writing errors that would otherwise look like carelessness.
Some online classes are under observation. Have you ever noticed that instructors are often dynamic and lively in front of a class, but don’t share that same enthusiasm in the online environment? One reason for this is that it’s hard to convey the same level of excitement and impromptu storytelling online. Another is that online classes are regularly observed by college administrators or evaluators. While traditional courses are usually only observed during a day agreed upon by all parties, observers often have all access to an entire semester’s worth of content, posts, and more. Some online faculty members may be concerned about their teaching positions and don’t want to create a lasting record that could come back to haunt them.
Professors care about their reviews. Just as you get a final grade, you’ll likely have the chance to anonymously review your professor at the end of the semester. Although some faculty members may just be going through the motions, most professors want to do a good job. Some try to ignore their ratings, but most give in to the temptation to over-analyze student feedback and pour over their public ratings on review websites. Giving personal feedback (i.e an email sharing what you liked about the course and some suggestions) is also greatly appreciated by most instructors. If an online teacher has gone the extra mile for you, a kind word is likely to make her day.