Reflections on Two Online Course Experiences


As part of my ongoing professional development, I take online courses at various Universities.  I am, for all practical purposes, a typical student.  It is my goal to be a be a student, to learn, grow, struggle, etc.  In fact, if it is a good experience, I will take multiple courses or consider working through the entire program.  After studying at the first five or six Universities, one thing became clear.  All online courses and online programs are not created equal.  Comparing one online course to another can show as many differences as you can expect to find when comparing an online course with a face-to-face class.  Of course, we all know that all face-to-face courses are also not created equal.

Part of the reason that I take these courses is to learn about different ways that people run their online programs and courses.  With the two most recent courses, I decided to focus upon comparing student-student and student-instructor interaction.  Here is the short version of what I discovered.  Consider it my Tale of two Courses.

Course 1

Course Type: 3-credit online collaborative graduate course in the humanities

Course Length: 8 weeks

Instructor-initiated Contact: 9 – There was a weekly announcement and one post in the discussion area.  Announcements were largely the instructor’s viewpoint on one part of the upcoming week’s readings.  At times, these perspectives seemed to disagree with the video lectures (from a different full-time instructor) and readings.  The announcements did not address the specific group of students.  In other words, they could easily be reused with any class.

Instructor Interaction via Email: 4 – The instructor was very prompt in replies to email inquiries, often getting back within hours.  There were two email responses to a request for clarification on an assignment.  There were two more email responses to a request for more substantive feedback on a paper that was graded without any comments about the content of the paper. When asked, this feedback was very thorough, but still largely focused upon format over substance.

Student-Student Interaction: 2 threaded discussions in small groups of 5 – Each discussion had a prompt.  Students were required to make an initial reply to the prompt an then reply to at least two group members.  These were the only two discussions in the course.  As a rule, those in my group met the minimum requirements.

 Instructor Feedback on Assignments:  Feedback was provided in a per-determined rubric.  He noted that he could not deviate from it.  The rubric was based mainly on formatting and structure. Only one item on each rubric related to comprehension of the course content.

Summary:  There was limited quality interaction with the instructor and the students.  The course content was good, but for all practical purposes, it was an independent study with strict deadlines and a couple of very short threaded discussions.  The type of communication from the instructor seemed impersonal.

Course 2

Course Type: 3-credit online collaborative graduate course in the humanities

Course Length: 15 weeks

Instructor-initiated Contact: A weekly announcement, occasional replies to the formal discussions, several posts in a general discussion area that was used to build social presence, and suggest additional resources.  The instructor also created an experimental course Twitter hashtag as a result of feedback from the students…although there was limited use of it.  Part of the weekly announcement would address the specific class, while other parts were drawing student attention to the topics and objectives for the week.  The second part could easily be reused from course to course.  The first course seemed to be more personalized to the class.

Instructor Interaction via Email: 7 – The instructor was very prompt in replying to inquires, getting back within 24 hours, including one question on the weekend.  Email responses related to guidance on a project and paper topics as well as responses to questions and clarification about different assignments

Student-Student Interaction: 3 full-class multi-week discussions – The initial post required significant thought and preparation and then students were expected to provide lengthy and substantive replies to one another.  Because the prompts challenged people to be personal, many students made more posts than were required, building upon other ideas, encouraging, asking following up questions, etc.  By the end of the course, students were starting a couple of their own prompts, and others in the class readily replied despite the fact that it was not graded or required.

 Instructor Feedback on Assignments:  Feedback on assignments was based upon pre-determined criterion, and the criterion were mainly focused upon matters of content comprehension and analysis.  The narrative feedback was brief, but focused upon student learning as it relates to the content.

Summary:  The course was highly social and interactive.  The instructor set a positive, professional, slightly informal tone that invited the class to join in meaningful conversation. Because all discussions were the full-class of 15+ students, it required significant reading to stay abreast of everyone, but there was full participation from the class and strong evidence that students were supporting, encouraging, and helping one another; especially as it related to reflecting upon how the course content applied to their lives.

Comparing these two courses and reflecting upon the experience, it reinforces that, in these types of collaborative online courses; the habits,  communication plan, disposition, and commitments of the instructor matter.