By Doug Ward

Connecting with students in online courses challenges even the best instructors.

I was reminded of that recently when I spoke with Tracy Russo, an associate professor of communication studies, at the C21 Course Redesign Consortium.

C21 brings together about 60 instructors from many disciplines at KU who are interested in making learning more active and more meaningful by changing the ways they approach their classes. The discussions teem with energy as faculty members, post-docs and graduate students share ideas and consider the provocative questions from the C21 organizer, Andrea Greenhoot, an associate professor of psychology and associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence.

At the last C21 session, Russo and I talked about our experiences with online courses. She created and taught her first online course in 2000 and this year coordinates five sections of COMS 310, an introductory course in organizational communication that has three online and two face-to-face sections of about 25 students each. The face-to-face sections employ a flipped model, using modules from the online course to help prepare students for in-class discussions.

Images via Clker, Stock.xchng
Images via Clker, Stock.xchng

The combination of formats has allowed Russo to look more closely at how students learn.

“We’re trying to find out what works,” she said.

She isn’t ready to draw any conclusions about the class formats yet, but she has been frustrated with her online section. Discussion boards have been thin and her email inbox has overflowed with messages from students asking for clarification on assignments. She plans to add more explicit instructions and to alter some assignments to make them more meaningful. She still yearns for the face-to-face contact that traditional classes offer, though.

I know that all too well. I struggled the last time I taught an online course, and not surprisingly other instructors raise the same concerns that Russo and I have.

“As a teacher, I find it phenomenally frustrating because I don’t know the students personally,” Russo said.

A recent study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University does an excellent job of explaining those frustrations, which students feel, as well. I highly recommend that anyone planning to teach an online course read the study. It is filled with excellent advice and provides welcome insights into students’ perceptions of online learning.

Among findings from the study:

  • Direction. Students want instructors to better explain the important aspects of readings, essentially emulating the points instructors might highlight in a classroom. They also want clear rubrics and written guidance on assignments so they won’t have to wait for instructors to respond to email so they can complete their work.
  • Feedback. Students expect feedback on all assignments, including discussion posts, often in far more detail than instructors provide. They find the lack of feedback discouraging, with one student saying, “It’s almost like you are talking to a wall.” (p. 19)
  • Motivation. Instructors say that students need to take responsibility to learn independently in online courses, but students say they need more help from instructors in understanding expectations and in devising strategies for learning.
  • Communication. Students cite communication with instructors as among their biggest problems in online courses. They expect instructors to respond via email far more quickly than instructors usually do (24 vs. 48 hours). Not surprisingly, in most of those messages students seek guidance on assignments.
  • Lack of visual cues. Students and instructors both find the lack of visual cues frustrating, and say that students need to reach out when they have problems because instructors have no way to know whether they understand material. That, of course, generally means more email and hence more frustration.
  • Course materials. Students prefer instructor-created video or audio presentations over nearly anything else, saying that those types of materials personalize courses and help them feel more connected to courses. Instructors often find those expectations unrealistic.

I plan to take the findings of the study to heart as I prepare for an online course in January and another in the summer.

One of the things those of us who teach online have to remember, though, is that most of us have had far more practice at teaching in person than we have online. That’s what makes the study from the Community College Research Center and Russo’s experiments with class format so important. They help us learn about and reflect on our own practices as we work to connect with students.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

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