Pittsburgh Bridges by Don O'Brien CC-BY on Flickr

Navigating the online course

After several trips to Pittsburgh in the past few years, I have learned to turn off my GPS navigation system while driving through the downtown area. With its tall buildings, numerous highway exits, over-passes and bridges, my GPS loses the signal and begins offering less than helpful suggestions at a time when the importance of a clear useable navigation system is most critical.

Pittsburgh Bridges by Don O'Brien CC-BY on Flickr
With its tall buildings, numerous highway exits, over-passes and bridges, my GPS loses the signal and begins offering less than helpful suggestions at a time when the importance of a clear useable navigation system is most critical. Pittsburgh Bridges by Don O’Brien CC-BY on Flickr –

A colleague shared with me an incident with a student requesting a refund when, after week four of an eight week math course, they had yet to log into the publisher’s course site. According to the student they had logged into their Blackboard course and perused the course space but were unaware of the need to log into the supplemental publisher’s site, where the quizzes were to be completed. Of course, by week four, they were already halfway though the course and had missed several quizzes. When the instructor suggested they drop the course, the student stated they were not made aware of the second site and therefore should not have to pay for the course.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard these kinds of concerns and it seems to me that this is yet another example of how important it is to make clear the expectations early on in the semester or term. One way to help avoid these problems is to consider the course interface from the student’s perspective.

In a Quality Matters research project, Does Findability Matter? – Findability, Student Motivation and Self-efficacy in Online Courses (2012), researchers found that time-on-task, student self-reported difficulty and frustration levels were significantly higher for students enrolled in control group (non-QM-recognized) courses. On the other hand, students enrolled in the experimental group (QM recognized courses) reported a significantly better experience in regards to ease of finding course materials and assignments. The were more likely to enjoy their course experience and to recommend the course to friends. Instructor ratings were higher and frustration levels, lower than for the control group.

“Findability” was rated using QM Standard 6.3 – Navigation throughout the online components of the course is logical, consistent, and efficient.

When preparing the course ask a colleague and / or student(s) who are unfamiliar with the course, to look over the homepage and provide helpful suggestions. Here are some questions for which they might provide feedback…

  • Is it obvious where to begin?
  • Can you easily find the course syllabus?
  • Is it clear how to contact the instructor, when they are available and when students can expect a response?
  • Are the course goals and objectives clearly stated?
  • Is the schedule of assignments and course activities easy to find and understand?
  • Can students easily navigate to ancillary materials (e.g. publishers quizzes)?
  • Can you see at first glance how to find both technical and course-related assistance?

Keep in mind that people are different and will intuit where to find things by their own experience with similar interfaces. Although you may feel that putting all of the important information in one place (such as the syllabus) should suffice, your students may benefit by finding the same information in multiple locations – or rather – multiple paths to the same information.

These considerations may seem obvious but getting a second or even third perspective can help to ensure students can easily navigate the course and focus on the learning, as opposed to getting lost along the way.


Simunich, B., Robins, D., Kelly, V. (2012) Does findability matter?. Quality Matters.org https://www.qualitymatters.org/files/webform/Quality%20Matters%202012%20Findability.pdf


What students love about online learning…

Students say they love their online courses when their instructor is accessible and responsive, when their instructor is hard to reach or unresponsive – not so much.

CC-BY-NC-SA by John Harvey on Flickr
CC-BY-NC-SA by John Harvey on Flickr

We recently surveyed our online students regarding distance learning support services. The last question in the survey asked for “any other comments” they wished to offer. About two-thirds of the responses were very positive with students telling us how much they appreciated the online options. Here’s the gist…

“Although the instructor had organized the course well on Blackboard, I could never get a prompt response…”

“My instructor was awesome and was always there if you had any questions.”

“…every course I have taken has been great and the professors have all been attentive and responsive”.

“I really enjoyed my online course with [my] professor… he was responsive to my individual questions and he always replied in a timely compassionate manner.”

“I enjoyed my online courses. The professors were always available for help, though at times I had to wait a day or so for them to email me back.”

“I enjoy my online classes. My psychology class this semester has been great. My economics teacher on the other hand, I feel is very distant and not very helpful when I try and reach out to him.”

Note the theme here – “I loved the online course – my instructor was responsive”.

It would appear that instructor responsiveness and availability is key to student satisfaction in the online learning experience. Some thoughts on how to accomplish this in your online courses…

Students need to know the instructor’s preferred communication style.

Which tools or methods will you employ – email, instant messaging, texts, voice calls, Twitter, Skype, or a combination thereof? Posting this information in the syllabus and course introductory pages can help to manage expectations. Students will know that although you are not available twenty-four-seven, you can still be reached and will be getting back with them in a reasonable amount of time. Tell the students you will respond in a timely manner so they know when to expect a response, and be specific. If your intention is to answer inquiries within 24 hours, state this on the course homepage along with your contact information. I knew a teacher, new to online, who told her students that she would be checking her emails on Thursday evenings. Yeah… as you might imagine, that was not very well received.

Online instructors should not feel the need to respond to every text as it is received, but they do need to establish some sort of routine. If you check your email first thing in the morning or before you go to bed at night, students will begin to expect your responses around these times. If the schedule changes – you’re on vacation, or working on a project that takes you away from your normal rhythm – send out a message or announcement that they might not hear back from you until the next day.

Virtual office hours are useful even when students don’t take advantage of them. They know that Tuesdays and Thursdays they can log into the chat or find you on Skype between 2:30 and 4:00 in the afternoon. I know more than a few faculty who regularly schedule virtual conferences with their students using Google Hangouts or Skype, just to add a more personal connection as they review their students’ writing assignments.

Have the students introduce themselves to the rest of the class at the beginning of the semester. This can be very helpful in creating a sense of community in the virtual classroom environment. You can model this by posting your own introduction to a discussion forum as the first assignment. Using the Blackboard video feature or simply sharing a short video from your phone can help students to see you as a real person so they can put a face along with the name of their professor.

For more ideas about improving communication and interaction, check out the Communications & Interactions Plan found at University of Utah’s Center for Teaching & Learning Excellence: https://utah.instructure.com/courses/148446/pages/communication-and-interaction-plan-strategies

CC-BY-NC-SA by Ed Yourdon on Flickr

What can we do to help students be more successful in online courses?

We surveyed our online students this spring and received a strong response to the open-ended question, “What could [the college] do to help you be more successful in online course(s)?

CC-BY-NC-SA by Ed Yourdon on Flickr
CC-BY-NC-SA by Ed Yourdon on Flickr

I tried to categorize the students’ responses around themes – here are the top ten…

  1. Reliable Technology – specifically the learning management system (LMS). Students expect the technology to be reliable and to work as designed when they need it. They do not expect to be logged out, or timed out, or to find the system off-line due to a power outage, etc.
  2. Video – students want their courses to include short videos:  lectures, explanations, examples, demonstrations… “like Khan Academy”.
  3. More Online Courses – students are enrolling in online courses because it meets their schedules and they need more online offerings if they are to complete their programs
  4. Reminders – they want to get alerts, reminders, notifications about what is due and when it is due.
  5. Consistency – students would like for their online courses to have the same look and feel. The layout of the courses, tabs, menus should be the same from one course space to the next.
  6. Instructor Availability – students want to be able to contact their instructor when they have a question or need help and expect to get a response in a timely manner.
  7. Timely Feedback – students are looking for their instructors to keep them apprised of their progress. They would like to get their grades early and often.
  8. Faculty Involvement – students appreciate faculty taking an active role in teaching the course – not so much a third-party website or publisher’s course pack.
  9. Online Testing – they want to be able to take more tests online as opposed to coming to the testing center. They point out that they enrolled in the online class so that they would not need to travel to campus.
  10. Calendar – students would like to know what is coming up ahead of time and for all their courses. A composite calendar of events for all of their courses is their suggested solution.

It is interesting to me that through this survey, students had an opportunity to recommend new and innovative technological solutions, yet they focused much more so on issues of design and delivery – on improving existing processes.

The good news is, we can do a lot of this stuff!