Helping students orient themselves in online courses: Time

(Perhaps best sung to the tune of a Pixies song…)

Around the time I start working in online education, a friend of my mom’s, who was going back to school to get a new degree, was getting ready to take her first online college class.

We were sitting at my mom’s house on a Sunday night, the night before her class started, and she got out her laptop and asked me a very striking question:

OK, here’s the Blackboard site for the algebra class. There’s the syllabus and the study guides. But where’s the actual course? I don’t get it.

Whatever response I stammered out (I can’t recall exactly) did little to clear things up for her.

This got me thinking seriously about how students experience online learning—how they perceive time and space when they’re signing in to a website instead of attending class sessions.


Laying out time in the online space

For me, a fundamental design requirement of an online course is that the architecture of the site convey the sequence of tasks and materials in time.

In the flatland (Edward Tufte’s term) of a Carmen course site, it’s essential to show time and motion. In addition to all of the nouns (documents, videos, web pages, links), your course site must have verbs.

One way to do this in Carmen is use the Content structure as a sort of calendar. Each week has its own tab on the side, so students immediately see the connection between the web space and the chronology of the class:

Within those tabs, the content module lays out a sequence of events, a checklist where the materials and activities show up in a sensible order. Students can see that they start with the first one and proceed through:


Creating online patterns and rituals

Maybe an even bigger challenge is to get students into the rhythm of the actual activities an online class. Most of them are used to the patterns and rituals of college classes:

  • You go to class, listen, take notes, ask questions
  • You go home and have a couple days to do homework and push through the reading assignments
  • You go to class, listen, take notes, ask questions
  • You go home and have a couple days to do homework, push through the reading assignments, and start (a) writing a paper, (b) studying for an exam, (c) working on a project
  • And so on…

These patterns help students stay on track and stay engaged. So what happens online when these patterns don’t work? When they don’t have class sessions to go to? When it’s all “home work”?

Either you give them new patterns, or (if you’re living dangerously) you trust that if you give them all the course materials on Day 1, they’ll stay on track and be ready for the final exam when it comes.

Online courses can have different patterns and rituals, but you must purposefully build those in and explain them to students.

Some examples:

  • Students have to post reflections on the week’s reading by Friday every week.
  • Each week begins with a short case study, tied to the reading, videos, and assignments, and a report is due each Saturday by midnight.
  • Students can submit questions all week, and the instructor will have a Q&A video session on Sunday night addressing them all.
  • Students each read one supplemental article every week and contribute an entry to their group’s annotated bibliography wiki.

What’s different online is that a lecture is not part of these patterns and rituals, as it is in a classroom. Lecture videos are just nouns—materials on the website. An online course that engages students must be built around patterns of verbs, things that students are doing. Lecture videos can be great as content, they’re just not a part of theĀ doing in an online course.

In a really engaging course, the doing—those verbs—will compel students to interact with their instructor, with each other, with the materials, and with the world outside of the class.

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