August 7th, 2008

Aligning Students’ Expectations With Realities of Online Education


Students’ perceptions of what an online course will be like are often quite different from how it really is. That is why Jim McKeown, assistant professor of computer science at Dakota State University, makes it a point to clearly articulate what he expects in his online courses. He also makes it a point to build in administrative elements that keep students on track because first-time online learners often mistakenly believe that online learning is easier, takes less time, and is self-paced.

McKeown prominently displays course expectations. Students must check a box verifying that they have read them. On this page, McKeown covers the following expectations in detail:

  • “You will spend more time on an online course than a traditional classroom course.”
  • “You must stay in contact with the instructor.”
  • “You will not be able to work at your own pace.”
  • “You will be able to schedule your own time.”
  • “You don’t have to be in the classroom or even on campus.
  • “Email isn’t instantaneous.”
  • “You won’t get a notice that your assignment was received.”
  • “You are expected to know how to use the computer and your software.”
  • “You will spend lots of time programming.”
  • “You will need to be self-motivated.”
  • “You won’t be alone.”
  • “You will be rewarded.”

Despite these clearly articulated expectations, McKeown finds that traditional students often struggle with online courses. “Without a doubt the traditional college students fair the worst. A month into class they’re three weeks behind. They dig themselves a hole they can never get out of. My own personal bias is that they think it’s easier than going to a regular class. It’s tough for them to get motivated,” McKeown says.

Personalizing the learning experience

In addition to his expectations, McKeown uses several other techniques to get students involved and keep them from procrastinating. In a face-to-face class, he gets to know students pretty well because DSU is a relatively small campus. If he gets to class early, he will strike up conversations with students, and he gets to know his students’ interests are and campus involvement. “I also try to find those things out with my internet students. Some of it gives me an idea of when they’re around and what they’re doing. For example, a high school student in my course is probably working during study hall. A non-traditional student with a full-time job probably won’t have an opportunity to work on the course during the day. If you personalize things, it makes it a lot easier for them.”
McKeown has his online students fill out an online form, which asks for the student’s name, type of computer, computer memory capacity, the last movie the student saw, what he or she does for fun, and “anything you want to tell me about yourself.”

This information gives McKeown a frame of reference and helps him personalize his communication for each student.

Another way he personalizes his communication without any extra effort is by using a mail merge so each group e-mail he sends addresses each student by name. “Each week they get a message from me. I communicate with them more. The first couple of times [I taught online] I would send out an e-mail a week and reply to all their messages, but I found out that students didn’t read the things and even if they did, they wouldn’t remember things. That’s why I start a couple weeks in advance and say, ‘This is your window for taking the test.’ And I give them multiple reminders.”

McKeown also makes it a point to send motivational messages like “We’ve got the test out of the way” “We’re two-thirds of the way through the course” “There’s a big push coming up before the break” — things you would normally do in the classroom that are tougher to do online.”

Another face-to-face technique he adapts to the online environment is real-time one-on-one assistance. Since he cannot be in the same room with his students, he uses Real VNC (virtual network computing) that allows him to talk on the telephone with students while being able to view a student’s computer screen and demonstrate what he is talking about. “It’s not exactly looking over their shoulder, but it’s very effective,” he says.

Contact Jim McKeown at