May 19th, 2010

Designing Online Courses to Meet the Needs of a Diverse Student Population

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When designing an online course we tend to create the course based on our needs and time restraints, and often do not think of our students and the reasons why they are taking an online course. To effectively meet our students diverse needs, we must step back and ask ourselves:

  • How is teaching online different from teaching face-to-face?
  • What are the characteristics of the online learner?
  • When will learning occur?

When answering these questions and creating the content for online courses we have to consider that our student population does not always fit the footprint of the typical college student.

Online courses reach an increasingly broad range of students — from across town to across different time zones and into remote areas. While some may mirror the typical college student, we also have to consider that our online course also may include students who work part-time to pay for college, professionals who work full time and have children, stay at-home-moms, single parents, retirees, and of course those who are striving to find their niche in the business world and want to continue their education.

Shy students and those that suffer from test anxiety and need extended time when taking a test are also drawn to online learning. Building discussion board assignments into your online course allows shy students to share their thoughts and ideas from within their own comfort zone, and participate more fully than they would ever do in a traditional face-to-face class. Meanwhile, students with test anxiety like to have the ability to pace themselves and look over their test before submitting it. They are also more comfortable taking the tests from their “safe haven” which can vary from their dorm room, home office, or the local coffee shop.

Keeping in mind the similarities and differences within this exploding and potentially diverse student population, we must consider a multitude of things that can occur during the semester long course:

  • Learning will take place at different times of the day.
  • Learning will not always be for long periods of time and may be chunked throughout the day and “squeezed” into the daily routine.
  • Mobile learning via smart phones, laptops, and netbooks are an important factor to consider.
  • Computer skills will vary from novice to expert.
  • Online search skills will vary from novice to expert.
  • Internet connections will vary from dial-up to high speed.

Some students who register for an online course expect a fully synchronous learning environment. Be open when designing your online course and experiment with different avenues to deliver your content — synchronously and asynchronously. If your course needs to have a synchronous learning component think about the following:

  • What needs to be learned at the same time?
  • Do you need to be involved in the delivery of the information?
  • Is it peer-to-peer learning, instructor – student, or something else?
  • How can you meet the needs of both the instructor and learner?
  • What delivery method can you use?
    • Wikis, blogs and journals
    • Chat rooms
    • Webcasts and podcasts
    • Threaded discussions

As you can see, we all have to think about a lot of different scenarios when designing and delivering our course content online. If you are new to online teaching, take the time to poll your students from time-to-time to better gauge how both you and your students are doing. Be open to their suggestions and ideas – their feedback can help you become an innovator in online teaching!

Eileen Narozny is an instructional designer at the University of Central Florida.