Published on 2013/07/19
Five Mistakes Online Educators Make (Part 1)
Setting clear expectations at the start of an online course can save instructors a lot of difficulty down the road.

A few months ago, I wrote an article about five mistakes online students make.  Online instructors are not immune to errors, and in this article I discuss some mistakes I’ve made in my 13 years of online teaching. None of these is particularly earth-shattering, but colleagues new to online teaching have found them useful.

1. Not setting expectations

I was very excited to teach my first online course (and very nervous that something would go wrong), so I checked my email and the discussion forums in the learning management system (LMS) frequently.  I answered every email and responded to every introduction on the discussion forum within minutes of their posting whenever I was awake, and even when I’d wake up in the middle of the night. It seemed like a great idea at the time but, after a week or two, I realized the students expected me to always be online — including at 3 a.m.!  By not establishing a clear response time expectation, I set myself up for poor evaluations by some students. Having been treated to instant answers early in the course, they expected that to continue throughout.

When I set a 24-hour turn-around response time on business days, students were fine with it. They knew I’d sometimes respond sooner, but they weren’t upset if I didn’t. Having a specific timeframe for responses sets reasonable expectations for your students.

2. Not creating a Q&A forum

Did I mention receiving tons of email that first semester? Three weeks with 25 students had yielded more than 300 emails. Each one had emailed me at least six times, and some had sent dozens! I found myself always answering emails and often answering the same question over and over. I decided to use a question and answer forum to handle the more generic questions.

When I received an email question, my response became, “I’ll answer this is the Q&A forum. Please read the response there.” And then I’d post the question and answer. This was an improvement, as it meant the next student with the same question could be referred to the forum, and students gradually learned to check for answers there (although it didn’t really stop the email flood).

Next, I emailed the group and told them to check the forum before emailing me. That helped, but new questions kept coming and I was still posting them to the forum myself. Finally, I decided to put the burden of posting on the students. When a new question arrived, I answered the question in the email and then asked the student to post the question and my response in the forum.  What I did next really helped.

This was the first installment of Margaret O’Hara’s two-part series. Please click here to read the conclusion.

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Readers Comments

Linda McAdams 2013/07/19 at 8:32 am

I like the idea of a Q&A forum to avoid having to repeat the same answer multiple times. It’s also helpful for students to have the response documented so they can return to it later for reference. I’m interested to see whether O’Hara was able to get her students to post their questions and her responses to the forum as directed.

Kylie R 2013/07/19 at 11:56 am

I will be teaching an online course for the first time starting this August. I’ll be sure to keep what O’Hara said about email response time in mind. I’m the type of person who tends to answer emails at all hours (I’m also a night owl) but now I’ll be careful not to set that expectation for my students. I’m looking forward to the next article.

Cindy Chao 2013/07/22 at 7:02 am

What both of these tips are really saying is that instructors need to remember their position in the class. They do not exist to cater to every whim of their students. Unfortunately, in today’s society there is a sense of entitlement among students, where they think that because they pay tuition — and, indirectly, their instructors (or so they believe!) — they should have a say in the way the course is run. That’s not the case. As the instructor, it’s up to you to set the ground rules and terms of engagement early on in the course, and to stick to them and demand the same of your students.

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