What do students value in online courses?
I had the pleasure of attending the 2016 CAUCE – CNIE joint conference here in Waterloo from May 30 to Jun 2. There were many interesting sessions, including a keynote by Marc Rosenberg describing Learning Ecosystems and another by Ken Steele highlighting the latest innovations in teaching and learning. A panel interview led by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities examined how provincial consortia, including our own eCampus Ontario, are promoting an environment of innovation in higher-education technology-enabled learning.
One session I particularly enjoyed presented the results of an online student survey at Wilfrid Laurier University. WLU surveyed students who had recently taken one or more fully online courses and asked them what they valued most in an online learning experience. The top three responses related to online course design were:
- a well-organized course syllabus;
- clear course expectations and requirements; and
- a well-organized course structure (for example, information presented in manageable chunks, segments or modules).
As far as online teaching was concerned, students most valued:
- fair and consistent grading of assignments and exams; and
- clear and meaningful feedback on assignments and exams.
It seems to me that these values apply equally to face-to-face, on campus courses and to blended courses as they do to fully online courses. In fact, these items are closely aligned with Chickering & Gamson’s seminal work, Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. Furthermore, the results of this survey remind us that overall, students are searching for high quality in online education, a recommendation clearly articulated by the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance in their recent policy brief:
“At the heart of this policy is a focus on the quality of online learning. It is crucial that the same standards of quality that apply to traditional, in-classroom courses apply to fully-online courses as well. Ideally, instructors should be capable of teaching an online course as effectively as they would a traditional class.”
But how do you know if your course structure is well-organized or if you have clearly articulated course expectations online? Here are 3 suggestions:
- The Centre for Extended Learning can help you with this as part of our online course design and development process.
- Ask a colleague to review your course syllabus or your assignment instructions. Are they clear to someone who is reading them for the first time? What questions might students still have after reviewing them?
- Proactively request some mid-term feedback directly from your online students through an anonymous start-stop-continue student poll ( https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/communicating-students/listening/using-mid-term-student-feedback ).
Are there other ways you can ensure quality in your online course design and in your teaching? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.
 Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (March 2016). Policy Briefing: Online Learning.
Dina Meunier is Associate Director of Online Learning, Centre for Extended Learning, University of Waterloo