Friday, April 12, 2013

My Experience as an Online Student

It is a bit embarrassing to share with you that until recently I had never taken an online class. Throughout high school and college, all of my coursework has been in person. Though I feel I’ve done a good job of learning about effective online curriculum and teaching strategies, I obviously only knew one side of the story. There are many things I wonder about when it comes to my students. Why did they do this assignment, but not that one? Why don’t they make more of an effort to stay on track? How can you be this far behind? Why on earth would you do 10 assignments in one night?! Thus, I conducted an experiment myself of what I would be like as a student in their shoes. For this experiment I used free online coursework provided by in conjunction with the Open Learning Initiative. “The Open Learning Initiative offers online courses to anyone who wants to learn or teach. Our aim is to combine open, high-quality courses, continuous feedback, and research to improve learning and transform higher education,” (Carnegie Mellon on OLI). I enrolled in Spanish 1 in late December, a course where a grade and certificate is received by participants. In my Spanish class there were over 4,000 students enrolled (makes my 260 students seem like a small number!). I was ready to begin.

I started very motivated about doing well in this course. I completed all the assignments I could in the beginning, which to my surprise included watching several videos and completing a written and spoken assignment. At first, I hoped Week 1 would include a quiz rather than the written assignment because to me that felt like a quick and simple way to accomplish something in my class. Aha! First realization: students often do all the open quizzes in my class before attempting an art project. Why? Perhaps it is because they also feel like a quiz is a quick way to accomplish something, to fill something in on their grade book, and to see how they are doing. However, the projects are worth more of their grade and focus on students putting their learning into practice by demonstrating mastery of a concept.

The next several weeks went well. I found myself logging in once a week to complete my homework. This of course meant I was spending quite a bit of time all at once getting things done, and I was only taking ONE course. Many of my students take 5 courses at once. It would be smarter for me to login multiple times a week to get my assignments done in smaller chunks, but it takes a lot of dedication to find the time during my busy week to do this. Second realization: Online learning takes dedication, time management, and self-discipline! This is really no surprise to me, but it takes more than I once imagined.

In the beginning I received feedback from every assignment I submitted, usually a couple days after I submitted it. As the course went on, the number of assignments that the grading team had to look through became much higher and the feedback I was receiving seemed to drop off completely. A week went by, two weeks, and still no grade for my recent assignments. Finally, it had been a month since receiving any feedback or grades and I also stopped submitting work. Without feedback or contact from my teacher, I did not login to my class for 4 long weeks! I thought to myself, “I am my worst student.” If even a motivated person like myself was capable of blowing off classwork for an entire month, of course my students could. Many of them have distractions like myself: full time jobs, family issues, and whatever else life throws at them. However, I do always make sure to give timely feedback. Realization three: It is easy to get more behind than you realize and timely feedback is essential for student motivation.

At four weeks behind, the option of giving up and just retaking this class later (or not) sounded pretty good to me. But wait! How on earth can I encourage my students to be successful in this online environment if I myself choose not to succeed? Realization four: giving up is easy, but it is not the best option! So I got back on. I worked over spring break. I buckled down and got it done. In the end, I was able to come back and catch up. I took the quizzes and re-took the quizzes. I studied and worked on the assignments until I got it all done. As behind as I was, the system was quite forgiving in letting me catch back up on what I had missed. This is a plus to online learning, and perhaps even required in this environment.

Through this experience I have gained insight and empathy for my students. My “why’s” have been answered, and I have learned some Spanish along the way. I will use these insights when speaking with students and working with them to help them login and succeed. It is not as easy as you would think, but that just means we all need to work on our self-discipline and use the tools at our disposal. Together we can do it! 


  1. I am on the other side of the coin from you: my whole master's program is online, and my job is to help people teach online. But, until recently, I had never actually taught online myself, only in person. I, like you, am having a really enlightening experience. I understand so much better now how so many of the things that I do as a face-to-face teacher translate into the online teaching model. You know, things like putting off grading papers, not explaining directions well enough and having to explain several times, mapping things out a semester in advance but not creating the materials until right before the lesson, etc. I've learned that it's much easier to change the order of a lesson in the f2f classroom, but much easier to send an e-mail blast to the whole class so I don't have to keep answering the same question over and over.

    It's always interesting to see things from the other side.