Four kinds of online courses & student expectations to match them

The first challenge for an online college instructor is to make clear to students which kind of online course they are running:

  1. Programmed, self-paced learning over the course of a semester.  (In principle, the student could do all the work in the last week of the semester.)
  2. Programmed, self-paced learning, but with products required each week (which may include postings visible to the other students).  (In principle, the student could do all the work in the last few hours of the week.)
  3. Asynchronous course work, but with expectations of reading and responding to postings by other students or group projects with products required at various points, possibly every week.
  4. At-a-distance participation in synchronous sessions each week, with preparation beforehand and followup afterwards in the same fashion as for face-to-face classes.

Students who expect #1 or #2 often think that they can complete the work in less time than they would take for a face-to-face class.  This even when start-of-class guidelines state that time not spent in class should be added to the standard expectation of a face-to-face class for 2-3 hours outside class for each hour in class (i.e., about 10.5 hours/week for a 3-credit online course).

Students in a #3 style course may, like for #2, try to do all the work in the last few hours of any given unit.  When they do that, they can (in principle) read the postings of all the other students, but it is unlikely that the other students will return to the unit and read their comments.  Even if postings are spread throughout the week, it is a challenge for the teacher to get students to read postings that are made after their own.

For #4, it is difficult to schedule regular synchronous sessions for as many hours as in a face-to-face course.  Students often miss more of the synchronous sessions than they would if the course were face-to-face.

This post welcomes comments that share strategies for addressing the challenges of each kind of online course and of correcting misguided expectations that students may have prior to the course.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (

7 Responses to Four kinds of online courses & student expectations to match them

  1. These distinctions ring true with my own experience as an online instructor. I teach classes without the expectation of weekly synchronous meetings. Students enter the online learning space with these varying levels of understanding. Even when workload and meeting expectations are clearly articulated, students will still default to their own prior experience or individual understanding. Likewise, the variety of course formats offered by instructors is not clearly identified as falling into one type of online definition over another. This adds to confusion over definition, expectations and understanding of engagement with others and the course material.

    The four distinctions detailed seem like they are on a graph where one axis is level of interaction with others and the other is frequency of contact where a logarithmic interaction of the two creates a level of intensity and control for the student. Certainly a mismatch in student expectations (i.e. low interaction with others and low frequency of contact) and course design (i.e. high level of interaction and high frequency of contact) causes stress both for student and instructor. It is hard for an instructor to meet the expectations of a student once this mismatch has occurred.

    It would seem a more nuanced set of definitions as suggested by the 4 scenarios (and perhaps others) would allow instructors to signal more accurately what their online learning environment is like while giving students the tools to adequately decide how they might best balance their learning and life demands.

  2. Rhoda Maurer says:

    Peter – There might be another consideration outside the instructor’s control, the practice of procrastination that some are always comfortable with is easy to maintain when not meeting face to face each week… when the relationship might not be seen as personal as a face to face encounter. And while the Internet and distance learning is an amazing opportunity and has amazing potential for learning across time and distance, unfortunately, I feel it also brings with it an impersonal aspect of the traditional teaching experience. Perhaps age might also effect this since those who are younger and have grown up in this environment might not be aware of the blessings of learning from/with someone rather than from a computer screen. Just thoughts…

  3. I require a lot of online collaboration in my online class. This helps to create an “online community” and students feel connected to each other. Since each week there is a collaborative assignment, students can not wait until the last minute to do the assignment, because collaborative assignments require students to work together online, using a variety of online collaborative tools.

    Students who have taken my course frequently report that they have had more interaction online with other students in the class than they have in a regular face to face classroom.

    • I revised the taxonomy so that #3 makes explicit that “expectations of reading and responding to postings by other students or group projects with products” might be required every week. The synchronous sessions in #4 are also every week.

  4. Jeremy Szteiter says:

    This brings to mind the publicity around online learning and the promises that seem to get made. Although I can’t recall seeing an advertisement for an online program that states that you’ll actually spend less time on coursework, I think that this gets implied sometimes in sneaky ways, and phrases such as “earn your degree as a busy professional” and “flexible scheduling to fit your needs” might contribute. A quick search leads to one example of an explanation of the benefit of online learning:

    “Online learning provides individuals with an opportunity to schedule their own study time. For instance, a busy individual with a full time job can study in the evening or weekends. Someone with young children can study while the children take an afternoon nap.” (

    In addition to the total hours expected for a course each week, I wonder if students also make intentional choices around sustained blocks of time. In situation #4 involving synchronous sessions, students would have to dedicate a block of time for the session, supposedly clearing away all other distractions during that time. In the other types, this has to be self-directed. So I wonder if there is an illusion that online learning can be done in 20-minute spurts, when time allows. It seems that there might be something profoundly important about the face-to-face class, or synchronous session, around focus on a topic that gets sustained for a few hours.

    As an instructor, I also often think about how to be more mindful in developing the balance between two sides of asynchronous activity: the amount of time a student spends actually interacting with technology independently (either exploring the learning environment, reading through course content or instructions, or doing computer-based activities like quizzes) and the amount of time spent working offline (reading a book, writing, reflection, having discussion with or engaging with others, observing something in real life, doing experiential activities). My impulse is to minimize the former and maximize the latter, but my experience is that students spend quite a bit of time in the interacting mode, especially the exploring-expermenting phase. I think that time adds up, and students might tally that time as “time spent toward the course”, although that does not always lead to getting “real work” done. Some schools of thought in modern instructional design focus on how instructors should add more interacting-with-the-technology components with the idea that this makes a course more robust.

    p.s. I think of writing as an “offline” activity even if using a computer, since the computer in that circumstance is a writing tool, not a medium for online course delivery/interaction.

  5. wclausen says:

    I appreciate the above comments — I think we are experiencing many issues the same way. Here are some additional thoughts, as well as particulars related to the way I handle my own online course.

    1. I don’t see any specific history motivating this exercise. I see a need for it, but react a little negatively to dealing with “online only” rather than participant course selection general. Plus I’d like to see something more on the common/different value of various learning activities — there seem to be some unstated assumptions about what really concerns participants/selectors. Overall, I’d see the current status of the 4 categories (Peter’s draft, above) as appropriate to a Q-A piece, not a guideline piece.

    2. As a part time person, I have practically no feel for the “standard expectations” or the UMass conventional wisdom about course selection criteria, reasoning, habits, etc. I do have an expectation that I’m pretty sure is non-standard: the most important “requirement” is to log-in frequently, read and post on the cousre website. Activity trumps outcome, you could say. I do ongoing, relevant “quotes” on the course homepage. I used to use one attributed to A. D. Little, of erstwhile consulting firm fame: “Don’t confuse activity with progress. If Paul Revere had been on a rocking horse, we’d never have known the British were coming.” But I quit using it a couple of years ago. Not how I want participants to think, as members of a nominal course community.

    3. I place very little emphasis on grades or grading, have no tests, etc. This is part of dealing with perhaps the key obstacle to creative/critical thinking in an organizationa/community setting: what one of our reference book authors called “the voice of judgement.” As long as participants see me mainly as a source of grades and “right answers”, their inputs and creations will be hampered — as well as their interest in the views of their colleagues, and also in collaborating with their colleagues. I make clear up front that most of their grade will be based on their online activity, and that I expect them to check into the course site at least every other day, to read, respond, post, etc. I can look at statistics, and I send stimulating emails to laggards. Nevertheless, there are almost always some who express surprise at their course grade, as if the business about “activity is most important” was just window dressing. So what’s my point? I think my point is that it would be great if there was a better way to communicate “non-grade” expectations, such that they might be taken more seriously.

    4. There may be some other distinctions worth making, but I’m skeptical about my ability to make them clearly in our shared online/f2f selection process setting. For example, students collaborating offline is mentioned in one of the statements above, and I’m aware that other current versions of the CCT course I teach (Creative Thinking, Collaboration and Organizational Change) feature small group collaborative work. All the work in my version of the course is done on the website, and the collaborative work (besides talking about it as a topic) happens primarily as a “community” — participants commenting on the topical comments of others; participants giving feedback to others about their work on individual change projects.

    5. My vague sense coming out of the above statements is that online course work is this different beast offered as a practical option for participants who can’t do the face-to-face thing for one reason or another. I think online is different rather than inferior, and can be better in some respects. It certainly opens the possibilities of more explicit and continuing interaction around a topic as it evolves, direct and specific exchanges of ideas with other participant(s), etc. It is a challenge to make this work in 13 weeks, especially when I still seem to have several relative newcomers to the online learning world each session.

    6. I have come to appreciate during my last couple of sessions how challenging it can be to create “energy” and achieve lively interactions in the asynchronous world — especially given my struggle to get the frequent log-ins I’d like, without coming down forcefully in a way that would reinforce my position as their superior officer (cf. collaborator). I used Wimba more this past session than in prior sessions, but as a discussion and sharing vehicle rather than a presentation and q-a vehicle. I still find it clunky and frustrating, at least in that mode. I use a different website for almost all of the coursework, and I have experimented last session with another approach to synchronous exchanges — inviting (voluntary) people to “show up” and read/post for 1 – 11/2 hours on preset and emerging topics. It is a bit wild and random, but certainly interesting and creative.

    * * *
    So … I’ve done a wide-ranging general sharing above. Main points: I’d like to see any selection guidance cover both online and f2f courses, so that it’s clear we are thinking about both as learning options on a level course planning field. (Focused thoughts, such as Peter’s draft, can be done in Q&A format.) I’d like to see the guildance include some “wise” discussion of different learning elements and modes, that are included in various ways in any given course offering; e.g., reading, lecture, self-paced v “programmed”, individual v small group v class community activity, etc.

  6. Pingback: Four kinds of online courses II « Probe—Create Change—Reflect

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