Anticipate the needs and challenges of your online students

Research has shown that online students tend to differ demographically from traditional classroom students. They–on average–are older, more likely to be working full-time, and more likely to be comfortable with course technologies. 1 They also are more likely to have higher intrinsic motivation. 2 Statistics aside, what does it feel like to be an online student? Nearly everyone alive today has experience as a student in a traditional, brick and mortar classroom within a traditional classroom paradigm. How many of us have experience as fully online students? There are a few basic ways that online instructors without such experience can bridge that gap and accommodate and empathize with the needs of students.

One easy way is to ask them what their needs and challenges are. Using a Q&A discussion board or a topic in a synchronous session, invite your students to share their challenges and unique solutions with the class.

Several years ago, when I began a master’s degree fully online, I found it difficult to separate work between my three courses. Much of the reading overlapped, and the color schemes of all three courses in Blackboard were the same. I often would fail to remember which assignment was for which course, or cite a reading assigned by a different instructor. My solution was to create distinct spaces in my house where I would study for each course and to pin the appropriate course syllabus to the wall above my desk when I began work on a specific task.

Although this physical partitioning of my mental space was my own idiosyncratic solution, I had the opportunity to share this in a collaborative class session midway through the semester. I found that at least one other classmate in my program had done the same thing, and the instructor said that she appreciated the insight into how her students approached the assigned tasks.

A second way to bridge the gap with online students is to plan flexibility into your course, within firm boundaries. Sometimes online students have situations of geography or time or responsibilities that classroom students do not. Get to know your students as soon as you can, while also clarifying expectations right away. If a student is taking the course from Germany and has to wake up at 2AM to join a mandatory class session, that unique challenge should be clarified/acknowledged/celebrated—’Wow! Great dedication to this program!’—from the beginning.

A third way is to emphasize to students the importance of practicing good data management procedures. The old “My dog ate my homework’ does not have to become “Blackboard ate my discussion post’ if students are taking simple precautions. Require that students use a cloud backup service such as Google Drive or Dropbox and keep all of their work in a folder that automatically syncs to those services. UAF students get unlimited storage space in Google Drive with their accounts and should take advantage of this. Reiterate time and again that no one should ever write a substantial post directly into a submission window into Blackboard or any other learning management system! Use a Google Doc or a Word file to draft submissions and then copy them into the posting window.


1 Dutton, J., Dutton, M. and Perry, J. (2002). How do online students differ from lecture students. Journal of asynchronous learning networks 6.1 (2002): 1-20.

2 Hoskins, S. L., and Van Hooff, J. C. (2005). Motivation and ability: which students use online learning and what influence does it have on their achievement?. British journal of educational technology 36.2 (2005): 177-192.

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