[dropcap]S[/dropcap]tudents traditionally receive only the course description and textbook list prior to starting a class. Everything else about the course is learned from the syllabus they get on the first day. But some of the information contained in the syllabus might be valuable to students before
class begins, especially in an online environment where students can’t rely on peers who have taken a class previously to give them the inside scoop.
Marc Klippenstine and I wanted to find out what sorts of information about a class students would find most valuable. Graduate students in a fully-online program were emailed information from the course instructor prior to the onset of the semester. In this pre-entry email, the students were welcomed to the class and reminded of the start date with details on how to log into the university learning management system. Additionally, the email included the following four key pieces of information that were later addressed in a follow-up survey.
- Information about how the course in which they were enrolled fit into the degree program, its rotation schedule, and any prerequisite information.
- Information on the required text(s) for the course.
- Profile of the professor
- Key tips for being an effective online student
Participants were divided into the following two groups: those who had completed three or fewer online courses, and those who had completed four or more online courses. Although all four pieces of information were selected by participants as being valuable, only two were considered significant—program and textbook information. More than half (57 percent) of all participants selected textbook information as the most valuable pre-entry variable. Moreover, 27 percent of those in the “four or more” group found the course/program information to be most valuable. Regardless of what information was identified as being most beneficial, 100 percent of respondents in the “three or fewer” group and 55 percent of those in the “four or more” group stated that receiving the information letter “made me feel more prepared to start” class. Additionally, when asked how the informational email changed their perception about the instructor of the class, more than 60 percent of all respondents felt “she/he was prepared to start the class.”
How and when do your students get textbook information?
Although rather rudimentary in nature, online instructors may want to look at how students are acquiring the course text and when they are required to start using it once the course starts. In this study, more than half of all participants, regardless of their level of experience with online courses, found textbook information valuable. At this institute, even though the university bookstore does allow students to search and order course materials prior to the start of class, this option is not well-advertised to fully online students. Program students have voiced difficulty in locating the bookstore on the university webpage and how much time it takes to get the text shipped. Financial aid is also a factor to consider. Students who receive assistance may not have access to their funds at the onset of the semester and may be restricted to purchasing from the university bookstore. Due to these variables, many online students wait until class begins to order the text, compounding wait time of receiving the text and putting it to use. Knowing how online students acquire textbooks is valuable to the instructor, as well. If instructors are aware of issues with obtaining course materials, they can make adjustments to course activities to keep students from falling behind. Providing this information before class and knowing the process online students go through to get their texts assures that everyone is ready to be engaged as soon as course content becomes available.
How do your online students receive course information?
Roughly one-fourth of the participants who had completed four or more courses in the program indicated that information on how the course fits into the degree plan was most valuable. This yield highlighted the need for more advisement or dissemination of program information prior to enrollment. Unlike traditional programs that often require face-to-face advisement and a release by the advisor for the student to register for courses, online program advisement is often less structured and frequently completed via email, if at all. To close this information gap, an advisement document and additional communication efforts were created to provide degree requirements to online students prior to each registration period.
How do pre-entry variables affect attitudes?
Participants in the study overwhelmingly agreed that the pre-entry email made them more prepared to start the course and more comfortable with the instructor. This information—just a simple informational welcome letter—set the tone for the remaining semester and provided students and the professor with positive feedback about their online course and program. Results provided evidence that setting the climate, in this case a positive one, began well before the class ever did.
Sometimes the needs of online students mirror those of traditional learning environments, such as access to materials and program advisement; however, unlike traditional programs, these needs may not be obvious to the instructor. Understanding and meeting student needs, even if they seem minor, can lay the foundation for an improved learning experience for all.
Shelli Sharber is an assistant professor of Education at East Central University (Ada, Okla.).