I teach computer courses at a local business college and was asked to teach a course online when the college expanded the school’s distance-learning program.

Since I received my master’s degree through a distance-learning program, I thought I knew how to approach online learning at a college level, but I had to think again. In this article, I will share some of the rude awakenings I experienced with the hope that you will be able to avoid the trials I went through when teaching an online class.

The initial class session was held at the college. The department head spoke about the program, attendance was taken, and students received their books and user IDs. All students had to sign on to the system and create an e-mail box if they did not have one. Once they logged on and got a syllabus, they could go.

Because I found out at the last minute that I had to teach this class, I couldn’t attend orientation. As a result, it wasn’t until later that I realized some students did not know how to use e-mail. Later, I had to talk some students through the e-mail process over the phone.

Lesson learned: Attend orientation. Orientation also should take care of all technical and system problems. In addition to introducing the class, I would review creating an e-mail box, how to send and receive mail, and how to send attachments. Orientation is a good time to tell students about your teaching style and assess the level of their knowledge.

Emotional support
I had four students who were stressed out. I received e-mails with complaints about the amount of work, their lack of time, the computer system, etc. Usually, I waited 24 hours before responding to these e-mails to give the students time to cool down.

When I responded, I asked questions about the learning environment in an attempt to uncover the real problem. Some students complained that their home computer was slow or that they were interrupted by family members while they were online. I tried to help them remember that the computer time was not only unavoidable, but it was also a benefit of taking an online class. Some students seemed to forget that the class still required a time commitment, even though that time is not spent in a classroom.

Lesson learned: Students must understand that online learning will require a time commitment similar to the classroom setting.

When you teach in a classroom, it is easy to provide feedback during discussions or through graded assignments, quizzes, and tests. If students have a question, you can answer it immediately.

When teaching an online class, an instructor has to give feedback via e-mail or the telephone. Some students who value feedback may experience classroom withdrawal. Initially, I contacted the students only when I needed additional information or when part of an assignment was missing. I adjusted my style to offer more feedback when I realized how important it was to many students.

Lesson learned: Trainers should communicate with the online class on a regular basis, probably weekly, as well as provide positive feedback.
Do you have online office hours? Do you tell your students you’ll respond to their e-mails within 24 hours? Tell us how you stay in touch with your virtual students.
I like to give a number of quizzes when I teach in the classroom. The online format we used offered an option to give timed quizzes, but technical difficulties prevented me from using that feature. We were unable to solve the problem by calling the vendor. As a result, we converted the quizzes into Internet exercises.

Lesson learned: Technical glitches will happen; be prepared. Since the books provided to students during orientation often only provide an outline of the material being covered online, I recommend providing students with the actual textbook. Students can then sign on, get the assignments for the week, and have a choice whether or not they read online or via textbook. In the event of a system glitch, class can go on.