What a Professor Learned by Taking Online Classes

Taking classes while working full-time is tough. That’s one of the lessons I learned firsthand during the past two years. 

But there’s more. 

To begin, I’ve been a business professor since 2011, so I’ve had the opportunity to teach many students—about 1,000 to date. And I’ve taught in the three primary formats: solely face-to-face, solely online and in a hybrid structure, which is a combination of face-to-face and online. I’ve taught both graduate and undergraduate students, many of whom were extraordinarily busy with part- or full-time jobs, families and other time demands outside of their coursework. 

I always knew that these students were busy, but from January 2015 to October 2016, my appreciation for their balancing-act of responsibilities grew. 


That’s because during that time, I became the student. I became the juggler of taking classes and raising kids and being a spouse and working full-time. And in addition to gaining some valuable knowledge from the coursework itself, I gained a new appreciation for what it’s like for many of my students. 

The courses I took were all online through the U.S. Naval War College, and these courses were part of a curriculum that’s the U.S. military services expect their officers to complete (particularly as they become more senior). In addition to my professorial work, I’m an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and it was time for me to buckle down and complete this requirement. 

Overall, my experience taking these courses was highly positive—the U.S. Naval War College does a great job with distance education. As a positive unintended consequence, however, I think this experience made me a better professor. It gave me a fresh perspective. So, for the benefit of other educators (and those who take classes from them), here are a few specifics:

  • Online courses must be especially well-organized. Given that professors don’t have the opportunity to discuss schedules and requirements in real-time with students, online courses must be designed with extraordinary attention to detail regarding what’s required and the course timeline. A careful, thorough syllabus is a great start, but whatever online platform used for the course must also be carefully designed to facilitate easy use for the student. For example, have clearly labeled links and folders. And a pleasant color scheme doesn’t hurt. 
  • Communication must be redundant and systematic. Sure, you may have everything spelled out in the syllabus, but instructors can’t “fire and forget” with online courses (if they care about student engagement and learning, that is). Send out a weekly e-mail that reminds students what’s going on, what’s due and other pertinent information. 
  • Student performance isn’t a perfect reflection of how much they know or care about the course. I don’t have any data at my fingertips, but I wonder if students who take online courses are also more likely to be students who are working full-time or trying to balance other activities than those students who go the traditional, face-to-face route. That seems plausible. At any rate, my experience taught me that to survive and turn assignments in on time, students (like me) often have to satisfice. That is, due to my other time demands, there were times when I turned in assignments that I knew weren’t my best work—far from it. I had to sacrifice quality to just get the darn paper done on time. 
  • Although some students may want a lot of feedback on their work, many others may not. The simple truth—and I’m talking to my fellow professors here—is that many students are simply trying to complete the course and get a decent grade. They might not care about “getting better” by learning from your extensive comments on their work, for example. One potential implication for professors, I think, might be to avoid the temptation to “over grade.” Provide students with their grades and some feedback, but don’t go crazy with trying to note every single way in which their work was deficient. Specifically tell students that they are absolutely invited to request additional feedback if they want it. That way, you can tailor your efforts as the instructor to the level of feedback that students want. 
  • For online courses, group projects are even trickier than in face-to-face courses. I’m not necessarily saying that instructors should never have group projects in online courses, but if you are, be absolutely sure that the assignments given to the group are carefully thought through. That includes thinking about the types of interaction that group members will need to have in order to complete their tasks. For example, highly complex, interdependent work is often best-suited for real-time discussion. But the people in an online course are often in the online course precisely because they have crazy schedules, so they are unlikely to find good times to talk with their fellow team members. 
  • Finally, some variety—and humanity—can be engaging. If every single one of the modules in an online course has exactly the same structure, it can be boring. I found it refreshing with some modules included a new video or interactive component related to the material. And it’s also helpful when the instructor finds ways to remind the students that a real human is behind the course. 

As the higher-education landscape continue to shift and technologies continue to develop, online education will also evolve. Within such technologies and changes are great opportunities for students and educators alike. 

But for those of us who design and administer courses online, it’s critical to empathize with our students and their learning experiences. And sometimes, it might take actually enrolling in a course to gain such empathy. At least for me, it did. 

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: www.benbaran.com