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Online Students' Guide

Taking an On-line Course: Information for Students

Ed Morris, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology
Owensboro Community and Technical College

Are you considering taking a course that is listed as "on-line?" Well, if you are, you should know that the term "on-line" could mean one or more of several approaches to presenting a course. Chances are that if the course was listed simply as "on-line," it is intended to be taught with very little, or no, face-to-face contact. However, the same term could be applied to a course that will have some of the required assignments and activities that will only be accessible over the Internet. Of course, it is very important for you to determine exactly which of these applies to the course that you are considering. This guide is intended primarily for those taking "on-line" classes that are taught entirely over the Internet. For classes that have some assignments or activities that are completed with the use of the Internet, your instructor must give you the specific instructions on what and how, you must meet these requirements.

A course that is taught on-line is a lot different from classes offered on campus. On-line classes require access to technology that is accessible to you at times whenever you can get to it. This means that you have to have access to a computer that is connected to an Internet account with some provider such as AOL or MSN. This must be a good connection that is dependable and accessible. Most people find it necessary to have their own PC, but you could get by with using a PC in the collegeís Open Labs, or Library. However you choose to access the course, you must have a computer that is in good working condition. On-line courses move pretty quickly through the material and usually require frequent computer work, along with frequent access to the Internet. Having a computer that is in bad repair, or a poor connection to the Internet, would be like taking a traditional course without a book or any handouts and only attending the lectures part of the time. Here is a list of some of the hardware/software you will need for an on-line course:

Technical Requirements:

  • A Pentium I or faster PC or Apple Computer
  • A CD-ROM drive (some courses will not use CD-ROMs)
  • Any Internet Service Provider (ISP) such as AOL or MSN and others.
  • A 56K modem
  • A printer
  • Word Processing Software such as MS Word or Corel WordperfectÖ
  • An email account of your own.
  • Email software such as OutLook, OutLook Express, or Hotmail
  • A printer
  •     In addition to having these hardware/software elements, you should be knowledgeable about your word processing software. You should also be able to connect to the Internet without assistance. You should know how to surf the Web and how to do simple Web searches. You should know how to send and receive email messages, as well as how to send and retrieve attachments to email messages.

    Here is how most on-line classes work:


    Many courses start with an orientation. If your course has an orientation you may be asked/required to attend a meeting on campus to receive the materials and instructions on how the class will be conducted. If your class has an orientation, it is very important that you attend. Classes that have an initial orientation usually list the date, time, and place of the orientation in the schedule. Many times, instructors will give students critical information such passwords, at the orientation. Be sure to carefully write down any access codes, passwords, or user IDs that you will need to access the course material. You will be required to enter this information exactly as it was originally written in order to access the content of your course.

    Getting in Touch

    Either at your orientation or in the schedule of classes, you should find your instructorís email address. You will probably receive information on how to contact your instructor. Be sure to record all such information. During the semester you may have trouble contacting your instructor. If you do, you should have other ways such as fax, telephone at the office and home, and office location, to contact your instructor. Many students report that they have much more contact with on-line instructors than with those who teach traditional classes. It is a good idea to contact your instructor as soon as you know you will be taking the class. Your instructor can tell you how your class is organized and what you need to know to begin. In many cases, the instructor will send you the initial documents or information via email whenever you contact them. Your instructor will receive the class roster on the first day of the semester and will attempt to contact you. You must be sure to check your phone messages and email every day. One of the biggest problems instructors have in teaching an on-line class is the initial contact with the students. If the class roster contains information about you that is incorrect or incomplete it may delay, or make it impossible, to get in touch with you. For these reasons, get in touch with your instructor as soon as possible. After the class starts be sure to check you email messages every day for correspondence with your instructor. It is very important that every time you send email to your instructor, you list in the Subject Line the name of the course you are taking, or some other pertinent information that lets the instructor know what the message is about. Instructors get a great deal of email every day and they must decide which are important messages and which are "Junk Mail." Sometimes instructors will not read email messages without something they recognize in the Subject Line because they are concerned about possible viruses. Send only email to your instructor that is related to the course that you are taking. Never send or "forward" jokes, stories, or even inspirational messages to you instructor. Even though you think that they may really enjoy the message, chances are that they wonít. Faculty members just donít have the time to read this kind of material. However, they probably will so they can make sure that the message is not something on which you need a response. Also, many viruses come as "forwarded" messages. Nothing frightens the brave and noble college instructor like the thought of a computer virus wiping out his/her hard drive and the years of course material contained therein.


  • Be sure to write every message to your instructor as though it were a letter or assignment.
  • Use complete sentences and good grammar.
  • Donít use "net speak" or abbreviations.
  • Donít use slang or informal language.
  • Use good paragraphs and donít type in all caps (capitalization).
  • Itís okay to use bold or italics to emphasize a point, but USING ALL CAPITALS IS THE ĎNET EQUIVALENT OF SHOUTING.
  • When submitting assignments by attachments, be sure to put your name at the top of the document, just as you would an assignment you were turning in by hand.
  • Double-space assignment attachments so that they are easier to read and your instructor can make notes to you.
  • "Netiquette"

    The term "Netiquette" refers to etiquette on the Internet. In other words, adhere to standards of conduct making discussions and other forms of discourse more polite and friendly, to avoid misunderstanding and confusion. For a more complete discussion of the rules of Netiquette as excerpted from Virginia Sheaís book Netiquette, go to www.albion.com/netiquette/corerules.html . Otherwise, your instructor may have to point out to you when you are doing something that is considered gauche or inappropriate.

    Here are some general rules:

  • Remember that you are interacting with humans. The fact that we donít see the other people we are interacting with makes us less likely to treat them like another student sitting next to us in a class. Humor is good but donít forget that it is harder to read intent into someoneís message. When you write something humorous be sure that it is written in a way that canít be misunderstood.
  • Be considerate and polite to others on the web. Respect their privacy and their right to their opinions. Remember the Golden Rule.
  • When you are new to an area such as a chat room or discussion list, find out the lay of the land before you jump right in. "Lurking" is a web term that means the practice of being in a chat room but not making comments. Read the comments of others for a while and get the feel for the type of terminology and topics associated with the particular group you are among.
  • Remember that everyone is busy and donít send trivial messages or attachments that they will have to look at to find out if they are important. Donít forget that there are big differences in what equipment people have, and sending messages with attachments may take some people very long periods of time to download. Never put instructorís or fellow studentsí addresses on your mailing lists for cartoons, jokes, or pictures, without their consent.
  • Avoid "Flaming." "Flaming" is when one person criticizes or comments negatively on another person. It is appropriate in academic circles to comment on ideas, principles, theories, and beliefs. However, never refer to someoneís motivations for these ideas in a negative way. Keep it civil and on the point! Remember that these comments are like commenting on other classmates in traditional classes, exceptóthese comments are written and will exist forever!
  • Protect otherís privacy like you would protect your own. Donít give otherís email addresses out in mailing lists or commercial offers. Also, protect otherís privacy and respect the discussions they engage in within the confines of a class. Leave what people say in "the classroom." In this case, donít discuss outside of class what individuals talked about in class (discussion lists, chat rooms, emails).
  • Finally, remember that when you take a class on-line, you will be interacting with people of all levels of expertise with the technology. Some will be novices and will not have the experience that you may have with how to do many of the activities required. Be patient with others. Share your expertise when it is needed. Donít point out spelling mistakes or typographical errors just as you wouldnít mention grammar mistakes to a person in your classroom.
  • Assignments

    On-line classes are, by nature, kind of independent study courses. Actually, they are more "directed study" courses. Your instructor will direct your studies but you will have to work independently to complete the assignments. When and where you do these assignments is up to you. However, deadlines are usually given and must be observed. This is the area that most people get into trouble with when taking on-line classes. Most students say, after taking an on-line class, that keeping up is easy to do if you try to remain disciplined in getting your work done on time. Do the work on a regular basis. Start as soon as you have the information necessary to complete the assignment. Most of us like to procrastinate but students tell us that this is the biggest cause for unsatisfactory performance in an on-line class. It is difficult enough to find the time to do the work of a college class. If you put it off, you will have to do much more in a shorter period of time, during a time when you need to be doing something else. On-line classes typically have a fairly high attrition, or dropout, rate because of this tendency. Remember that the only reason to take a class on-line rather that in person is because of the flexibility with the schedule. On-line classes are not less work. Usually, they are more work than traditional classes. Itís just that you donít have the regular schedule of class time to work around. Studies of on-line and traditional psychology classes have shown that the amount of learning that takes place is most often greater in the on-line classes, as measured by final exam performance. However, most people really enjoy the interaction in a traditional psychology class more than that in an on-line class, even though they enjoy the on-line class too.

    The actual work of on-line classes may come in many diverse forms. However, most courses taught on-line will require more activities and writing assignments than traditional classes. This is because you may never actually be in the same room with the instructor and he/she cannot lecture or conduct classroom activities designed to help you learn the material. Therefore, the instructor must come up with activities and assignments that take the place of face-to-face approaches.

    Sometimes your instructor will have pages on the course website that you will visit to read the content of the class. Often, these pages will contain hypertext, or words and phrases that have imbedded codes in them that allow you to click on them with your mouse and you will move to other pages or websites that have additional information about the topic being discussed. When you encounter these hypertext passages, be sure to click on them at some point in order to read or view what your instructor thought was important enough to spend the time creating this link to something important. Otherwise you may miss something critical to the discussion or information. For example, if you are reading this on-line, you should be able to click on http://www.owecc.net/ and your Internet browser will take you to this site. If you are not connected to the Internet, your browser or Internet Provider may try to load and connect you to the Internet.

    Another approach for your assignments may be that your instructor will place files with the activities or assignments on a web page for you to download or to view while on-line. You can usually use the "PRINT" button on your browser to print out the directions or assignments. Then you can complete the assignment as you would a class handout. Be sure to look for hypertext to see if the assignment intended for you to visit other websites or information.


    Assessment is an important part of any educational process. Of course, students think of assessment as "measuring what you know." This goal is, without a doubt, one of the reasons we use assessments. Test/exams/quizzes also have another very important purpose: They give feedback about how effective the instruction has been. Instructors may use any or all of several methods of assessing the learning process and product.

    Proctored Exams are often used in on-line classes. In this approach, students must visit the college campus, or some other approved site, to take the exam under the supervision of someone who is approved by the instructor. Many times, the student makes an appointment to take the exam at a time that is convenient to themselves and the proctor (examiner).

    On-line Exams are tests that are posted on the courseís web page and taken while connected to the Internet. These exams are very convenient for the student but must be taken with careful attention to the instructions given by the instructor. Security is very important in this case and the exam may be available for only a short period of time. If your instructor uses on-line exams be sure to print out the instructions and have them with you as you begin the test. Work quickly but carefully and check your responses before submitting them.

    "Take Home Exams." Yes, take-Home Exams are given in on-line classes too. In this case the exam may look more like another assignment. Your instructor may send you a file with the exam questions for you to download and print. You then answer the questions and turn-in your responses by email, fax, or by hand. Many instructors have a special area of their Course Site called The Dropbox, or Digital Dropbox. A Dropbox works like a special mailbox that is only for certain types of mail. It isnít an email account. Itís more like the basket that some instructors leave outside of their office doors for students to drop things off into. Instructors check the box often and receive the work left there. They can also make their comments on the work and then leave it in the box for the student to pick-up. The digital form of the Dropbox will only let the student who left the document pick-up the corrected, or graded document.

    Surveys may be used to assess studentsí experience with the materials and methods of the on-line class. Colleges and instructors often use surveys to get studentsí perceptions about how effective the instruction has been. Sometimes these surveys are the equivalent of the Course Evaluations that are conducted in regular classes each semester. Take these instruments seriously and give candid and useful feedback about the course and the instruction. Sometimes teachers conduct these surveys themselves solely for the purpose of course and instructional improvement. Teachers will usually be looking at this information as soon as possible in order to make needed changes. Other surveys are used by the institution to evaluate the system of instruction, as well as the instructorís performance. This information is not available to the instructor until the course is finished and grades have been determined. In this case, every attempt is made to ensure that studentsí comments are confidential and the names of the students are not available to the instructor, and you may be asked to visit a separate web site to complete this type of survey. Your instructions will tell you which of these are being used.

    A Note on Sources

    There is an almost infinite amount of information on the web. Anyone can post webpages or other forms of information and there is almost no accountability for what they claim or state. Therefore, great care must be taken in evaluating sources on the Internet. Students must become adept at judging the credibility of sources on the web. Here are some guidelines:

  • Does the author have credibility? In other words, can you identify the actual person making statements or comments? Do they have the credentials to be a credible source? Do they have the academic training or experience to be an "expert," or are they just stating opinions that have no basis?
  • Is the material stated in an objective manner? Does the author seem to have an agenda other than presenting useful information? Is the author trying to "get back" at someone? Does the author present both sides of the issues? Is the material listed on a reputable website such as a university or other credible organization or publication?
  • If you use web pages or Net sources in papers or other writings, it is important to give appropriate credit to the source. List in the resources of your work, the author and location of the information you use. Never copy material. Paraphrase information or place in quotes with appropriate citation. A very good source on plagiarism and how to avoid it can be found at the following web site: http://bluehawk.monmouth.edu/~jnye/plaghand.htm


    Discussions are invaluable parts of college classes. Therefore, they are almost always used in on-line classes. There are many ways in which discussions may be conducted. Generally there are two types of discussions synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous discussions are "real-time" discussions that are similar to chat rooms. In this setting, students and instructors go to a common webpage or "chat room" and conduct a live discussion. If your instructor uses this method, it is important that you are provided with advance information about how to find the website or chat room. This type of discussion may be somewhat similar to actual classroom presentations. The instructor may give presentations or notes, or lead other activities. Your instructor may call this type of activity the "Virtual Classroom." Be sure to note whether these activities are mandatory and if so, how they count in determining your final grade for the course. Be sure to be prepared for this type of discussion. The time allotted for such interaction is often very limited and the use of the time will be very organized by your instructor. So arrive in the virtual classroom at least ten minute early to ensure there are no problems with the technology. In order to best use the time, the instructor will expect you to be prepared. Sometimes instructors will make available an outline, or "lecture notes" for the discussion. Be sure to have downloaded the notes and reviewed them. Read the material from the textbook or web pages that will be discussed. The material canít be covered in such a short time without you doing your part to be ready to participate. Here are some general ground rules for "virtual classroom" behavior, and your instructor may have others that will be shared with you. Be sure to be familiar with the rules and adhere to them:

  • Pay Attention. When your instructor calls upon you, you want to be ready and respond as quickly as possible. Since typing takes time and everyone is waiting on you to respond, first respond with some acknowledgment and then give your response as quickly as possible. Your instructor will not mind if you are taking time to compose your response, but donít let the class sit for long periods of time without even knowing if you saw the question. Take care of all needs before sitting down to the computer for the class. Get your drink; go to the bathroom, or whatever you need to do before class starts.
  • No Chatting/ Be Still. When class begins, never chat with other students or comment on everything the instructor says. The "Virtual Classroom" is a printed medium, so everything must be read. Your fellow students and instructor must read everything that comes up, while trying to give a presentation or responses. If students are typing personal messages or comments, humorous comments, or other distracting messages, it can become overwhelming.
  • Donít "Speak" Unless "Spoken" To. During class time, refrain from typing anything unless the instructor requests a response. The instructor will usually break frequently to ask if there are questions. If you find it necessary to interrupt to ask a question, it is usually sufficient to type a question mark (?). This is the equivalent to raising your hand to ask a question. This alerts the instructor to the fact that you have a question and he/she will break as soon as possible and recognize you, like in a regular class. Many "virtual classrooms" have a way that you can submit a private question that the other students do not see. This avoids interrupting the class but the instructor will see that you have a question and will get back to you either in class or privately, depending on the nature of your question. If the instructor asks a question to the class he/she will expect everyone to respond. Respond quickly and simply. For example your instructor might ask if everyone has read the material on the page. This requires a quick "Y" or "N." If you have a question, quickly type the "N" or a "?" and then type the complete question. This tells the class that a question is coming so they wonít go on to something else.
  • Have a Back-up Plan. Finally, be prepared in case there is equipment or other element failure. If you canít find the chat site, send email before the time for the class, alerting your instructor that you are having problems. In the case of a problem with the web chat room, your instructor will probably have a back-up plan that you must be familiar with, such as an alternate site or route.
  • Asynchronous discussions are sometimes called "Discussion Lists" or "Threaded Discussions." Asynchronous means that it is not achieved in "real time." You go to a website or page and read the material or comments and leave your comments for others to read whenever they log-on. Many instructors use this approach and there are certain guidelines for participating in these.

  • Find out if your instructor will be using Discussion Lists in your class. Find out if you are required to make comments or responses to the "postings." If postings are required, find out if you have a requirement for how frequent or a certain number of postings. For instance are you supposed to post weekly or more/less often?
  • Think your postings over carefully. Donít respond with one or two words. Make your postings thoughtful and meaningful. Your instructor will be reading these comments and he/she expects to see your best work. Since these comments are not in real time, you can take your time and make better comments and responses than what would be expected in a traditional class.
  • Follow the same rules for discussion lists as for other submitted assignments. Follow directions carefully using complete sentences without slang and no "flaming," etc.
  • Ultimately, in any class or course, the student is responsible for her/his own learning. The instructorís responsibility is to create and develop conditions and activities that direct the studentís learning. On-line courses do not have the face-to-face contact that traditional classes have and instructors must rely on the students to be motivated to work towards the goals for the course. Instructors develop each assignment and activity with a particular goal in mind. The goal may be to familiarize the student with certain terminology or concepts. Another purpose may be to create a situation in which the students are given the opportunity to think critically about a controversial topic, or reflect on the material and its application to their own lives. Your instructor has worked hard to create a learning environment for you that will both challenge and enlighten you. Be sure to take advantage of each opportunity that these assignments and activities afford you. An on-line class is similar to any other class in one major respect. You can get as much from it as you want. You can ask questions anytime. You can further explore any topic that you find of special interest. Donít hesitate to let your instructor know if you have questions or suggestions for making the course work better.