Teaching online and how I warn students

A student I had in English 444 online this summer and who I will be having in English 505 online this fall noticed that the warning message I send around to students before the class begins is more or less boiler-plate. This is true, and I was also reminded that a couple of different faculty colleagues have asked me for that warning.  So, in the spirit of sharing, I offer (after the jump) the email that I send to students before the class begins to warn them about what it is they are getting themselves into.

A couple of thoughts/caveats:

  • Feel free to borrow/modify from this for your own teaching, though if it makes sense to give me some credit, that’d be okay.
  • I see this as mostly a “buyer beware” sort of message, but the origins of this message are frustration.  When I started teaching online several years ago, I had a couple of students who wrote to me in email messages “I’m not very good with computers.”   I found this rather frustrating; why, I asked these students, would you sign up for a class where the main interaction involved a computer?
  • Has this message “worked?”  Yes and no.  Mostly “Yes” because some students receive this message and decide that the class might not be right for them, which I take as a success.  I’d rather have students recognize that the online class is not for them and not get into in the first place than have to withdraw when they can’t get their money back.  And I’d say “Yes” in that when students do get in over their heads, they do know that they had been warned.  But “No” in that I still have students who either don’t take my warnings seriously or who over-estimate their technical abilities or time-management skills (though fewer than before).
  • I ask students to respond to this message, and what’s interesting to me is that students who have had online classes before generally seem to appreciate it the most.

Okay, to the message itself:


You are receiving this email message because you are registered for the online version of XXXX, which I will be teaching this XX term. I am writing now because I want to inform/warn all of you about a few things having to do with the class, issues that are based on what I have learned from teaching online in previous semesters.  I offer these thoughts NOT to get folks to drop the class; rather, I offer these thoughts in order to make sure that you all are aware of what it is you have signed up for, and I am offering this information/warning now so that if you don’t think the online class is right for you.


There are two reasons for this.  First, you will be doing quite a few “beyond beginner” computer things this term– keeping blogs, writing on  wikis, making movies, posting things on Flickr, etc. (NOTE– this varies according to the class I teach, though most of them do involve some technical stuff like this)  Second, since  this is a completely online class (though we will have optional face to  face meetings I want to STRONGLY encourage you to attend and I will of  course be available in person to meet with you, chat with you on the  phone, etc.), the computer is the only regular interface you will have to the class and your classmates.

Now, I will be providing more than ample instructions on how to do things like post to a wiki and keep a blog.  I’m not saying you have to be a computer “expert.”  However, IF:

— you are NOT ALREADY COMPLETELY COMFORTABLE with online work (email,  chat, web surfing, etc.);
— you don’t like trying to do new things with your computer; and/or
— you would describe yourself as “not really liking computers,”

THEN you should consider taking a face-to-face version of the class when it fits into your schedule.

Let me put it to you this way:  signing up for this class without at least a general sense of how computers work– certainly things beyond using MS Word– is a little like saying that you think it would be a good idea to drive from here to California, despite the fact that you’ve never driven a car in your life.

*  Toward that end, ONLY YOU CAN BE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR COMPUTER AND  YOUR INTERNET ACCESS!  While you don’t *have* to have your own computer  to take this class, you certainly need to be able to access the class  materials on a near daily basis (see below), which means easy access to  a computer connected to the Internet.

Ideally, the computer that you regularly use should be less than 5  years old and you should access the Internet through a DSL or Cable  Modem connection.  If you don’t have this sort of computer set-up, you  will inevitably have to spend a lot of time someplace with a computer  that does have this level of access (like the library).

Telling me that you were unable to complete some assignment because of  some technical problem (e.g., “My computer crashed” or “I don’t have  very good access to the Internet” or “My roommate/boyfriend/girlfriend  moved out and took the computer”) simply is not acceptable and it will  under NO CIRCUMSTANCES be tolerated as an excuse for late work or  incomplete assignments.

* Perhaps this is common sense, but I’ll say it anyway:  this online class is not a “watered-down/easier” version of the face to face
class.  Rather, it is the same amount of work and the same basic assignments offered in a different format.  In fact, a very good argument could be made that this is actually more work than the face to face class.

* You will probably have to spend as much time (if not more time) with the online version of this class as you would if you were to take this class in a more traditional “face to face” setting.  In other words,  the online class is NOT a “time-saver;” rather, it is a “time-shifter.”

Here’s what I’m getting at: the online class has obvious advantages in terms of time and space.  You don’t have to show up at a particular time to a particular place in order to participate in the class, which means that the course can fit into your schedule as you see fit.  Some of you might be online early in the morning, some in the middle of the day, some at night.  However, you will probably have to spend just as much TOTAL TIME online and engaged in class discussions in this class as you would in a more traditional face-to-face class.

* You should plan on spending at least some time engaged in the online class discussions NEARLY EVERY DAY in order to succeed in the class. As you will see when the term gets underway, the calendar/schedule for English 328 online has some sort of activity due nearly every day or two.

In other words, if you were thinking that this was a class you could do  just on Fridays or Thursdays or whatever, I can tell you right now that  isn’t going to work.

Two other things along these lines:  first, you will of course have to spend time doing things that are “outside” online time, too– writing and revising projects for this class, for example, and also working  collaboratively with other group members on the final project, which is  making a short movie.

Second, to take a turn on one of the famous tag lines from the *Spiderman* movies, “with great *freedom* comes great responsibility.”  Again, this gets to the double-edged sword of online classes.  On the one hand, there is a tremendous amount of flexibility here in terms of  how you manage your time for the class.  On the other hand, if you are  not very good at time management– that is, if you are the kind of  person who functions better with more explicit boundaries and  requirements– then an online class might not be for you.

Again, I am not saying these things to get people to drop the class; rather, I simply want to know what people are getting themselves in for.

Now, if you have gotten to the end of this message are still thinking that this online version of English 328 for fall 2009, great!  But
please do me a favor:  send me an email (just respond to this message), let me know that you’ve read through this, and be sure to ask me any questions you have.  If you do this, then I will send you a  copy of the syllabus, including information about the books you will

Welcome again and I’ll see you online this fall!

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