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Yes, You Will Need Internet Access: Preparing Students for Online Classes

Quick straw poll: How many instructors remember when online classes were seen as a fad that would quickly pass?

Whatever you might think about online classes they are clearly here to stay. In fact, a recent article from Insider Higher Ed has shown that almost a third of students in higher education are taking an online class, a number that continues to rise each year (Lederman, 2018). However, despite their increasing popularity, many students who take online classes come into these classes unprepared and often mistakenly believe that taking a class online will be easier than its traditional classroom counterpart.

While successful completion of a course is still the student’s responsibility, there are some things that an instructor can do to make the online experience a positive one and successful one.

Before Class Begins:

  • Assess the student for online readiness. Many schools offer a mandatory or optional online readiness quiz/course to help students determine if online classes are really the best fit for their abilities. For schools that do not offer this, there are several online self-assessments (American Library Association, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Virtual Learning Community) that students can be directed to that other schools or agencies have made available for public use. Ideally, finding out about a student’s basic computer literacy and familiarity with the learning management system are things that should be done before a student enrolls in an online class. If a student is not sure if he or she has the skills for an online class, a hybrid class might be a good recommendation and way to ease them into taking fully online classes.
  • Setup the online class with universal design in mind so that the class will be accessible to all students. This also ensures that the class’s appearance will help the student flow through all the instructions and content effectively. Consider the course from the viewpoint of the student: what would be overwhelming or distracting to you if you were logging into the class on the first day?
  • Send out a group email a couple of days before the semester starts that shares the syllabus, course due dates, and expectations. Encourage time management from the start, this will help avoid frustration, confusion, and missed due dates. Including expectations can also help students recognize the importance of setting up a backup plan ahead of time in case of any technical problems. You want to be clear what a student will need to have and know about technology to be successful in an online class.

For the First Day of Class:

  • Create a first day video. Even if your school has an orientation for online students, putting together a video orientation for your specific class can help the student know where to look for everything. It will also make your connection to your students that much stronger and personal. The easiest way to do this is by using screen capture software (such as Jing or Screencast-o-matic) so that the students can follow along, see what and where you click on, and listen to you explain where to find the various components of the class.
  • Assign icebreaker assignments for students to work through. This can be a good way for the students to get use to the technology that will be used in the class and also a way to make sure that any technical problems with a student’s account can be fixed early on. The icebreakers can also help you to determine where the weaknesses might be with each student and offer help before the semester gets too busy. Some common icebreakers are an introduction forum, a syllabus quiz, sending an introduction email, and/or submitting a brief paragraph about student expectations of the course.
  • Provide “netiquette” rules to the students. Students often do not know the correct ways to setup an email or responding to classmates’ posts in a forum. Providing the netiquette rules for your course can ensure that an academic and respectful tone is kept in all communications in the course.

Throughout the Semester:

  • Be available for student questions. This can go a long way to making students feel more comfortable in an online class. One of the advantages to online classes is that students are able to work on the classes in a manner that fits their schedules; however, this often means that questions might come up outside of normal school hours. If you get many of the same questions, setting up a FAQ page could serve as a resource for students to use as well.
  • Have physical and virtual office hours. Invite students who do come to campus to stop by and meet in person but also have virtual office hours available for students who may not ever be physical on campus. These virtual hours can be through programs that your school might have or through programs like Skype or Google Hangouts.
  • Be ready to reach out to any students who might be struggling with technology. If a student is having trouble with technology that you cannot help with, be ready to refer them to your school’s distance education department. Even though you might not be able to personally help each student, your school’s support staff can go a long way in making sure that students are prepared or able to troubleshoot any challenges that might arise.

Just as in a traditional classroom, students will come into the online classroom at differing levels of preparedness. With careful planning and follow-up, students who sign-up for an online class underprepared can have a successful semester and leave your class feeling confident and ready for the next online class!


Lederman, D. (2018). New U.S. Data Show Continued Growth in College Students Studying Online. Insider Higher Ed. Retrieved from

About the Author

Maureen Walters has been an English instructor for the last thirteen years at Vance-Granville Community College located in Henderson, NC. Her classes include composition, literature, and technical writing. She teaches primarily online classes and enjoys finding new and exciting ways to use technology with students. She also works as the school's instructional designer and helps faculty and students navigate the online classroom as successfully as possible. When not in the classroom, she also enjoys working with students in the school's honor society and teaching students about the importance of community involvement.

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