[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he first time I taught fully online, I assumed that, apart from the attendance policy, the syllabus from my hybrid class would work perfectly well for the new class. I realized quickly that this was not the case. There are several elements that need to be added to a syllabus when teaching an online course.
The first thing to remember is that online students can be quite different from those who come to campus. They are likely to be varied in age, experience (both in the classroom and in the workplace), and confidence. They might be caring for ailing partners or parents, raising children, or working full time—perhaps even all the above. Some students might be active duty military and deployed overseas.
As a result, there will likely be times when you need to provide more leeway for students to work their studies around other obligations. This does not mean relaxing your grading standards, but rather having a willingness to make accommodations for students who have conflicts. If a student shows the responsibility to come forward with a conflict as soon as they know about it, I will work with that student to provide extra time or whatever is needed to get around the conflict. For example, I allow students to submit work up to one week past its deadline for a 10 percent deduction in the grade and no other extensions. This allows for those times when “life happens” and might help an otherwise excellent student from losing a significant number of points.
Because of the distance between instructor and classmates, online students are more likely to feel disconnected from you and their peers. To help make connections, an instructor can require students to post an introductory bio via blog or discussion. The instructor should also seed the discussion with their own bio or an introductory paragraph at the start of your syllabus. The bio should be something of interest, not just a list of credentials. For example, I share that I met my English husband online in 1997 as I was preparing for a semester at Cambridge. I also let students know that I have not just cats and dogs, but pet chickens, too. Details like these humanize you and help students connect with you from the very beginning.
We need to encourage our online students to reach out to us when they need help, knowing they don’t have the benefit of asking questions before, during, or after a class. Information that includes how and when to communicate with the instructor needs to be front and center on the syllabus. Also, many online faculty do not think that they need to establish set office hours because students can always make an appointment, but this is a mistake. Establishing online office hours that students can “drop in” for demonstrates that the instructor is approachable and invites interactions more than simply telling them that they can make an appointment to meet with you.
Sometimes, however, student questions are better answered by campus offices. While on-campus students generally know about these offices and where to find them, online students may not. For this reason, an online syllabus needs to carry more information about support services for students, such as the Writing Center. Many schools have developed a “one stop shop” student portal, such as WKU’s Student Resource Portal (https://www.wku.edu/online/srp
) to let students know that campus services are at their fingertips. This can help them get the support they need and feel more connected to your campus, which improves retention.
Because online faculty do not have the luxury to elaborate on points that they cover in their syllabus, they need to go into more go into detail in an online syllabus than a face-to-face syllabus. If you are fond of adding helpful hints when going over your syllabus in a face-to-face class, such as the need to reserve a time with the Writing Center at least a week out before the end of the semester when there is a rush, then that needs to be added to the syllabus in the online version.
There is also some unique information that needs to be added to an online class syllabus. For instance, a commonly overlooked item is the time zone the instructor is in. It is also important to establish the time zone used by the class for any live events. Generally, this is the time zone of the host university.
It is also important that you craft your contact or communication policy carefully. Studies show that students feel satisfied with response times within 48 hours, but consider that if they are getting in touch, that likely means they are stuck and aren’t able to progress in their work. A two-day delay is a lot! My personal policy is to promise a returned email within 24 hours unless I am ill or without connectivity, and this seems to work well. On weekends, I let them know they will have an answer by noon. During the week, they know I have my email on all day and to normally expect a quick response. Students learn to take advantage of this, and so I seldom get emails on the weekends. The important thing is that students know how you prefer to be contacted and how quickly to expect a response. Make sure the policy you write is one you are comfortable with and can stick to.
Additionally, as odd as it might seem, telling students they will need their own computers is another important policy. Even in 2018, students try to borrow a computer from a neighbor or family member or think they can do their coursework exclusively on their smartphones. Some even go to a local library to use the computers there, despite the 30-minute restrictions.
I also make sure the students know that if they submit the wrong file or something odd happens with the LMS not to panic—just email the correct file or let me know if I need to reset something. Sharing specifically what file formats you accept is also helpful for adult learners, especially if you prefer something other than a standard Word file (be sure to share how to convert to that format, too). Many online learners feel like they will be penalized for these common errors. Letting them know up front how to handle these issues eases their minds and prevents panicked emails and calls.
Another policy to consider is an inclement weather policy. In my area, we can have ice storms that knock out power for days, if not weeks. I’ve recently had distance students caught up in hurricanes, typhoons, extreme flooding, and tornadoes. What will you do if your students are affected by those kinds of events? Having a policy in place now means having one less thing to worry about should they occur.
The important thing to remember is that online students are not likely to have the same characteristics as in-person students, just as your online course will not work in the same way as your in-person offering. Because of this, spending time considering each policy when crafting your online syllabus will pay off in the long run.
Wren Mills is assistant director of the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Western Kentucky University.