Using Technology to Avert Student Problems in Online Courses

Scenario 1: You are in your office, preparing to grade final papers. Students were required to submit them through the campus learning management system (LMS). Upon review of LMS activity, you find that several students failed to submit their papers by the due date. You email those students to request paper submissions. A student responds to your email, stating that she attempted to submit her paper but could not and now cannot access the LMS. Another student claims he did not know an assignment was due, and yet another says she could not locate the assignment information.

Scenario 2: You have posted a final exam for your students to complete online by 5:00 p.m. A student contacts you at 7:00 p.m. to report that the LMS logged her off in the middle of the exam, that she could not access it again, and that she will need an additional attempt to complete it.

These scenarios are just two examples of the myriad problems that students report to explain late or incomplete assignments. Are these students stalling for time? Or did a computer glitch truly prevent them from uploading an assignment or finishing an exam? What should you do? There are several ways that you can avert these problems to spare yourself and your students wasted time and effort.  

Use LMS reporting features

Student excuses frequently describe difficulty uploading documents or accessing assignment elements in the LMS. Most LMSs, however, have reporting features that indicate when a student has logged on and how long they have been logged into the system. For example, in Moodle the instructor can click the “participants” link and then click on an individual student’s name to access a report. This report provides a chart displaying the dates and times when the student was logged in. In addition, the report lists the course content the student has viewed and assignments they have submitted. Making students aware of the reporting systems could deter many from making false claims about their use of the LMS. We find that instructors are often unaware of this option to review student activity.

Adopt a structured template

Consider adopting a structured template that either the university or individual departments could implement to make it easier for students to navigate. For example, the graduate program at our institution adopted a template for all online education courses. It is simple and consistent across courses so that students know where each type of information is found. The template might also include a weekly, bulletin board–style “compass point” posting within the LMS that provides a brief synopsis of expectations and due dates for the week. Our students have indicated that this universal template clarifies assignment objectives and when assignments are due.

Remove barriers

Students indicate that instructors often use LMS tools in ways that can cause students difficulties. Consequently, online instructors should avoid, for instance, timed quizzes as students could lose connectivity while taking them. Disconnection from the system could prevent students from completing the task in the allotted time. If faculty prefer this type of testing modality, then they could consider an alternative, such as live proctoring. In addition, instructors should state their preferred format(s) for submitted assignments (e.g., Word files rather than Google Docs or PDFs) up front to prevent students from having to resubmit work.

Communicate through nontraditional channels

The old, tried-and-true methods of communicating the “important stuff” to students—that is, via written syllabi or the LMS—may no longer work with today’s digital natives, who are used to communicating on social media (Robertson, 2018). Instructors should adopt some of these social media methods of communication, especially if their institution’s LMS is not especially amenable to use across devices such as smartphones and tablets.

For instance, permits instructors to post assignments, course schedules, and due dates and allows students to interface with the posted course directly from their smartphones, through the student companion scheduling app MyHomework. Social media also allow instructors to provide quick access to course information and assignments. By developing dedicated Facebook or Twitter accounts for individual courses and requiring all students to subscribe or follow, instructors can ensure that students receive real-time, smartphone-accessible notifications about assignments due and other course prompts. Similarly, Instagram and group-texting apps such as GroupMe also allow faculty to send students direct message reminders about upcoming assignments and important course deadlines.

With a little planning, online instructors can head off some of the common problems that students encounter in completing their coursework.

Sherri Winegardner, DNP, MHA, is an associate professor of nursing and Amy Mullins, PhD, is an associate professor of education at Bluffton University.


Robertson, S. (2018, July 25). Generation Z characteristics & traits that explain the way they learn [Blog post]. Retrieved from

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