Students are Individuals
Each student and each class is unique. Never is this more apparent than in a distance learning environment. Each student brings a different level of preparedness for the class and you must be prepared for each individual.
Address Varied Entry Skills. There will be variations in technology experience, content entry skills, and preparedness for the unique characteristics of the distance learning environment. Some students will enter your course with few technology skills, while others will be webmasters, ready to expand their knowledge. As such, students who might excel in a traditional classroom may find themselves disoriented among web page readings and frustrated with online discussions.
You might need to provide tools to get slower students up-to-speed at the beginner of the course. For example, Quick Math provides lots of help and calculators for students to use. In a foreign language course, students might need a review.
You might even want to do an online survey to see if your students are good candidates for an online course.
Consider Learning Styles. As you design your materials, keep in mind that students have different learning styles. Text, graphics, audio, and video are all ways to help students with different abilities and interests. For example, a poetry site with words, audio recording, and video might be helpful. If you're studying history consider a site where students can listen to speeches from history. Or, consider the impact that visual and audio materials can have on understanding WWII through the BBC website.
Keep your web-based materials simple and easy-to-read.
Provide Assistance. It's important to provide students with assistance in learning to deal with this new class environment. For example, during an initial face-to-face meeting, you might guide students through the online syllabus, calendar, requirements, and assignments. Demonstrate how they can use the calendar to access readings and requirements. Discuss strategies for exploring, skimming, and reading in a web environment. Explore the Journey through Science example and think about how you might introduce this course.
Consider using a "textbook" like format for your web pages. This familiar format may help students who are just getting started in the Internet environment. Students can click on "hot words" in the text to explore additional information. These key ideas are also shown in a sidebar in each chapter. Graphs, charts, and photographs help a student understand the key concepts.
As you make assignments, be sure to specific about your expectations. For example, do you want students to explore, skim, or read a particular article?
Provide Support. Provide lots of support for your students. You can create many of these communication environments. Other examples can be found in ThinkQuest projects. You can also use services such as eboard, egroups, and list universe for interactions. Talk with your students about the differences between live discussions and listserv interactions. A reassuring face-to-face meeting the first week of the semester can go a long way in making students feel comfortable.
Although most students have little difficulty getting used to this new method of learning, the adjustment period may be much longer for some students. The instructor must be ready to identify potential problems and respond quickly with appropriate, effective help. You may encounter a student who needs almost daily email support and encouragement, while others may work independently the entire course.
Be Prepared. Be prepared to do some remedial work with students who lag behind right from the outset. Like all classrooms, there will be variations in the preparedness of the students to deal with the content of the course. These variations are magnified in the distance learning environment because one-on-one, face-to-face help sessions are not available. Consider a help listserv or web page where students can post and assist each other with questions.
Build Class Spirit. Develop a class spirit. Many first-time virtual teachers overlook the importance of developing a sense of "team" in their online classes. For many students, this connection to other students is critical to success. Just like a traditional classroom, students need opportunities to be social. They need the a chance to laugh, vent their frustrations, and talk about their ideas and aspirations. This can be accomplished through formal team-building activities or informal opportunities such as threaded discussions.
Adapted from Virtual Sandcastles: Teaching and Learning at a Distance by Annette Lamb and William L. Smith.