Online Learning: Important Questions to Ask

OC OnlineOnline Learning, The CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

Student doing online learning.

In the first post in this series about online learning, we explored the following questions:

  1. How can I evaluate the quality of a program? 
  2. How is the program structured?

In this post we address three more important questions about online learning programs.

3. What does the interaction between students and teachers look like? 

A key factor in academic success is closely related to effectiveness, care, and interaction with a teacher. This point applies in traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms as well as online courses. Be sure to ask specific questions related to teacher availability and interaction with students. The less a course costs, often the less meaningful instruction, support, and interaction students have with their teacher. This is an area that can often be miscommunicated, so don’t forget to cover this aspect of online learning when investigating online programs.

  • How much regular contact do students have with teachers? Even if a course is well designed for online independent learning, having regular access to a teacher to ask questions and receive instructional support and encouragement is still important. In addition to the importance of some live class instruction to supplement and enhance the course content, having the ability to virtually visit during an office hour; schedule a time to connect with a teacher; or exchange emails, messages, or chats can help students feel connected and supported even if they aren’t in a face-to-face classroom with their teacher. Also, confirm that the primary point of contact will be the primary instructor, not an aide, assistant, or other school staff member. 

“Having regular access to a teacher to ask questions and receive instructional support and encouragement is important.”

  • What type of feedback is received, and what is the expected turnaround time? In an environment where interaction is virtual, supplying prompt and meaningful feedback is even more important to a student’s academic success than in a brick-and-mortar setting. If students are working through content and are unsure how they are doing, where they can improve, or if anyone is even looking at their work, this lack of instructor response can have a profoundly negative impact on progress, motivation, and overall academic achievement. Assignments should be graded quickly enough so that students can use the correction to improve future assignments. In addition to just grades, ask what other types of feedback students receive and who is providing that feedback. Teachers can use rubrics, written responses and annotation, video feedback, individual meetings with students, and classroom review to ensure students have actionable information on the work they are completing.  

4. How were the program’s courses created? 

There are many ways to create, design, and deliver a course online. Understanding these differences can help you know what to look for, what you are paying for, and what students will experience as they work through the courses. There are research-backed best practices around instructional and visual design for online courses that make them more engaging, effective, and enjoyable.  

  • Were online instructional best practices incorporated into course design? Was the course adapted from a traditional classroom to be delivered remotely or intentionally built to be delivered and taken online? Who wrote it—an outside consultant or someone employed in the organization offering the program? It takes little effort to upload the course text online and turn a camera on the teacher during the teaching; however, that approach is not effective or engaging online learning and can result in extreme fatigue for students and teachers struggling to focus and deal with content in multiple places.

Incorporating interactive online elements and practice and intentionally providing different methods of delivering content that include text, audio, images, and video in effective ways can transform a boring page turner into a compelling online learning journey. Request to look at a sample course to evaluate the amount of effort employed into making the course interesting and accessible for students.  

  • How do visual and instructional design elements ensure an interactive experience that supports student success? Most people don’t realize there are proven design standards for online courses that can really affect how enjoyable and effective a course will be. The visual design can add to instructional effectiveness, but it can also facilitate a positive experience for students navigating their online course. 

“Just because a student has an “A” doesn’t mean that the course adequately prepares them for subsequent high school or college courses.”

  • What level of rigor is incorporated in the course design? Online courses and curriculum, just like offerings in a  traditional classrooms, come in all levels of depth and difficulty. Just because a student has an “A” doesn’t mean that the course adequately prepares them for subsequent high school or college courses. Look for accreditation, variety of course offerings, designation of College Prep, Honors, and Advanced Placement to determine if the rigor level is right for your student(s). 

5. How are technology requirements communicated and supported?  

This is a topic about which many people make assumptions. Make sure you  have the most appropriate technology to access the course. Being proactive about backup plans, and being aware of who to contact for support ahead of time, can make these problems manageable.

  • Is the course intended for desktop, laptop, and/or mobile devices? Sometimes the way the course material is stored, accessed, and delivered and the level of interactive elements means that students really need a desktop or laptop to have the best overall experience. In a world where we do so much on our smartphones, make sure to check what tech devices are needed to participate fully in the course. 
  • Are the requirements and set-up steps clearly communicated and easy to understand? There are several steps involved with getting started in an online course. Purchasing materials, getting access to the course content, knowing where to communicate with the teacher, and knowing how to get support for login or material issues are just a few. Ask if there are clear guidelines and resources to support students and families as they work through this process. Find out how this information is sent and where it can be found to so that you can bookmark, print, or save these key details. 

“The support options should be clearly accessible so that students and families can quickly access the help available to them.”

  • What are the support options if students encounter issues with access or personal technology? Support options can include anything from submitting requests online to live support. These support options can include help with tech, school systems, academic needs, and much more. The support options should be clearly accessible so that students and families can quickly access the help available to them. Most schools will not be able to help with specific tech issues related to individual equipment, so knowing what support options are available to you is a good thing to know ahead of time.  

While it can feel overwhelming evaluating options for your student(s), start by asking the five questions. The answers will play an important role in understanding whether the online school or course you are considering will be the best fit for the personal and academic success of your student(s).

We invite you to reach out to OC Online if you have questions or would just like to learn more about online learning opportunities. Watch for two more posts about Christian online learning.

Read the first post in this series: Online Learning: Where Do We Begin?


  • OC Online

    Established in 2011, Oaks Christian Online (OC Online) provides a rigorous, NCAA and UC approved, college preparatory Christian education option for middle and high school students and partner schools all around the world. Inspired by their physical campus in Westlake, CA, Oaks is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) as well as the Southern Association of Independent Schools (SAIS). One hundred percent of full-time OC Online graduates were accepted to four-year colleges.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.