Distance Learning: Don’t Be Victimized by the Poorly Developed Synchronous Online Course


Over the last ten years I have been involved with 30+ online or distance learning courses. Distance or online learning pertains to engaging a course or learning via the use of the Internet through a computer. Online learning can be used as a method to secure knowledge for interest, organization requirement, or to obtain a PhD. Primary schools are using online activities to teach various subjects and assignments. Online learning courses are synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous learning is live learning which takes place at the same time that an instructor is presenting the course. Here the student and teacher are engaged in the process through the use of a microphone, earphone, monitor, computer and video camera. Asynchronous means that the course has a website Internet address or URL and the learner logs on the website to study, engage in a discussion or take a test. The student may engage the course of study 24hours a day 7 days a week.


Internet learning 10 years ago was a developing phenomenon. Course developers presented their courses in synchronous format but the video stream did not match the audio or the video arrived from the Internet in a broken up fashion. Such programs usually fell by the wayside and in the interim were replaced over the years to the present as workable platforms with minor problems. Such problems are exacerbated by instructors who are lacking in teaching experience and the combination places the potential online learner in a double jeopardy situation whereby he or she stands to lose via poor program or platform development and improper teaching interaction. The teacher sets up the course outside the standards of proper teaching practice and/or lacks the people skills to respond to studdnt problems in an appropriate manner. Let us examine some of the current issues of online programs and the telltales of improper teaching approaches usually found in the course requirements.

Online Delivery Learning Issues

One problem for the program originator and instructor is the usability of various apps during synchronous presentations. To be able to use synchronous platforms the student must have access to his screen tabs to respond to or raise questions, perform exercises or generally work his screen. Applications at times cover the screen or enliven pop-up preventers prohibiting further activity or freezing the screen. In some cases this forces the student to undergo a time consuming login process disrupting the learning process. This problem is a telltale that the synchronous platform is unreliable/ or that there is a mismatch between the instructor program and the student body. Over the last ten years I have come across 4 cases of this mismatch or online learning issue which may lead to major problems especially in cases where the past cognitive learning schema does not fit into new changes not noted in a continuing platform or the assumption made by a new online instructor that the given students in the online class are up to speed with the instructor’s version. In one case the instructor required textbooks to be used prior to the class start time in a fashion where the notion of a coursepack was used as a textbook which was not a textbook. The students believed that thecoursepack as a third choice was a combo textbook. As it turns out, the online provider of courses never noted that this word means supplemental readings chosen by the instructor labeled as a textbook but merely consisting of a few pages of various writings for a few dollars less than the two textbooks. The student in this case paid extra for the course,(thecoursepack was not required) and was behind the first day because the textbooks were not ordered on time.

The Inexperienced Teacher

In today’s teaching market and university need for low price instructors, instructors for courses do not always arrive with teaching credentials. Many are chosen for their experience in a given field or expert status. Universities apparently do not want to spend the time to vet potentially bad teachers especially experts capable of providing some dollars to the bottom line. Such teachers may have been working in a field with very little human contact and as such have very few people skills, or lack any training as to putting a course together. L earners do not always recognize this or argue that the instructor must know what he or she is doing since the school has placed them in the present position. There are signs prior to or early in the course whereby the instructor goes against the grain of common teaching practice and/ or the learner will be victimized by the course- the learning process will become a mental toothache in that instructor behavior will egregiously violate acceptable ethics, law and fairness. The signs are as follows:

  1. The instructor requires that an assignment be handed in before the course begins. The instructor should be guided by the fact that the students agreed to engage the course at a given time. Experienced and knowledgeable instructors realize that books, or learning materials may not be available, the learner may be finishing another course, or simply be unavailable. The fundamental point here is that there is a contract between the learner and course/school providing the start and finish date of the course and to require additional time from the learner is unacceptable and problematic for the learner.
  2. Assignments appear overly lengthy and beyond the normal amount of time necessary for the course. If the course requires that the learner has to spend twenty hours a week developing assignments it would be reasonable to un curso de milagros conclude that the instructor asks for too much work. The learner has to evaluate the amount of work required. Some instructors actually tally how long a given reading or written assignment will take.
  3. The instructor notes in the syllabus that if the learner makes one mistake including missing a period or crossing a “t” in the last assignment he or she will fail the course. The learner should understand that this is a high risk scenario whereby the costs significantly outweigh the benefits. This is a definite do not enroll sign.
  4. Contradictory or ambiguous information found in the syllabus. Some online programs do not stay on top of course information. The instructor provides the grading information but when translated into the program grading there is a contradiction between text and grading application. In one course I was involved with, the grading added up to only 80%. If one part of the course contradicts the other it is reasonable to conclude that the school or instructor is not taking responsibility for the course make up. More than likely the instructor will not take responsibility for how he or she treats the learner.
  5. The instructor contradicts directions to the learners. If the instructor provides contradictory directions he or she has no sense of reason. Unreasonability is an earmark of potential chaos.
  6. The instructor fails to read student assignment responses carefully. The instructor takes off points for missing information when the information was present. This is not to obfuscate clear information with the ambiguous. This is a case of an instructor missing unequivocal information.
  7. The instructor stereotypes individuals with phrases such as stupid old people, women are weaker than men and so on. Instructors with biases are not clear thinkers, Their biases will compromise their thinking at the learner’s cost.


The Costs of Engaging the Bad Online Course

The inexperienced or untrained teacher and the poorly designed online course combination create unforeseen costs to the student. The student goes into the course to gain knowledge and ends up paying for a heap of anxiety, stress, and financial costs providing few benefits of new knowledge. The inexperience of the teacher and how he or she handles the course creates anxiety in the student in trying to complete ambiguous and disorganized assignments. Stress results in whether the course should be dropped or continued. Adding to the stress is the fact that the point may have been reached where dropping results in a zero refund since the quantity of logins or weeks into the class have been surpassed disallowing any refund. The point is reached where the mental toothache created by the course far surpasses any future benefits in continuing in an environment whereby anxiety and stress have supplanted the positive nature of the normal learning process. The decision to withdraw seems to be the only way to escape the toothache at the cost of losing possibly thousands of dollars in tuition. Usually the student learner decides that the costs of continuing are far greater psychologically than the loss of the tuition and drops the course. He or she has just been victimized by distance learning at its worst.

Steps to Take to Prevent Victimization by Online Course Providers

  1. Find out the background/or evaluations of the assigned teacher to the course. If the teacher is new and inexperienced be wary.
  2. Online courses provide the number of members in the class. Low numbers usually mean that the course is very new or not well attended. This maybe a warning.
  3. Read the policies of the school providing the course. At what point in the policy does the school no longer refund tuition if the course is dropped. Many logins should be avoided. It would not be unusual to login many times before the first meeting to gather the information about the course. Schools use logins as standard for non-refund of tuition. Use the logins to gain information to reach a decision to take the course.
  4. Courses with an extraordinary quantity of homework or assignments should be avoided.
  5. Contradictions in the syllabus or program are telltales that either the instructor or program is not being monitored for errors.
  6. Egregious marking parameters- one mistake means failure-are telltales of an inexperienced or incompetent teacher. Walk away.
  7. Assignments required prior to the first day of class should be carefully evaluated. Again too many logins and your own the course.
  8. Check out the language of the course. Are the concepts used clear or are you assuming what they mean. Is acoursepack a pack of textbooks or just a group of pages?
  9. Check to see if the links make sense. If links seem out of the norm or the format know that they may be troublesome.
  10. Some online courses are of a short duration. A quantity of textbooks usually applicable for a 15 week course should not be required for a 5 week course. If the quantity of textbooks is excessive there is a problem in the design of the course.
  11. If after you have evaluated the costs and risks associated with the course and are comfortable that it is not a problem course then make a decision to enroll or continue. At this point you have applied reason in your analysis rather than merely signing up because the course appears interesting.



Much of the above information is not only applicable to online learning but other formats as well. Note here that there is no inference being derived that distance learning is inherently problematic. Only that, the combination of bad processing of the online course with instructor incompetence or poor training represents a significant threat to the online learner. The most telling part of the threat has to do with the timing of dropping or withdrawing from the bad course and return of tuition. Some online course providers use only 4 logins to preempt any return of tuition money. Given that some providers have problems to begin with in terms of apps, problem programs and so on, learners should adopt a preventative approach to online courses. That is, rather than engaging the course over many times (logins) do a cost/benefit and risk analysis before enrolling. If the online course seems somewhat out of sync with your cognitive schema about the nature of coursework (what your past experiences with courses have led you to expect as normal or acceptable in courses) then it is time to move to another venue. In today’s costly course scenario, identification of the bad course up front could be worth thousands of dollars afterward.


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