Sharing What I Find

Instructional Design and Technology in Education

When is too early?


There was an interesting conversation going on in the WCET listserve earlier in the fall, asking the question on when to make an institutionally hosted online course available to students. Some argued that the first day of classes was the best time and others argued for an earlier time period.

Typically, UAF eCampus instructors choose when to make their class available to enrolled students based on when the instructor is ready and willing to accept students. Instructors are required to make the course available on the first day of classes. It seems like most instructors tend to open their courses a day before or on the first day of classes.

Potential Problems for Early Open

  • Opening a course early puts waitlisted students at a disadvantage as they do not have access to the course in the LMS. (I’m not sure I agree because, waitlisted students are already at a disadvantage by not purchasing books and materials or being included in any pre-class announcements.)
  • Students expecting to start on Day #1 and enter the course with 50% of the students already participating in an introductory discussion forum, submitting assignments, and/or and divvying up duties on group projects, would likely feel completely behind and at a disadvantage.  As an example, one commenter said, “It would simply remind me of excitedly going to a birthday party as a child only to find out four kids had spent the night before and already had lots of fun before I even got there.’
  • Requiring online instructors to open their online courses early and begin communicating with students is not the same requirement asked of onsite instructors.

From Dr. Margaret (Maggie) O’Hara, Director of E-Learning, at University of North Carolina General Administration Spangler Center:

An interesting (cautionary) result to opening classes early.  During faculty professional development, I always advised faculty to open their classes early if at all possible.  One spring semester, an instructor opened his class on New Year’s Day, with the semester starting around the 10th.  The first assignment (not due until the 17th) was to form a group and choose a project topic from a list provided.  By the time the course officially opened one group had formed and chosen a topic. Another student in the class, who had not logged in until the first day of the semester was furious that the topic he would have chosen was already taken and gave us all a very hard time about how unfair this was.  The instructor ended up making the group choose another topic and deleting the other one from the list of choices.   Amazing how no good deed goes unpunished!

More than One Week

  • Students get access to review the syllabus and any getting started activities, and become oriented to the LMS and the organization of the course. Students have access to orientation courses, and are encouraged to explore the library and campus resources.
  • Instructors must have the following information in place before the course may be opened: Getting Started, Course Syllabus (if the syllabus  is a draft, it needs to be clearly indicated as such) and an announcement about how to get started and when the full course will be made available.
  • Instructors are not required to start “teaching’ during this time.
  • Students want to know whether a given course and instructor will be a good “fit’ for them.  Providing this information in advance of course start allows students to make an informed decision.  If the student decides to opt out, they can do so without penalty. This also makes the lives of our instructors easier because they can get to a stable roster sooner rather than later.

Good alternatives to Early Open

  • Access to the learning management system to become familiar with how a typical online course might look, such as an online orientation. The course might contain multimedia screencasts that walk students through a course as well as a “sandbox’ course shell containing mock content, tests, etc. This would be similar to taking a stroll past their classroom to figure out where it is located before being expected to arrive.
  • Have an open source where faculty who wish to provide information to their online students beforehand can post a syllabus or extended syllabus. I believe our UAF Faculty Senate has mandated that all course syllabi be posted in banner so that academic advisors can better advise students into courses. When this was first proposed, I was hoping that these documents would be posted in an open environment so that potential students could also have access to them.

While I don’t think it is necessarily a good idea to open the course to students before the first day of classes, I do think it’s beneficial to let online students see the course syllabus before classes begin and to communicate with them through email, especially if the course is not synchronous. Giving student an advanced preview allows them to get their books/materials early with confidence and seeing if the class is what they expected beyond reading the brief course description listed in banner or the course catalog.

Author: Heidi Olson

Heidi enjoys working with content experts in developing eCampus courses to provide alternatives for students. Her other interests include faculty training in best practices for eCampus and researching eCampus tools to help fulfill learning outcomes. Having worked in the distance education arena for over 20 years, she has a wide range of experiences in supporting students and faculty as technology and pedagogy evolve.

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