The rapid growth of online courses presents new opportunities and challenges for educational institutions. Thanks to online learning, increasing numbers of students can enroll in online educational programs without the institution needing additional classrooms or dormitories and such online instruction offers many students the opportunity to take courses who might otherwise have been unable to participate. This sudden shift to online learning, however, comes without ashared experience for either the learner or instructor. In other words, while most learners and instructors have had years of formal and informal experience in the face-to-face classroom, few have had similar breadth of online educational experience. Accordingly, there would appear to be a divergent array of expectations regarding the online learning experience. Failure to understand and address these expectations will likely result in a disappointed educational experience for learners and instructors alike.
Types Of Expectations
In their discussion of providing library and reference support services to distance learners, Cooper, Dempsey, Menon, and Millson-Martula (1998) differentiate between student needs and expectations. Needs are instrumental elements which students require to achieve their goal. Expectations are the assumptions regarding the likelihood of something occurring and which the authors note “are the standards against which a vendor’s or service provider’s performance should be judged” (p. 43). Perceptions of quality involve the discrepancy between the customers’ expectations or desires and their attitudes of the actual experiences. Steyn and Schulze (2003) observe that to be quality-minded in education is to give attention to the needs and expectations of learners and make sure that they are met. Learners’ perceptions provide important information for addressing these expectations (Cooper et al., 1998).
Students’ expectations largely come from past experiences, either face-to-face classes on campus or other traditional educational activities. It is therefore likely that the degree of satisfaction that students have with prior courses will likely determine the attitudes and expectations that they bring to subsequent classes. Such expectations are often shaped based on students’ experiences in the areas of academic preparation, learning support, communication systems, and perceptions of their readiness to progress to the next level of learning (Steyn & Schulze, 2003). Expectations may also be developed based on students’ degrees of trust and confidence in the institution, faculty responsiveness to questions, perceptions of empathy toward learner concerns and needs, delivery of content material, or effective communication during the learning process (Cooper et al., 1998; Phillips & Peters, 1999).
Although the student may have selected online learning because of personal benefits such as eliminating a commute to class, fitting the learning into a busy schedule, or being able to attend classes from home, the expectation remains that adequate guidelines and structure will be clearly provided by the instructor (Bickle & Carroll, 2003; Swan, 2001). Without sufficient guidance, the new online student has the potential for heightened levels of uncertainty (Brown, 2003; Porras-Hernandez, 2000; Swan, 2001). How will this experience differ from my other classes? Will I be able to navigate the online classroom? How will I understand the material if I never actually see my instructor? Where will I go for help if I’m confused? A recent study of online learner expectations in Australia found that the top five most expected instructional services were clear statements of learning expectations, helpful feedback from teachers, clear requirements for assessment, a variety of communication opportunities with teachers (e.g., email, online chat, face-to-face, etc.), and timely feedback from teachers (Choy, McNickle, & Clayton, 2002).