The Online Classroom

The online classroom is not a room, but a collection of online resources you’ll access on your computer from a location of your choosing. Your instructor will not be standing in front of you and your peers will not be seated next to you. They’ll be where you are—online.

In this module we’ll help you grasp the concept of an online classroom by having you take inventory of your preferred learning styles to help you better understand your strengths as a learner, as well as identify the areas you need to develop; teaching you what it means to communicate effectively online and ways to do so; and explaining the different types of online materials and assignments you’ll encounter as you complete your coursework. Along the way, you’ll have opportunities to practice what you learn so you can better prepare yourself for your online classroom.

NOTE: Click the triangle to expand and collapse the content.

Learning Styles

People prefer to learn differently. One student may be partial to studying for an upcoming exam using an instructor’s podcast lecture while another student would rather study from the podcast’s transcript. These differences in the ways people prefer to learn are called learning styles. As you consider taking online courses, understanding how you learn best can help you study more effectively, communicate more efficiently, and help you develop your own ways to stay committed to your online classwork.

What’s a Learning Style?

The learning styles below refer to different aspects of learning. The first four describe the physical way content is delivered. “Logical” refers to how content is organized. The last two styles refer to the setting in which people prefer to learn.

  1. Visual. Prefer using pictures, images, and diagrams.
  2. Tactile. Prefer using body, hands, and sense of touch to draw diagrams, manipulate physical objects, or role play.
  3. Auditory. Prefer using sound, rhythms, music, and recordings.
  4. Verbal. Prefer using words, both in speech and in writing to assist in their learning.
  5. Logical. Prefer using logic, reasoning, and systems to explain or understand concepts, and have a good ability to understand the bigger picture.
  6. Social. Prefer learning in groups or with other people, and aim to work with others as much as possible.
  7. Solitary. Prefers to learn alone and through self-study.

As you read this list take it with a grain of salt. For starters, you are not restricted to learning one way. Just because you prefer to study while listening to classical music doesn’t mean you are incapable of learning without Beethoven. It’s just that you prefer to learn one way more than the other. Additionally, learning styles are not mutually exclusive. For instance, you may prefer verbal, logical, and social learning or you may look for visual learning in a solitary setting.

Long story longer, online courses will include content and assignments using multiple modes of delivery (video, audio, text, interactive activities, etc.). By understanding your learning styles and modifying them to best suit your needs and the requirements of the class, you will be prepared for anything that comes your way.

Activity: Learning Style Inventory

Take a moment and complete one or more of the following learning style inventories to find out how you learn best.


When communicating online, you need to know how to express your thoughts and ideas clearly in writing, how to use formal grammar and spelling, and how to use the various online communication tools. You’ll also need to be aware of how often you’re expected to communicate in class and learn how to decide which communication tool (e.g. discussion board versus email) to use for different tasks (e.g., asking general questions versus ones about your own work) is most appropriate.

Expressing Yourself

As an online student, communication is a little different than in a traditional, face-to-face classroom. While there will be ample opportunities for social interaction, the majority of your communications with your instructors and your peers will take place as written text, without the usual non-verbals (facial expressions, body gestures, tone, etc.) most of us rely on to enhance our discussions. With this in mind, you’ll need to understand some basic rules for good online etiquette.

  • Respect others and their opinions. Respect the feelings and opinions of your peers even though they may differ from your own. Don’t assume that everyone shares the same views, opinions, or backgrounds.
  • Consider others’ privacy. Sharing others’ personal information without their permission is a no-no. This applies to private messages shared with you or individually or within a group. If you like what someone has to say and want to share it, ask first.
  • Avoid inappropriate material. Don’t post or share (even privately) inappropriate material, instant message language, emoticons, chain letters, jokes, etc. Just don’t.
  • Be seen as a professional. When communicating with your instructor and classmates make sure you keep it professional. This is especially important when you meet synchronously (i.e. using a webcam and microphone). Make sure you are dressed appropriately, not lying on your bed or driving down the road, and make sure there is nothing going on in the background that would interfere with your ability or the ability of your instructor or peers to participate.
  • Pick the right tone. Language can be easily misinterpreted in written communication. This goes for sarcasm and humor. Instead, keep your conversations straightforward and professional.
  • Unlock the Caps. Typing words in all caps that are not titles or headings is the equivalent of yelling. DON’T YELL! It’s not nice.
  • Speling and, grammor; cownt. Avoid social media slang and texting lingo. Don’t abbreviate words, use phrases such as LOL and BRB, or use emoji and emoticons. Be sure you use proper grammar and spelling, write in complete sentences, put borrowed sentences in quotation marks, and identify your sources. Unless your instructor tells you otherwise, all class communication, even instant messaging (IM), should be regarded as formal—correct spelling and punctuation apply.
  • Cite your sources. When responding to others, make sure your comment or response is accurate. Don’t just guess or make things up. And if you’re sharing someone else’s thoughts, be sure to give credit where credit is due.
  • Brevity is best. It’s unlikely that anyone will take the time to read through your tome when your response could’ve been more succinct. Stick to the point and avoid tangents.
  • Read first, write later. Before you write a response to a post, go ahead and read all the responses, including your instructor’s, to avoid repeating comments or asking questions that have already been addressed.
  • Read twice, send once. If you’ve ever sent an email or text message that you wish you could’ve taken back, you’ll know the importance of this one. Read your post, email, or message at least twice before you hit the Send button to make sure it says what you intended it to say.
  • Be involved. Your contributions help your classmates as much as they help you. In an online classroom you’ll need to speak up, ask questions, and share your thoughts. If you’re thinking, “Eh, not me,” think again. Some instructors make communication a requirement; your skills and frequency of interaction may be a portion of your overall grade.
  • Be forgiving. If a classmate breaks the rules for good online etiquette, let your instructor know, and let them handle the situation.

Communication Tools

man drinking coffee while video conferencing with 4 people.

Generally speaking, if you have a question that the whole class needs an answer to, use a group communication tool like a discussion board dedicated to whole class discussion or send a group email. If it’s personal–about your own work or grades, for example–send a one-on-one email to your instructor.

Email. This is the most common way to communicate with your online instructor and classmates. Check your email regularly, or you may miss something. For each of your classes, check your syllabus to find out how quickly your instructor will respond to emails. Is it within the day? Two days? Three days? Be advised—your instructor may expect the same response time from you. Make sure you respond as quickly as your instructor expects.

Phone. Yes, it’s old school. But if your instructor posts a phone number and you have a complicated question about your own work or grades, a phone conversation may be the way to go. Just be sure that if you call your instructor you do so according to the times posted in their syllabus. Upside: phone calls may be the most efficient way to talk through a complicated issue. Downside: there’s no permanent record. If you want to be sure you get an instructor’s answer for reference later, use a method that gets it in writing.

Instant Message (IM). This is a type of online chat with one or more people that takes place at the same time (or as some say “synchronously” or “in real time”). From Google Meet to Yahoo Messenger there are plenty of clients to choose from for your desktop, laptop, and mobile devices. At UNCG we use Google Apps for Education, which comes with Google Hangouts.

Skype, Google Hangouts, and WebEx. Occasionally you may need to meet synchronously with your entire class, a small group of your peers, or just with your instructor. Depending on the requirements of the meeting you’ll most likely use Skype, Google Meet, or Zoom. Whether you’re meeting with your instructor or with your classmates, be sure that everyone tests their equipment ahead of time, and everyone knows what time (and time zone) a meeting is taking place.

Discussion Board. At UNCG we use the Canvas Learning Management System. Each course in Canvas employs a discussion board where instructors and students can start and contribute to discussion topics. Often you are asked to post and reply to peers by sharing typed comments, but your instructors might encourage you to share your thoughts via audio or video, too. To learn more about how discussions work in Canvas visit their discussion help page.


Activity: Communicating with your instructor and peers in Canvas

Visit the Canvas Video Overview for Students page and watch how you can interact with your peers and instructors. For starters, check out the following video.

104 – Conversations Overview from Instructure Canvas Community on Vimeo.

Online Classwork

Online classwork can be broken down into two categories: content and assignments. Content is the stuff you have to read, watch, listen to, and interact with prior to completing your assignments. Typically this type of work is ungraded, completed independently, and required. Assignments are the exams, papers, speeches, discussions, and multimedia projects that you are required to complete, individually or with a group, for a grade. In short, content is what you’re expected to learn, and assignments are the ways you demonstrate you’ve learned the content.

That said, online classwork isn’t all that different from face-to-face classwork. The biggest difference is that the work is completed and submitted online. For example:

  • Instead of listening to a lecture in class and taking a pencil and paper quiz, you may be watching a video of the lecture and taking an online quiz afterwards.
  • Instead of handing a paper in to your instructor in person, you may be emailing a copy of your paper, typing an answer, or recording a video of your response.
  • Instead of raising your hand to ask a question, you may be emailing your instructor the question or posting a question on the discussion board.

Before the cart gets too far ahead of the horse let’s have a closer look at online course content and assignments.

Online Course Content

Types. If you recall, content is the stuff you have to read, watch, listen, and interact with prior to completing your assignments. The good news is in an online course you generally have the ability to study and review the content as much as you need to master the material prior to completing an assignment. Some examples of online course content include:

  • Read. Textbook chapters, nonfiction/fiction books, journal articles, and online web articles.
  • Watch. Instructor lecture, TED talk, “How-to” videos, and feature films.
  • Listen. Famous speeches, music tracks, and podcasts.
  • InteractWeb appstimelines, role plays, and simulations.

Who’s Responsible? Most of the time you’ll be reading, watching, listening, and doing all by your lonesome. Occasionally, though rarely, you’ll be asked to collaborate on content with a group of your peers. An example of this is if the instructor divides students into groups, assigns each group multiple readings, and then asks each group to divide the readings amongst group members so each member can explain to the group what they’ve read. This “divide and conquer” strategy for learning content can save your group members valuable time.

Online Course Assignments

Individual Work. At times, your instructor will evaluate your understanding of the course content through assignments that you complete by yourself. Some examples include:

  • A quiz you complete in Canvas, the Learning Management System (LMS)
  • A written exam or a paper you submit to the Canvas LMS or via email as a Word document
  • An online speech you record using a webcam and submit via the Canvas LMS or directly to the instructor
  • A discussion forum where you write a post and respond to your peers in the Canvas LMS

To recap, unless you are told otherwise, individual assignments are created and submitted by you and you alone. Don’t freak out! You’re not really alone. You have plenty of resources at your university to draw from throughout your online experience including: your instructor, Writing Center, Speaking Center, library and more!

Group Work. Group work (i.e. group assignment or group project) is completed by a group of students, typically multi-faceted, and may last multiple weeks or even an entire semester. It can be anything from a research paper the group writes together to a website the group develops to a video the group shoots, edits, and presents online. When you work on a group assignment, you and your group members must coordinate efforts to arrange meeting times, divide up the work, provide feedback on one another’s contributions, and evaluate the group’s overall efforts.

When you’re working on a group assignment, you will have to work with others; and when you work with others, you may encounter issues. To help make your group assignment successful, here are a few tips:

  • Get organized. As soon as your group forms, encourage your team members to assign roles (document manager, scheduler, meeting organizer, editor, etc.), swap calendars, and create a roadmap of responsibilities with due dates. Put everything in writing and make sure everyone has access. You may want to establish a mutual Google calendar for your group’s schedule and put your individual responsibilities, etc., on a Google doc everyone can access.
  • Stay in touch. Communication can make or break a group project. Make sure team members share contact information and availability, and then develop a communications plan. As due dates approach, check in with one another to see if your group members need help.
  • Address problems. If a group member or members aren’t contributing to the overall effort, contact the group member and ask them how they’re doing and if they need help to get back on track. If you and your group member’s efforts fail, you may need to bring in the instructor. Remember, it’s easier to fix or change a flat tire than it is to drive on three wheels.

Online Classwork Examples

To get a better sense of the types of work you’ll be asked to complete in an online course have a look at the following examples. The first is a quiz, the next is an instructional video provided by Canvas on submitting assignments, and the last is an example of a case study that is more interactive than words on a piece of paper.

Activity: Quizzes and Exams

Quizzes and exams are a common way for instructors to assess your understanding of course materials. The format of these online tests can include various types of questions including multiple choice, true/false, fill-in-the-blank, matching, and essay questions. If you’d like to have a first-hand look at a quiz in Canvas head over to the Canvas Student Tour course and take the Practice Quiz accessible from the left-hand navigation item titled “Quizzes”, or you can just click the following button:Take the Practice QuizNOTE: On occasion, your instructor may ask you to take a proctored, or supervised, exam. A proctored exam is given in person by a qualified proctor at a secure location, but there are online proctoring services that your instructor may deem acceptable to use.

Activity: Submit an Assignment

When you complete assignments for your online course your instructor may ask you to email the assignment to them, or you may need to upload the file to Canvas.  Thankfully, Canvas makes this process incredibly easy. Don’t take my word for it, go see for yourself. Visit the Canvas Student Tour course and watch the video titled “Submit Your Assignments” or  just watch the video below.

203 – Assignment Submissions from Instructure Canvas Community on Vimeo.

Activity: Online Case Study

Case studies are one way instructors will teach you concepts and assess your understanding of those concepts. In a face-to-face classroom, an instructor might hand out a piece of paper with a few paragraphs for you to read along with instructions for an assignment. In the online classroom, case studies can leverage technology to make your learning experience more interactive. Click the button below to work through a case study example.

View an Online Case Study