Note: This article was originally published in the Journal of Adventist Education, Distance Education Issue, April/May 2003. I’m reposting it here to give it a new home.
Essentials: Structure and Routine in Online Courses
By Janine Lim (p. 16)
Recent studies indicate the importance of consistency and structure for students learning online. Data obtained from surveys of students enrolled in asynchronous (completely online) courses offered by the State University of New York indicate that three factors “contribute significantly to the success of asynchronous online courses. These factors are a course structure that is both clear and consistent, an instructor that interacts frequently and productively with students, and a constructive and dynamic discussion between students and their peers.” 
In addition, researchers at the University of British Columbia who evaluated 127 courses offered online “have concluded that appearance and structure can make or break an online course.”  Why is structure so important? Higher levels of thinking are impossible in chaotic online courses. Structure is key!
Since 1999, alone or with a team, I have designed six online courses that are available for graduate credit from various universities. The course titles are: “Internet in the Classroom,”  “WebQuests,” which was chosen as an exemplary course in a WebCT 2000 study,  “Technology Tools for Literacy,”  “Active Online Teaching,”  “Integrating Technology in the Curriculum,”  and “Technology in the Early Elementary Classroom.”  All of the classes have been offered at least twice. Because of this experience, I’ve gained an understanding of the importance of routine and structure in online courses.
Given the importance of structure in an online course, we will examine two areas in this article: (1) creating a familiar structure by comparing standard components of face-to-face classes with online classes, and (2) creating course routine by using a consistent template for each module.
Creating a Familiar Structure
Most traditional classrooms are structured in fairly similar ways. Students know where to enter (the door), when to come and go (the class schedule), and how the room is defined (the walls). Students know where to sit (desks and other furniture), where the teacher will be (front, at a desk), which direction to face (arrangement of chairs), and where to look for information they need to copy (chalk board, white board, etc.). These familiar structures are consistent in classrooms around the world.
Many classroom learning experiences also have a familiar structure. The student knows that the class will include reading (a textbook and handouts), listening (lecture or classroom discussion), writing (homework assignments and notes), talking (asking questions, peer discussion, etc.), and evaluation (quizzes and exams).
An online class challenges assumptions about how learning takes place. The student must learn to negotiate the unfamiliar processes of a virtual classroom. Likewise, the teacher must deal with a variety of unfamiliar issues relating to the learning environment—the walls, desks, and chairs of the virtual classroom. Routine and structure provide a safety net and a sense of security for students, letting them know what to expect. Creating a safe learning environment is part of the AVLN standard for integrating faith and learning. Students learn better in a safe and consistent environment. For example, note these student comments from the second week of “Technology in the Early Elementary Classroom” course in the spring of 2002:
After the first week, things are easier. I like that the format will stay the same.
The organization followed week one and is very easy to follow.
Organization is great! I recently had some computer training that was so unorganized it felt like a big waste of time. We spent all of our time getting ready to learn, finding what we needed and then evaluating. Barely any actual learning took place. This course is the exact opposite. 
The most intimidating part of an online class may be simply getting enrolled. Instructions (listed both in the syllabus and online) should indicate what skills are necessary to complete the course, as well as the equipment required for class projects. To help students enter the class means dealing with their individual needs. The instructor must provide access to appropriate support services and learning materials.
To assist students, create a window of time when they should first access the course. During this time, check E-mail, phone messages, and mail as often as possible, If your institution has a help desk, tell students when and how to access it. If possible, mail (not E-mail) instructions for getting into the class. Call students on the telephone if they haven’t logged in by the first or second day of the course. Be helpful and patient. Communicate the technical requirements and prerequisites early, so students know whether they have the technical expertise to take the course.
Time of Class
In a face-to-face course, students know when the class begins and ends. The time frame is clearly defined and regular. As you design your virtual classroom, be sure to define the time frame for your students, as well. When are they expected to log in? Do they need to log in a certain number of times a day? A week? How do they provide evidence that they are in class (posting in the discussion area, submitting assignments, reading pages, completing quizzes)?
Be very clear about your expectations. Communicate them in several places (in materials mailed to students, in the syllabus, in the online instructions, etc.). Do students know when they have to turn in assignments? Making these due at a regular time each week helps them get into a routine. Some classes use Sunday night as a weekly deadline. This allows students to use the weekend to finish any incomplete work.
In a face-to-face class, the four walls of the classroom create a boundary and a feeling of security for students. They learn to trust one another when they realize that only the participants and instructor(s) of the course are listening to their ideas and opinions. In the virtual classroom, the instructor must create a comfortable space for students to share and learn. Most courseware, such as Blackboard and WebCT, provide a secure password-protected method for students to access and “enter” the classroom. Be sure to plan for introductions and other activities that help students get to know and trust one another.
We hear a lot these days about “moving beyond the four walls of the classroom.” In traditional education, this means enrichment experiences using Internet resources, access to experts via E-mail and video conferencing, or other types of creative learning outside the boundaries of the school room. The same can be true in an online course. Many online classes provide links to many resources and Web sites with supplemental material. Since it is difficult to tell how long students spend on various tasks, be careful not to overload them with extra material. Indicate clearly which resources are required reading and which are optional. For example, in the course “Technology in the Early Elementary Classroom,” the “See It” section provides 40 to 60 examples of technology integration for each core subject, such as reading or science. Participants are encouraged to choose the ideas that fit their needs and teaching style.
Within a course, there may be defining walls as well. Some courses divide students into small groups for various learning activities. These walls can be permeable, allowing students to move into other discussion areas and learn from people who are not in their group.
However you define the walls in your online course, keep in mind the needs of your students and provide the necessary support for them to access the resources and experiences of your course.
Dissemination of Content—The “Furniture”
In a traditional classroom, the student enters, sits down at a desk, and listens to the instructor for the majority of the session. Usually, this is when the teacher integrates faith and learning and encourages higher levels of thinking.
As you design your course, consider where students will “sit” to learn. How do they “listen” to you? How will they get the majority of their instruction? Do they need to do most of reading online? Can they print the materials? Do they know they need a fast printer? Do they know you are using multimedia/audio/video? Do they have the necessary software so they can listen to video clips? If not, who will help them install it? Plan to use a simple and consistent instructional structure so that all students will be able to participate.
In my online classes, I have chosen to create the instruction as Web pages. This allows me to control the dissemination of information. I prefer this method because many of my students do not have fast Internet connections and are unable to view fancy multimedia. I also like to have my instruction in a form that is portable from one courseware platform to another (i.e., Blackboard or WebCT). Courseware changes often; I would rather not redo my work each time I teach in a new medium. Web pages are easy to access and print, and they can be created to load quickly. They allow me to guide students through selected resources and links without overwhelming them with information.
Whether you use multimedia, Web pages, or another format, be sure to create a space for instruction that is regular and consistent. This helps students stay on track with the required work. Decide on the “icons” students are to click on to access various areas of the course. Keep these to a minimum to ensure simplicity and ease of use. Think about what students are to accomplish in those areas. Provide documentation that explains the various parts of the course. Later in this article, we will examine ways of making instruction regular and consistent.
The AVLN teaching standards require that online courses address the relational basis of learning.  This includes interaction between all of the following: (1) learner and content; (2) learner and learner; (3) learner and teacher; (4) learner and self (reflection); and (4) learner and community (including service). The asynchronous discussion tool in your course can address most types of interaction.
To make your course interaction consistent and constructive, require substantive postings from each student/group during each week or module. Decide how to assess the discussion, and communicate your expectations clearly. Most students aren’t used to being graded on class participation. If they aren’t participating (especially in the first week or two), check up on them by E-mail or phone to make sure they understand that they must post their comments in the discussion area.
In many online classes, students tend to view the discussion area as a place to debate argumentatively, to upload summaries of articles, or to post lengthy opinions. Rarely does the discussion reach the level of dialogue, “a living experience of inquiry within and between people.”  Dialogue is “about evoking insight, which is a way of reordering our knowledge-particularly the taken-for-granted assumptions that people bring to the table.”  Help students learn to engage in meaningful dialogue with their peers. Some useful strategies for encouraging dialogue can be found at http://www.avln.org/learning/aot/dialogue.htm [link dead].
Monitor the discussion area frequently. Delete offensive posts, and communicate your expectations to the authors of abusive or inappropriate messages. With a little practice, you will find the discussion in your class blossoming. Your students will enjoy your class more because they feel connected to one another, the content, and their instructor.
In reality, everything in an online course is “homework.” Because of this, you need to find ways to keep students from spending extended periods staring at the computer screen. Create assignments that they can do offline and then report on. Encourage them to print out reading materials rather than reading them off the screen.
For assignments that won’t really enhance the learning of others, have students submit materials directly to the instructor. For assignments that share learning and construct knowledge about the topic, have them post in the discussion area. Pick one or two methods for students to use for submissions and stick with them throughout the course. Students shouldn’t have to learn to do new things or master new software for each assignment unless using software is part of the content for the course. Using technology in the online course already requires extra effort. Make things as simple and easy for your students as possible.
Course Routine and Consistent Templates
Now that we have examined ways to provide for the door, the walls, and the furniture of the virtual classroom, let’s take a closer look at how to create routine. This can be accomplished by incorporating a consistent template for the weeks or modules in the course. Let’s tour four online courses and examine the templates. 
In this class, participants learn what a WebQuest  is and then create one in teams. Each week, the course has two new pages on the Web: (1) introduction and (2) instruction. The introduction page includes a quote, a graphic, the objectives, the assignments, and a note on time management. The instruction page includes links to readings and instructions for creating the portion of the WebQuest due that week. (This section of the course addresses the faith and learning standard and focuses on the thinking processes.) Discussion centers on chapters in the required textbook and the process of creating a WebQuest. Weekly discussions address the relational basis of learning standard and encourage higher-level thinking. The creation of a WebQuest meets the learning experience standard, and the assessment in the course was authentic, based on the completion and quality of the WebQuest created.
“Active Online Teaching”
In this course, the template is very simple. Each page contains a quote (generally taken from the Bible or Ellen G.White’s writings), a picture, and three components: Readings and Links, Discussion Starters, and Experiences. Students respond to both the readings and the experiences in the discussion area.
“Integrating Technology Into the Curriculum”
In this course, teachers develop instructional units that integrate technology into the curriculum. Experiences and examples modeling the integration of technology are included.
The template for this course includes six components:
Readings and Discussion (faith, thinking, and relational standards);
Experience (shown below)—a project created from the student’s point of view (experience and support standards);
Examples—includes lesson plans, sample assessment tools, and more (this allows for the individuality of learners—they can choose what applies to their situation);
Application—a culminating activity for the module, such as a lesson plan, a presentation for the school board, or an assessment plan (assessment and experience standards);
Assessment—information about the number of points possible and criteria used to evaluate participation for that week (assessment standard);
Evaluation—participants evaluate the course (assessment standard).
“Technology in the Early Elementary Classroom”
This course takes an in-depth look at ways to integrate technology in core subject areas (reading, writing, math, science, and social studies). The course homepage was designed to be a warm, inviting space, using primary colors.
Each component is linked from the first page and has its own separate page. The template includes
A short paragraph introducing the module;
A quote related to the module;
Read It: required and optional readings on that week’s topic;
Talk It: discussion questions for the week;
See It: 40 to 60 technology integration ideas and examples for that subject;
Do It: choices for creating a student project example using KidPix or a digital camera. Projects are posted in the discussion area for peer review;
Manage It: classroom management tips for a technology-rich classroom;
Software Feature: exemplary software packages in that subject area;
Web Share: two or three “must see” Web sites.
Components to Choose
When creating a template for your online course, choose a few components to include in each module. Here are some possibilities to get you started:
||Research (library or Web)
As you create your course, keep in mind the AVLN standards for online teaching.  Be sure to plan ways to integrate faith and learning, both in the curriculum, “cyber chapel” or class devotions, and in your interactions with students. Encourage human interaction and relationships in your course, while providing stimulating learning experiences and appropriate assessment.
With some careful thought and design, you can create a virtual classroom with structure and routine—and one that addresses the AVLN standards. Your students will feel comfortable in the safe learning environment you have created and will have a rewarding learning experience.
Janine Lim is an Instructional Technology Consultant at the Berrien County Intermediate School District in Berrien Springs, Michigan. She is an active Adventist Virtual Learning Network (AVLN) board member and chair of the AVLN Course Committee. She also teaches online regularly for AVLN, the Berrien County ISD, and the ATA Technology Academy, a Michigan grant project.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Karen Swan, “Virtual Interaction: Design Factors Affecting Student Satisfaction and Perceived Learning in Asynchronous Online Courses,” Distance Education 22:2 (2001), pp. 306-331.
2. Kelly McCollum, “Researchers Pick Best and Worst Web Courses,” The Chronicle of Higher Education 44 (February 27, 1998), p. A29.
3. Offered through Berrien County Intermediate School District and the Adventist Virtual Learning Network (AVLN). Offered for credit through Andrews University, Grand Valley State University, and Western Michigan University.
4. For more information on the WebCT Exemplary Course project, visit http://webct.com/exemplary. This course is offered through the Berrien County Intermediate School District and the Adventist Virtual Learning Network (AVLN). Offered for credit through Andrews University, Grand Valley State University, and Western Michigan University.
5. Offered as a partnership between the Berrien County Intermediate School District and Andrews University.
6. Offered through the Adventist Virtual Learning Network (AVLN). Team designed with Shirley Freed and Marilyn Eggers.
7. Offered through the Adventist Virtual Learning Network (AVLN). Team designed with Marilyn Eggers.
8. Offered through the Ameritech Technology Academy grant project in Michigan. Offered for credit through Central Michigan University and Western Michigan University. Team designed with Marilyn Western. To be offered through the Adventist Virtual Learning Network (AVLN) in the summer of 2003.
9. These are actual participant comments from the Week Two required feedback questions.
10. See http://www.avln.org/standards.htm.
11. William Isaacs, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together (New York: Currency, 1999), p. 9.
12. Ibid. p. 45.
13. If you would like access to view any of these courses, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
14. A WebQuest is an inquiry-oriented activity in which most or all of the information used by learners is drawn from the Web. See http://webquest.sdsu.edu for more information.
15. See http://www.avln.org/standards.htm.