Becoming a virtual student: College course work and the internet
by Mary Cordell
Can distance education provide early childhood educators
with the opportunity to take college courses? Yes!
Is it possible to work on a degree when family and work responsibilities
limit the time available to travel to the college classroom?
• • •
education has become a practical option for students challenged
by geography, time constraints, professional responsibilities,
family considerations, and similar obstacles (Smith, Jordan,
and Corbett, 1999). Combined with Web-based instruction, online
course curriculum is quality education (Smith, Smith, and Boone,
2000). It may provide as much benefit for the distance-education
student as for a face-to-face student in a traditionally delivered course
(Sujo de Montes and Gonzales, 2000).
Students with regular, dependable access to a computer and the Internet
at home or at work can complete college courses.
Many colleges offer online
In Fall 2002, the Child Development and Early Childhood program of Navarro
College in Corsicana, Texas, set the goal of offering its first online
course, Children with Special Needs. The goal came about through our
participation in Texas Natural Allies (see page 25). This group focused
on the need to enhance the preparation of community college students
to work with infants, toddlers and preschool children of diverse abilities
and their families in inclusive community settings.
Our first Children with Special Needs online course in Spring 2003 was successful.
The course was repeated in Spring 2004 with 70 students enrolled. My experience
as the instructor and the experiences of students from this class and other
online child development and early childhood courses have contributed to this
Many community colleges offer child development and early childhood courses
online. They are available statewide through a program known as the Virtual
College of Texas (VCT). The VCT site, www.vct.org/, lists course offerings
and contact information. Students work with counselors at their local community
college to register for credit and non-credit distance-learning courses from
other colleges. Course credit is recorded on the student’s home college
transcript, eliminating multiple transcripts.
Through VCT, the student’s local college:
enrolls the student locally to take courses from course-provider colleges
awards course credit on its own transcripts.
Through VCT, the provider college:
provides instructors who direct all class activities, including assignments
and tests, and award final grades.
Tips for a successful online semester
Most online courses are organized through a course site on the Internet.
Just as in a traditional face-to-face class, the instructor will be the
guide. Locating the course site and following the instructor’s
directions are essential to a good beginning.
Before the class starts
For local online classes, read the college’s printed schedule for
instructions on how to contact the instructor or to locate the course site.
For VCT class listings, go to the VCT Web site, www.vct.org/. Click on the
class title for instructions on how to contact the instructor or how to locate
the course site. Search for a home page for the provider campus. Follow instructions
for beginning online courses. Look for a link to a page for the department
offering the course.
Do not try to begin the course early or expect the instructor to contact
students before the course begins.
Do not put off locating instructions or following them.
After the class begins
The instructor will provide a course syllabus and instructions for assignments.
The instructor may provide additional instructions through e-mail or
on the announcements page of the course site. In all distance learning,
the students must take responsibility for their own success. Only the
student can do the following:
Print out a hard copy of the syllabus. Refer to it and all additional
instructions and e-mails the instructor provides. Consult the syllabus
before asking the instructor about course procedures.
Use a calendar to set a work schedule. Work ahead of schedule when possible.
Assume something will go wrong on the day before an assignment is due.
Approach online assignments as you would any other in-class assignments.
After re-reading the syllabus and all instructions, ask questions about
work that you don’t understand and ask for help when you need it.
If the instructor is local, schedule a conference during office hours.
All the work in an online class is done outside the classroom, so you trade
class time for study time. When planning your study time, follow these recommendations:
Be committed to your studies.
Be realistic about the time available.
Study every day at a regular time.
Don’t overestimate your concentration limits.
Set realistic goals.
Make time to review your work before submitting it.
Use the calendar to pace yourself and check off assignments.
Successful communication with your instructor
Online courses depend on lots of e-mail communication between the student
and instructor. The instructor may receive more than a hundred e-mails
a day from 200-300 students in both traditional and online courses.
Using e-mail, the instructor and student cannot see each other’s face
or hear each other’s voice. You lose the facial expression and voice
tones that help in face-to-face communication. To make e-mail communication
work, use the guidelines below. This list is long, but each of these tips is
important to make communication with your instructor successful.
In the subject line include your full name, the course name, and the section.
Example: Mary Smith, CDEC 1359.01, Children with Special Needs (online or M/W
9:00). Use your official name as registered. You may not get credit on an assignment
if there is confusion. Do not add content such as “help, reply now.”
Sign the message with your official first and last name, the class name,
and section number. Some instructors require phone contact information. You
can set up automatic signature files on some e-mail programs.
Use correct grammar, punctuation, and capitalization. The written language
of the e-mail makes an impression. Writing in all capitals is difficult to
Do not use “emoticons” in formal e-mails, unless your instructor
uses them first. I like the happy face, :-), and even use the sad face, :-(,
when concerned about a student.
Do not add your instructor to your mail lists. Your instructor will ask to
be removed from them.
Follow the instructions your instructor gives for sending assignments, either
attaching your file to an e-mail or copying and pasting the assignment in the
body of the e-mail.
When you send an assignment, give your instructor time to reply before you
send another e-mail asking if your assignment was received. Instructors usually
click “Reply” and acknowledge they have received your e-mailed
assignment. Make a copy of your e-mail in the event your e-mail gets lost or
Use your own e-mail box to write to the instructor. Asking the instructor
to send a reply to a different e-mail box is confusing. Your message may be
overlooked, or the instructor may respond to the wrong e-mail box.
Before you register for the course, create an e-mail account for course work.
Use a name that identifies you and that reflects a professional image. Your
course work and e-mails will be safe in your own e-mail account. Empty other
e-mails and trash from this account so the instructor’s e-mails are not
bounced back to the instructor.
Include enough specific information so that your instructor will know which
assignment you are asking about. It is helpful to hit the “Reply” button
so that the content of an ongoing e-mail is included. Change the subject to
reflect your name, not the instructor’s.
Be friendly. Because we cannot see each other’s face, there is always
the possibility of miscommunication.
A useful skill
When taking an online course, the student learns skills that are more than
the content area of the course. Learning to use the Internet as a learning
tool and to communicate with others are skills that will be useful in
all areas of employment and in daily living.
Smith, Sean Joseph; LuAnn Jordan; and Nancy Long Corbett. 1999. Teachers
learn about ADHD on the web: An online graduate special education course.
Exceptional Children 31(6): 20-27.
Smith, Steven Bradford; Sean Joseph Smith; and Randall Boone. 2000. Increasing
access to teacher preparation: The effectiveness of traditional instructional
methods in an online learning environment. Journal
of Special Education 15(2): 37-46.
Sujo de Montes, Laura E., and Carmen L. Gonzales. 2000. Been there, done
that: Reaching teachers through distance education. Journal
of Technology and Teacher Education 8(4): 351-71.
Virtual College of Texas, www.vct.org.
About the author
Mary Cordell is instructor and coordinator of the Navarro College Child
Development/Early Childhood Program in Corsicana, Texas. She is a member
of Texas Natural Allies and has developed and taught online courses.
She is completing studies toward a doctorate in elementary education
at Texas A&M University-Commerce.