How to Acknowledge the Online in an Online Course Syllabus

When I teach online courses, I have come to value the benefits of including a relatively short, but direct statement in my course syllabi about the nature of online learning for my graduate and undergraduate students. Before enrolling, some (most?) students have considered the differences between face-to-face learning and online courses, but it is also the case that many have not. In many cases, students may be taking an online course for the first time. In other cases, even students that have taken online courses before may never have been directly prompted to consider the differences between online and face-to-face courses (let alone hybrid ones) before. In all cases, it is beneficial to remind everyone involved that the nature of a given learning environment (whether synchronous, or asynchronous) plays a primarily role in the processes of learning.

Over the last several years, I have been working on developing a statement that is simultaneously useful, but also general enough to include (without much revision necessary) in all of the online writing courses that I teach. Over time, I have moved this statement steadily up in the hierarchy of my syllabi so that now it generally sits in the first few sections. I now consider it as a key part of the introduction to the online courses that I teach and thus tend to place it immediately after my course description and course goals.

Of course there are many variables involved in drafting such statements such as the student population that you are teaching, the type of course management system involved (in my case BBlearn with some supplemental outlets), teaching styles, and the nature of distinct courses, etc. But, as of this particular blog post, here is what I have constructed and refined over time. Maybe it will be of us to you, or just as likely, you will have something similar in your own syllabi.

The relative success that I have had with versions of this particular statement stem from several characteristics:

  • It is written, ultimately, as an invitation to students prompting them not just to consider the nature of an online learning environment, but also how they must be active participants for success across the course.
  • It addresses aspects about not just being a student in an online learning environment, but also introduces the nature of my role as a professor across it.
  • The statement is short enough to include in a syllabus.
  • And the statement is general enough to include, without much revision, in any given online course that I teach.



III. About Online Learning in This Course: 

This is an online course. I have come to appreciate the value of opening online courses with a simple and direct reminder: this is an online course. The differences between face-to-face and online courses are significant. Put simply, face-to-face courses and online courses ARE NOT THE SAME and they cannot be. It is not a matter of one learning environment being better than another (opinion is often divided depending on individual student’s circumstances, learning styles, and preferences), but it is a matter of being aware and intentionally adjusting, as a student, to the learning environment (in this case online) that you have chosen. As you will have experienced, or might expect, the convenience of working through technology and from a distant location has significant benefits and real trade-offs. Interestingly, what is a trade-off and what is a benefit in an online learning environment varies sometimes significantly between students’ preferences and learning styles.

The most important thing to realize, if you haven’t already, is that “meaningful” online learning environments often require MORE time and effort for both students/teachers than face-to-face classes. It is a common misconception that online courses somehow save time and are more efficient. But consider how the online “environment” only exists in as much as you interact with it. Or, put another way, in a face-to-face class, the classroom “happens” when you attend a given class; however, in an online course, it is your responsibility (as with your classmates) to “make things happen” one person at a time, one login at a time, one response at a time. This is the primary distinction whereby a face-to-face course is synchronous (occurring at the same time) and an online course is asynchronous (not occurring at the same time). Let me say it in another way. In a face-to-face class, discussion, lectures, etc. happen collectively and naturally because, in such a learning environment, everyone is present together for all such interactions. In an online course, however, everything is experienced with a delay. This is a constant battle for everyone in all online courses –teachers and students alike. There is a “shared space” online, but no matter how an online course is structured, it requires everyone as individuals from different locations (in both place and time) to create and leave something meaningful for others to find later. It can feel like lonely work sometimes, but with some patience it won’t feel like work done alone.

This corresponds directly to the second most important thing to realize (if you haven’t already) about working on a course from a distinct location –it requires you to be a more independent and self-motivated learner than when attending a face-to-face class. For some of you, this may fit with your natural proclivity. For most of you, however, you will have to work at it. In this course, you cannot be a passive learner and I will not simply be feeding you information (as you might have experienced in the past). In order for this course to work you will need to interact and to be a “knowledge-generator”. You will need to be responsible for constructing and managing your own learning. You will be both teacher and student. The success of this course (and ultimately your valuation of it) depends upon the work you are willing to put in –not just for yourself, but with and for your classmates too. This is why reading and responding to (at least 3) classmates’ work is required each week. Given this requirement others, of course, will likewise be responding to your work. In this manner it is important to understand that interacting and discussing, etc. is as much part of completing every assignment as a specific assignment itself.

My job, as your professor, is to provide a structured series of assignments/prompts with supporting mini-lectures, content, and materials that facilitate the realization of the course goals. In this capacity, my primary role is as an expert facilitator. But keep in mind that any given assignment and content won’t take on meaning, or “come to life” until you interact with it. More so, the electronic environment does not expand, nor become more interesting and rich until you add your reflections, comments, thinking, responses, ideas, beliefs, arguments, etc. The success of this course relies upon your steady, consistent, and active involvement. The success of your own learning across it does, of course, too.

Composition Forum (Fall 2012): Threshold Concepts, Learning, and Movement

Check out my recent co-authored publication:

(Fall, 2012). Threshold Concepts, Learning, and Movement: A Case Study in Two General Education Courses. Composition Forum (special issue on transfer). (26).


“This article ultimately suggests that threshold concepts might prove a productive frame through which to consider questions related to writing and transfer, and also to general education more broadly.”

Following the lead of Bass (2009) and Robertson (2011), Linda Adler-Kassner, John Majewski and I have worked, with a recent CCCC presentation (2012) and a Composition Forum (2012) article, to help introduce and advance threshold concepts (Meyer and Land, 2006) as a flexible conceptual and research heuristic through which to study and describe the nature of transfer in writing.

We also presented our findings at: “Complicating “transfer” articulating thresholds for writing and learning across disciplines.” College Composition and Communication Conference (CCCC). St. Louis, Missouri, March 21st-24th, 2012.

In follow up research, I am currently using the threshold concept literature on liminality to identify and describe the tacit and discursive schemas-for-writing that graduate students, who also self-identify as working professionals, “carry” between their academic and workplace settings.

Bass, Randy. A Hitchiker’s Guide to Threshold Concepts, Student Learning, and the Teaching of Writing Within the Disciplines. 2009. TS.

Meyer, Jan H. F., and Ray Land. Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Meyer, Jan H. F., and Ray Land. Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: An Introduction. Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding. Ed. Jan H. F. Meyer and Ray Land. London: Routledge, 2006. 3-18. Print.

—–. Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Issues of Liminality. Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding. Ed. Jan H. F. Meyer and Ray Land. London: Routledge, 2006. 19-32. Print

Robertson, Liane. The Significance of Course Content in the Transfer of Writing Knowledge from First-Year Composition to Other Academic Writing Contexts. Diss. Florida State U, 2011. Print.

But what is a threshold concept?

A good place to start is -“Threshold Concepts: Undergraduate Teaching, Postgraduate Training and Professional Development”:

“The threshold concept framework focuses on the identification of what is fundamental to the grasp of a subject and is essentially a transactional curriculum enquiry requiring a partnership between the relevant subject experts, educational researchers and learners.” Cousin, G. (2009), Transactional Curriculum Inquiry: Researching Threshold Concepts, In: Researching Learning in Higher Education: An Introduction to Contemporary Methods and Approaches, Routledge, Abingdon & NY, Chapter 13, pp 201-212.