Online students have more choices than ever.
About 5.4 million students, or 1 in 4, took at least one distance education course during the fall of 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
That said, even the best online programs -- like their traditional campus counterparts -- have some poor professors. And it can be trickier to identify those instructors in an online course until it's too late to switch.
The many students beginning a new online course should be aware of these six signs their professor won't make the grade.
1. An unclear syllabus: Plenty of great face-to-face professors put a low priority on creating clear syllabuses, in part because every class meeting represents a chance to communicate their expectations to students. In an online setting, those documents take considerably more importance as a course road map.
The syllabus is what really sets the terms and the conditions for that relationship between professor and student, says Julie Uranis, the director of distance learning and continuing and professional development at Western Kentucky University.
When a syllabus fails to spell out class learning objectives, set expectations for online communication with the professor and between students, or even lists outdated deadlines for assignments, it suggests a professor doesn't comprehend effective online course management.
"For me that's kind of the formula I've used for every other professor," says David Stysley, an online public administration master's student at the University of Baltimore, who evaluates his professors by their syllabuses. "'Do you understand this format?' And some just don't."
2. No set timetable for emails: While many students say they would love responses to email to come as soon as possible, experts say it's more important to clearly spell out when students can expect a response, whether it's in a matter of hours or days, or at a certain time each day or week. A good syllabus will cover this.
Failing to do this can create a sense of disconnect or uncertainty with students.
"What drives a student crazy is when they feel like a faculty member is missing in action," says Lisa Templeton, the executive director of Oregon State University Extended Campus. Not knowing when professors will respond to student emails or online postings can cause students to feel unsure about how to interact with professors, other students and course materials, she adds.
[Ask these questions when choosing an online instructor.]
3. Converted print resources: What online courses lose in face-to-face class discussions, they make up for with the ability to use streaming audio or video tools, as well as online forums, to give students 24-7 access to their course.
A professor who abstains from using these kinds of resources -- and perhaps instead teaches off transcripts of lectures and PDF files of textbooks -- will create a class environment that is less compelling and more disjointed, Stysley says.
"If they try to wedge face-to-face and textbook learning into an online format, you should probably work your way out," Stysley says.
4. Hiding lack of experience: Given the continuous growth of the online education industry, it's unrealistic to think you could avoid going through an online program without taking at least one course from a rookie online professor.
As a student, it should worry you more if that professor seems like he or she is trying to hide a lack of experience from students, says Jason Baker, the associate vice president for teaching and learning at Regent University.
"Rather than working yourself into a lather to cover that up or conceal it, I think being transparent, being honest about what is new about this experience is actually really beneficial to students," Baker says. "I think most students respond positively to that. They tend to want the experience to be good for everybody and so they will often provide constructive feedback."
5. The professor has never been an online student: Even professors who are exceptional communicators, technologically literate and experts in their field may not firmly grasp what a quality online course looks like until they find themselves on the other side of one, Baker says.
[Find out how to get academic help in an online course.]
"Even the younger faculty, the bulk of their experience has been face-to-face instruction," he says. "I think it has a profound effect on the way you think about teaching, because then you see what they see, you experience what they experience."
Of course, the only way for students to know this about their professor is to ask, which might be difficult if students don't know when to expect an email reply.
6. The teacher is a bad face-to-face instructor: Despite the differences between teaching digitally and in the classroom, the two pursuits share far more in common -- which means if students have had a good or bad experience with a teacher in an on-site course, they will most likely find the same with him or her online, Uranis says.
"The traits that exist as far as having a great experience with an online faculty member are the same ones that really exist for face-to-face teaching," she says. "They're engaging. They are experts in their field. They create content or experiences that are meaningful. It's not necessarily the modality there that is the difference, it's the individual."
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