Understanding Online Education: A Guide for Parents of College Students

For the parents

The verdict is in. Your child’s fall classes will be online. For parents of continuing students, this news might be disappointing but at least it is not your first rodeo. For those moms and dads of the newbies – you may be struggling with the unknowns or feeling ill-equipped to properly support your newly minted college student. Here are some guidelines to help you feel more oriented.

Differences between in-person and online course delivery

In April I wrote a piece comparing the in-person experience versus online learning. I open with a quote from essayist Bertrand Russell – “More important than the curriculum is the question of the methods of teaching and the spirit in which the teaching is given.” In this post, I share an infographic I created to illustrate the differences along with a pros and cons list pulled from multiple sources. Here is a quick recap:

Pros (of online learning)
  1. Flexible learning and study option
  2. Students can (technically) learn from anywhere as long as they have a computer (or tablet) and WiFi access, headset and maybe webcam as a bonus
  3. Even with deadlines and course schedule parameters, students have more control over pacing and ability to re-review content they didn’t grasp at a first pass
  4. If students embrace their “online community” within each course, they may find they have more meaningful engagement and make a stronger connection with peers through discussion forums and peer review of work
  5. Taking classes online is a terrific option for place-bound students who do not have geographic access to college campuses or work/family schedules that allow them to be physically present in a classroom setting
Cons (of online learning)
  1. Requires commitment, diligence, tenacity, and self-discipline
  2. Students must be mindful about finding study spaces conducive to learning (quiet, reliable Internet access, good ergonomic setup)
  3. The pace of the course is a blessing and a curse for those who struggle with self-discipline, staying organized, meeting deadlines, or grasping concepts without live, interactive discussion
  4. Students may feel disconnected, lonely, lost, and isolated from peers and instructors if there is not a strong mechanism for them to connect in relative real-time within and outside the course space
  5. Students who are highly social and fed by the energy of others may struggle with the disconnected and independent structure of the online course environment

Terminology: asynchronous vs. synchronous

Synchronous course deliveryasynchronous course delivery
Synchronous learning is remote course delivery where everyone from a given group is online at the same time using a video conference tool like Zoom.Asynchronous learning is remote course delivery where students access pre-recorded lessons or independent learning tasks at any time during the day.
* Students log in to the video conference tool at a set time each week
* Allows for virtual face-to-face engagement and connection, a check-in on mental and emotional health, and builds community through regular interaction 
* Students engage through verbal dialogue and nonverbal tools like chat 
* Breakout rooms are used to encourage small-group discussion
* Instructors deliver live lectures, assignment overviews, and demonstrations
* Guest speakers may join the session
* Sessions are often recorded and posted in the learning management system course space
* Students engage in live Q&A sessions with the instructor
* View recorded lectures, tutorials, or other reference video sources  
* Engage in online collaborative discussions (original contribution and interaction with peers)  
* Complete reading assignments out of a textbook or other references (often accompanied by a knowledge quiz or written task off of a prompt) 
*Complete assignments (independent and collaborative)  
* Peer review in small teams or study groups
* Taking exams (proctored and not proctored). A “proctored” exam is timed and students are monitored by a third-party service (e.g. Proctorio or Examity). The role of proctor is to monitor the exam environment to ensure academic integrity standards are met.
Source: Wilmette Public Schools, 2020

Managing expectations: parents

  • If your student is signed up for a virtual > synchronous course, they will be expected to show up to the online classroom (e.g. Zoom) at pre-set times each week. Whether or not attendance is required will depend on the course and the instructor.
  • Your child will need a reliable internet connection to view lectures, engagement, and participation. Check out free WiFi hotspots across the U.S.
  • If your student is enrolled in an asynchronous course, they will be held accountable to the course schedule and expected to deliver work products and actions according to pre-set deadlines.
  • To be successful and earn a C or better, your student must be organized, accountable, and steadfast in reading instructions and understanding what is expected of them.
  • Students can get overwhelmed. The more support they have from family, friends, and instructors – the more likely they are to stay on-task.
  • Your student may fall behind. They will need to stay in regular contact with their instructor and pay close attention to the “late work policy” stated in the syllabus.
  • Plagiarism is no joke. Cheating is not tolerated. It never hurts for parents to be familiar with academic integrity rules to help reinforce these standards. Please partner with your child in helping them to adopt high ethical standards of conduct.  Here is an example of academic integrity standards from the Washington State Legislature WAC 504-26-010.

3 Tips for what to do when…

Problem #1: Your student has a scheduling conflict (e.g. has to work) during the pre-set course time for a virtual > synchronous course.

Solution: This may be a problem for any course that mandates attendance during pre-set times. The student may need to drop the course or seek an alternative time slot. The student can also communicate with the instructor to discuss options or alternatives.


Problem #2: Your student does not have a quiet place to join video conference meetings

Solution: This is not an uncommon problem. My best suggestion is that students let their instructor know of this challenge. While they are in the meetings, they should stay muted and use the chat feature as much as possible. If speaking is required, I suggest they go outside, in their car, or corner of a room where they can limit extraneous noise as much as possible.


Problem #3: Your student does not do well in isolation – especially when it comes to staying on top of schoolwork and being motivated to attend classes.

Solution: Engagement is key. If your student is in virtual > synchronous courses, they should make attending a priority (even if it isn’t mandated). Your student should take advantage of the instructor’s live office hours. If the class breaks students up into teams – they should embrace this opportunity to have a support group and engage accordingly through chat and video meet-ups. If no study groups are established, they should propose the creation of their own with friends enrolled in the class. 

FYI – Zoom etiquette for your student

I recently created an infographic that outlines Zoom etiquette for students. Eating, walking, or calling in from bed are all considered no-nos. Here are some tips:

Zoom etiquette infographic

What else?

You tell me. Post your questions in the comments and I will do my best to respond with helpful answers and resources.


This post is part of Rebecca L. Cooney’s Online Teaching Tips series. Check out more tips in the “Online Teaching Tips” category.

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