The Technology Co-Curriculum in Online Courses for Non- Traditional Students

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The Technology Co-Curriculum in Online Courses for

Non-Traditional Students

Jane Carol Manner

East Carolina University, Greenville, NC

Higher education has seen significant growth in the participation of non-traditional students during recent years. Non-non-traditional participants include mature students who are entering higher education to initiate or modify career paths, new citizens, members of cultures in which E-Learning is uncommon or absent, and second language learners who may possess technical skills, but who require support in applying or developing those skills in an English-dominant online course. This paper addresses straightforward strategies, developed over years of designing and implementing online courses with a highly diverse student body, which support student success. Topics covered include orienting the non-traditional student, becoming aware of cultural reluctance about seeking assistance, providing personal feedback, handling issues related to language conventions, embedding important cues, clues and reminders in course materials, and other essential supportive methods of instruction.

The Technology Co-Curriculum in Online Courses for Non-Traditional Students Online and blended courses have become an essential part of teacher preparation

in the new millennium; we depend on technology and online resources to provide

communication in numerous educational arenas: we update the list of appropriate

websites in our syllabi, revise the electronic presentations which support our classroom or

online dialogue, and require our students to use technology skills to participate in

coursework. When greeting new students, we expect familiarity with common computer

protocols. We don't ask if they know how to use email; we simply ask for their email

addresses. For the most part, this is an appropriate set of techno-expectations.

Faculty with experience in developing and implementing online courses have


of students from the last decade and that which most possess today. One population,

however, remains palpably behind. They still come to class without the techno-savvy

(Manner, 2002) we have come to expect in contemporary academe. They are the

non-traditional students.

Many are representatives of both genders with greater maturity than typical

undergraduates. Although they may possess experience and wisdom which younger

colleagues have not developed, they often lack the technology skills which most entering

students take for granted. Many non-traditional students did not grow up with computers,

and may even have resisted the urges of the technically accomplished to join the digital

age. It is not uncommon for them to admit (with simultaneous pride and embarrassment)

that their children or grandchildren know “all about” computers while they know little.

Others are newcomers from foreign lands who arrive on college campuses hoping

to create new opportunities for themselves and their families; similarly to many of the

mature candidates, these students have never learned essential technological customs and

skills of the receiving country. Their lack of techno-savvy not only interferes with their

educational goals, but also with what have become the common elements of everyday life

in an increasingly technology-oriented society. Those who seek teacher certification will

be required to develop an even greater level of technological acumen in order

demonstrate competency and to deliver the standards-based curriculum required in most


Not many years ago, it appeared that student trepidation about attempting

web-based courses was uniform and palpable across all demographic groups. A majority, in


were afraid their skills were insufficient…that they would fail, or worse – humiliate

themselves by requiring constant support. Among typical undergraduates today, that

reaction is rare. As semesters come and go, concerns about navigating and manipulating

electronic challenges become more and more uncommon. Current anxieties regarding

web-based courses most often emerge from the unskilled, but hopeful, non-traditional

students. While most of them recognize that attacking the technology burden is essential

to educational progress, they frequently suffer from feelings of inferiority regarding their

preparedness. They lack confidence. Worse yet, many of these students emerge from

backgrounds in which they are not encouraged to seek help from the professor when they

need it. In some cases, students are members of cultures in which it is considered

insulting to ask the professor for assistance; to so suggests that the professor has not done

his or her job effectively.

An effective solution leading to the development of technosavvy can be a

thoughtful and supported infusion of technology into the regular course curriculum. The

online venue must have two curricula in coexistence: that which was the intended content

of the course, and the co-curriculum of technology skills which students need hone in

order to be successful with an electronic format. Some online courses publish

prerequisite technology skills which qualify students for enrollment. Such a policy, those

realistic in some populations, will exclude and discourage many non-traditional students.

An alternative approach is to support skill acquisition during progression through the

class. For many, the course becomes a hands-on, real life laboratory for technology.

Infusing technology practice with the coursework can create an effective integration of


technological skills they acquire than they express about achieving objectives set forth in

the course catalog.

Getting the non-traditional student to the point of technical competence can be a

challenge. Many of the mature group feel that the computer age is a phenomenon which

has passed them by. Some of the international students arriving from countries where

computer accessibility is limited may feel great anxiety as the perceive themselves to be

in a circumstance of double jeopardy…not only are they struggling with language, but

computer skills as well in a synergy of difficulty. On most campuses, support is available

in labs, and technology skills can be acquired in mandated courses. Another successful

strategy can be a supportive, incremental technology co-curriculum which is infused into

each online offering.

A few consistent steps will provide the framework for this effort.

1. Provide a face-to-face orientation whenever possible.

While many professorial colleagues will disagree (and have disagreed) with this

first recommendation, it is a central tenet of the supportive model. With few exceptions,

in-person orientations provide an opportunity for the instructor to assess the collective

need for skill development. A second objective can be equally important which is to

begin the process of bonding as a group which can support one another during the

semester's endeavors. For the nontraditional students in particular, this transition from

in-person to online is an important bridge. The orientation provides an opportunity to

experience the people, the course website, the software, and expectations in an


Questions can be answered about navigation in both visual and auditory ways.

Those with the least experience tend to get the most out of this opportunity to hear the

questions and answers of others with more acumen. Second language learners reap the

benefit of visual demonstration used to elucidate the nuances of verbiage. On a more

affective note, the opportunity to be introduced to eClassmates makes it easier for the

nontraditional student to take the risk of interacting online through such modalities as

threaded discussion and live chat. This in-person option is most easily exercised in

circumstances where participants are not particularly distant. Those whose students are

truly far away may need to rely on the recommendation which follows.

2. Provide and Require Opportunities for Student Interaction

The first part of online courses should include a component which requires

students to relate to one another as colleagues embarking upon a communal journey.

They may post brief descriptions of themselves and their backgrounds and be invited to

disclose the motivations which have brought them to seek careers as teachers. Disclosure

of specific information is never required, of course, but creating a forum in which

students go from a live orientation to continued interaction with one another, and not just

the instructor, elaborates the opportunity to feel a greater level of comfort in an

eCommunity. Those non-traditional students who express their fears will frequently

receive reassurance and offers of assistance from more experienced tech-ies. Perhaps

because class participants are a collection of those who want to help throughteaching,


3. Provide Specific Technical Instructions of Incremental Complexity in Each


Adding a technical component to each assignment, commencing with very simple

ones, creates an expectation of using technology to learn, and one of building upon prior

successes to develop mastery. Typical students with considerable technosavvy will not

even notice, but employing this strategy consistently will result in great gains for the

non-traditional student over the course of a semester. Rather than directing students to post

their work on a Discussion Board, for example, provide very specific directions to click

on appropriate buttons; then guide the user with a description of what to expect when the

action is taken. Define potentially confounding vocabulary, such as "add new thread."

To second language learners such terminology can be as confusing as idiomatic

expressions. Anticipate this and provide an alternative way to provide appropriate


4. Be Willing to Offer Limited Technical Advice.

Most online educators identify themselves as the course content experts, and refer

students to technical support personnel for help with questions about the software. This

procedure may be appropriate in many cases, especially when the answer to those

questions is unknown by the instructor, who is usually just a software user as is the case

for students enrolled in the course. Many students will seek the instructor's advice first,

however, even when the question is technical in nature. Rather than standing on

ceremony and farming them out to the technology team, answer those questions which


their frustration, and gives the non-traditional students the message that the instructor is

interested in supporting their success.

5. Practice Using Three Little Words: Do Not Panic.

If a server goes offline, or if they get kicked out of a chatroom, the non-traditional

student is likely to jump to the conclusion that they are at fault. This can lead to panic

and overwhelming frustration, even in those circumstances where the student is not at all

culpable for the error. Be sure you have warned them about the most common

problematic scenarios in your very first communications. Share experiences which

describe times of similar frustrations. Provide assurance that the cyber-genie is no

respecter of rank. Many students report how such forewarnings have provided significant

comfort in times of need.

6. Explore the Resources Your Institution has for Technical Support

If you can manage it, ask your technical support personnel not to email frustrated

students lists of potential solutions to problems. Most of the technically challenged

non-traditional students aren’t going to understand them anyway, and automatically emailed

lists of troubleshooting strategies only serve to make them feel less adequate to the job at

hand. “Real person” phone support, inasmuch as it is feasible, seems the best avenue for

effective, satisfying assistance. Depending on your population, advocate for a

multilingual help desk.

7. Be as Generous as Appropriate with Deadlines

Non-traditional (and other) students who know they can receive an extension for

work which is destined to miss a deadline can often avoid the stultifying effects of panic


I am convinced of the wisdom of this position. Since the time I began offering

extensions to all who request them, irrespective of excuse, I have seen an increase in the

number of course completers and student satisfaction, with concomitant decreases in

hurriedly thrown-together assignments and manufactured family emergencies. This

policy is important for non-traditional students who are learning the technology as the

course proceeds. Few academic frustrations match being able to complete an assignment,

but not having the technical acumen to post it correctly in a timely fashion. A liberal

extension policy removes the panic and rewards the professor with student gratitude and

improved quality of work.

The addition of these tenets to the online course protocol makes those courses

more accessible and accommodating than they might otherwise appear to the

non-traditional student. For students with good technology skills, the addition of those extra

directions, redundantly provided and located, will not even be apparent. (Happily, they

do no damage to those who do not require them.) They have been most welcome,

however, among many nontraditional learners who have developed new technology skills

concurrently with course content. These students have been able to learn these skills in

relative privacy, bypassing the embarrassment of revealing their under-prepared status, as

they worked through specially designed courses with support and encouragement. Their

appreciation, satisfaction, and dual achievement represent appropriate goals for online

educators in the diverse arena of higher education today.



Manner, J. 2002. An Evolution of Techno-savvy in Preservice Teachers.

Author Note

Jane Carol Manner, Ed.D., is an Associate Professor in the College of Education at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.

Copyright 2004: Jane Carol Manner, and University of Central Florida

Article Citation

Manner, J. C. (2004). The technology co-curriculum in online courses for non-traditional students. Florida Association of Teacher Educators Journal, 1(4), 67-75.