With the growing amount of online colleges and courses to choose from, how can you make sure you don’t waste your time or money on a badly taught course? Some highly experienced online instructors and students suggest asking an instructor these six questions before signing up.

1. Are you proficient at using a variety of software programs?

It’s vital for online instructors to be up to date with all software systems, including Windows 7 and the new Microsoft Office 2010 package, says Bob Barrett, an online instructor who teaches at the American Public University System and teaches and trains instructors at Franklin University. “The more software packages you know, the better instructor you’re going to be because every online student has a different software package and they to want you to know their package,” he says.

2. How quickly do you respond to students’ E-mails?

Barrett says it’s important for online instructors to be online and checking their E-mail as often as possible because not all online learners are able to do school work during the normal working hours on Monday through Friday. “There are no snow days in online learning,” he says. “Online learning is a continuous process; you don’t really turn your computer off.” Susan Wegmann, an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida who won the 2009 Sloan-C Excellence in Online Teaching Award, one of the most prestigious online instruction awards, says she has a policy of responding to her online students within 24 hours on weekdays, and within 48 hours on weekends. More than half of UCF’s 53,500 undergraduate and graduate students took one or more fully online or blended course (taken both online and in the classroom) during the 2009-2010 school year, says Joel Hartman, the chief information officer and vice provost for information technologies and resources at UCF.

Perla LaGuardia, who is pursuing her online master’s in nursing education at UCF, says she appreciates the quick and constant feedback she receives from her teachers. “They’re available via course E-mail, college E-mail, and telephone. There are a variety of ways you can contact them.”

Leslie Shillington, an undergraduate student majoring in athletic training at UCF, has taken several classes online. She says the response time from her online instructors has often been faster than her face-to-face professors, and these online professors also have office hours if she needs to meet them in person.

3. Do you utilize new technologies in the course?

Online instructors should receive ongoing training and professional development to learn the school’s online learning management system and any technology updates the school may make, Wegmann says. She also says they should incorporate new, interactive technologies into the course, such as creating Wikis and conducting real-time discussions through programs such as Adobe Connect, Skype, and Second Life.

Barrett, of American Public University and Franklin University, also says it’s a good practice for online instructors to attend training forums and online learning conferences to learn new technologies. “Don’t just work from home; be out there and be in the news,” Barrett says. “Don’t just attend conferences online; attend live conferences so you can exchange ideas.”

4. How flexible are you with adult learners?

Barrett says online instructors should be understanding of adult learners who often are balancing full-time jobs and family responsibilities, including taking care of their kids or their adult parents. “Flexibility is important because not all adult learners have a perfect schedule,” he says. He also says more and more online learners are members of the military or are students with disabilities, who can have different schedules and specific needs.

The courses should also be focused on student-centered learning, Barrett says. LaGuardia, of UCF’s master’s in nursing education program, says she enjoys that the students are the ones who participate the most in her courses’ online discussions, and the instructors mainly facilitate their student learning experience.

5. Do you set clear expectations and instructions for students?

Teachers should clearly denote what they expect from their students and what students should expect from their teacher, LaGuardia says. They should also provide a schedule of the course and detailed coursework instructions. “You need to make sure their feedback guides your learning experience,” she says.

6. How do you help build an online community?

The instructor needs to help create a community within the course, LaGuardia says. “You’re learning together, but also learning from each other.” She says that at the beginning of the course, it helps connect the community when every member—including the instructor—posts introductions about themselves and describes their background on the course discussion boards. She also says that online chat sessions help introduce the students to the instructor and allow students to answers questions about the syllabus and schedule.

Wegmann, of UCF, says her online chat sessions help her relate to her students. “Students appreciate being able to get a question answered immediately,” she says. “When they hear my voice, it just seems to give a different feel to the class.” She says instructors should incorporate their voice into their content to help build community by sharing stories and relating the material to real-life experiences.

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of America’s Best Colleges.

Source: U.S. News & World Report, 6 Questions to Ask When Choosing an Online Instructor, Students and faculty discuss specific traits that make an online teacher compelling, by Rebecca Kern, posted June 29, 2010