Documentation:Teaching Challenges: Online/Examples in Practice

From UBC Wiki

Examples in Practice

Butler (2003) offers the following stories about how she or a colleague handled some tricky situations in online courses. She writes:

Learner who doesn’t contribute, makes many promises to improve but doesn’t act until threatened with withdrawal from the program.

A learner I worked with contributed fairly well initially to individual and group tasks but then was consistently late with work and gradually missed major deadlines, putting him well behind his peers. I sent emails to him asking for explanations and improvements and he responded with promises to change, which didn’t eventuate. His inaction meant extra work for me, as I had to continually remind him of deadlines and also disrupted his work group who tried to accommodate his lateness in-group activities. Finally, after several weeks of non-activity, I informed him that he was being withdrawn from the course (whereupon he suddenly expressed a keen intention to mend his ways).


  • Keep in regular contact with the learner and make it clear what you expect and how he or she needs to improve in order to have the best chance of success.
  • Have a clear policy of minimum required participation so a learner can be withdrawn after a certain point if they consistently fall behind.
  • Don’t wear yourself out if it becomes clear the learner is not going to participate, as they should. Ultimately it is their choice and responsibility to manage their own progress.

Learner whose work is variable in quality and is suspected of being inauthentic.

A learner that a colleague worked with (Learner A) contributed work of widely varying quality with discussion contributions showing a poor level of understanding but written reports that were of a high standard. On investigation, it turned out the Learner A cohabited with another learner on the course (Learner B), whose own contributions were consistently of a high standard. The facilitator/instructor suspected that Learner B was contributing substantially to some of the work of Learner A. This was a difficult situation as it was very hard to prove collusion and Learner A proved reluctant to give any explanation or response. The learner also, when challenged, lodged a complaint against the facilitator/instructor.


  • Ask learners during enrolment if they are likely to be working with anyone.
  • Have an ethics policy and make this clear to learners at the start of the course.
  • Build various assessment formats into the course to get a better sense of each learner’s understanding and way of communicating.
  • Build assignments around learner’s personal experiences to ensure work is not copied.
  • Use synchronous chat or a face-to-face meeting to question the learner on particular issues to ascertain their level of understanding.
  • Have a third party intervene and investigate if there is a strong suspicion of unethical behaviour.

Learner who posts a first contribution to a discussion that answers all the questions.

A learner I worked with, who had contributed well in the past but had a certain lack of confidence about online group work, had to lead a group discussion for the first time. She began the process with an extremely lengthy contribution that answered all of the topic questions and proved very difficult for others to reply to. Responses from other learners were equally as lengthy as they attempted to react to all points and the discussion as a whole stagnated. This affected the experience of all the learners in the group and meant extra work from me.


  • Give early information on the best ways to lead a discussion.
  • Contact the learner privately and supportively to voice your concerns.
  • Intervene quickly by briefly summarizing the key points made and asking follow on questions or ask the learner to do this.
  • Turn this into a learning experience by having a follow up discussion on the best way to lead and participate in online group work.

Learner who ignores requests for amendments to work

A learner I taught consistently submitted work that didn’t meet the assignment brief and was below standard. In my feedback I would give follow up questions and request additions and amendments. The learner seemed to ignore these and would continue sending in subsequent assignments. This meant a certain amount of extra work for me but also indicated the learner might reach the end of the course without having met all the assessment criteria.


  • Be very clear when giving feedback as to what needs to be redone or amended and state overtly if the assignment has not been successfully completed.
  • Send regular reminders
  • Follow up by phone to ensure the learner is actually receiving your emails
  • Be clear if the learner is reaching a point where they might fail the course
  • Like the first case study, there is only so much you can do as a facilitator/instructor and it is ultimately the learner’s responsibility to ensure their own progress.

Learner who challenges authority

One of the best learning experiences I have had as an online facilitator/instructor was when a very confident and forthright learner sent me an email that openly denigrated a particular aspect of the course and the general validity of the program. I was lucky that she did this by private email as it allowed me to also respond privately. My first reaction was to be defensive and somewhat angry but I wrote and rewrote my response several times and sought feedback from colleagues. In the end I was able to separate the valid comments the learner had made from the misunderstandings and respond in a positive way that acknowledged the validity of her opinions.


  • Give learners the opportunity to give feedback on the course or the facilitator/instructor to a third party to try and prevent challenges that arise from frustration.
  • If this happens in a public forum, it may be beneficial to respond publicly in a general way but to also follow up privately to discuss in more depth the various issues the learner may have.
  • Consider your response carefully and seek other opinions before sending.
  • Stay open minded as the learner may have a point.
  • Acknowledge their opinion and be positive about their input and their desire to improve the course or their learning experience.
  • State your own opinion clearly and add context that the learner may not be aware of.
  • As with other delivery methods, there are no fail-safe ways of preventing or resolving difficult behaviour online. It is essential to be as prepared and informed as possible and you may find you can turn a challenging situation into a positive experience for both facilitator/instructor and learner.