Pittsburgh Bridges by Don O'Brien CC-BY on Flickr

Navigating the online course

After several trips to Pittsburgh in the past few years, I have learned to turn off my GPS navigation system while driving through the downtown area. With its tall buildings, numerous highway exits, over-passes and bridges, my GPS loses the signal and begins offering less than helpful suggestions at a time when the importance of a clear useable navigation system is most critical.

Pittsburgh Bridges by Don O'Brien CC-BY on Flickr
With its tall buildings, numerous highway exits, over-passes and bridges, my GPS loses the signal and begins offering less than helpful suggestions at a time when the importance of a clear useable navigation system is most critical. Pittsburgh Bridges by Don O’Brien CC-BY on Flickr –

A colleague shared with me an incident with a student requesting a refund when, after week four of an eight week math course, they had yet to log into the publisher’s course site. According to the student they had logged into their Blackboard course and perused the course space but were unaware of the need to log into the supplemental publisher’s site, where the quizzes were to be completed. Of course, by week four, they were already halfway though the course and had missed several quizzes. When the instructor suggested they drop the course, the student stated they were not made aware of the second site and therefore should not have to pay for the course.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard these kinds of concerns and it seems to me that this is yet another example of how important it is to make clear the expectations early on in the semester or term. One way to help avoid these problems is to consider the course interface from the student’s perspective.

In a Quality Matters research project, Does Findability Matter? – Findability, Student Motivation and Self-efficacy in Online Courses (2012), researchers found that time-on-task, student self-reported difficulty and frustration levels were significantly higher for students enrolled in control group (non-QM-recognized) courses. On the other hand, students enrolled in the experimental group (QM recognized courses) reported a significantly better experience in regards to ease of finding course materials and assignments. The were more likely to enjoy their course experience and to recommend the course to friends. Instructor ratings were higher and frustration levels, lower than for the control group.

“Findability” was rated using QM Standard 6.3 – Navigation throughout the online components of the course is logical, consistent, and efficient.

When preparing the course ask a colleague and / or student(s) who are unfamiliar with the course, to look over the homepage and provide helpful suggestions. Here are some questions for which they might provide feedback…

  • Is it obvious where to begin?
  • Can you easily find the course syllabus?
  • Is it clear how to contact the instructor, when they are available and when students can expect a response?
  • Are the course goals and objectives clearly stated?
  • Is the schedule of assignments and course activities easy to find and understand?
  • Can students easily navigate to ancillary materials (e.g. publishers quizzes)?
  • Can you see at first glance how to find both technical and course-related assistance?

Keep in mind that people are different and will intuit where to find things by their own experience with similar interfaces. Although you may feel that putting all of the important information in one place (such as the syllabus) should suffice, your students may benefit by finding the same information in multiple locations – or rather – multiple paths to the same information.

These considerations may seem obvious but getting a second or even third perspective can help to ensure students can easily navigate the course and focus on the learning, as opposed to getting lost along the way.

References:

Simunich, B., Robins, D., Kelly, V. (2012) Does findability matter?. Quality Matters.org https://www.qualitymatters.org/files/webform/Quality%20Matters%202012%20Findability.pdf

Advertisements
Antique Video Camera

Students ask for more video with their learning

A few years back we invested in the streaming video service – Films on Demand. The service integrates with our campus portal and the Lakeland Library to permit faculty the means of integrating educational video into their course materials. Compared with the former system of ordering individual media (VHS, DVD), this has proved to be a very good investment. Nevertheless, the level of adoption has been less than expected.

Fims on Demand - Collections
Films on Demand – Collections

In our recent survey of online learners, students reported that they would like to have more video content in their online courses. Streaming video is becoming an extremely popular way for students to view content as is evidenced by the rate of adoption of such services as iTunes U and Khan Academy.

According to a recent article in Inside Higher Ed reporting on thePearson Higher Ed Survey on Student Mobile usage

“Eight in ten (83%) college students regularly use a smartphone, up significantly from 72% in 2013.  Smartphones are now close to laptops (89%) as the mobile device students are most likely to use on a regular basis.”

Perhaps the increased use of smartphones by students helps to explain the demand for more video content. Although I enjoy reading journal articles and other text-based material on my iPad because of the size and orientation, I am not a big fan of reading text on my iPhone. That being said, the iPhone works great with streaming video – especially with WiFi available both at work and home.

iPhone CC-BY-NC-SA by Alex Bartok on Flickr
CC-BY-NC-SA by Alex Bartok on Flickr

Films on Demand is available to both faculty and students and although we have promoted its use primarily with the faculty – demonstrating how to search for relevant content from among the more than 15,000 titles and 200,000 plus segments – students also may access these materials and find value in searching through the collections themselves.

CC-BY-NC-SA by Ed Yourdon on Flickr

What can we do to help students be more successful in online courses?

We surveyed our online students this spring and received a strong response to the open-ended question, “What could [the college] do to help you be more successful in online course(s)?

CC-BY-NC-SA by Ed Yourdon on Flickr
CC-BY-NC-SA by Ed Yourdon on Flickr

I tried to categorize the students’ responses around themes – here are the top ten…

  1. Reliable Technology – specifically the learning management system (LMS). Students expect the technology to be reliable and to work as designed when they need it. They do not expect to be logged out, or timed out, or to find the system off-line due to a power outage, etc.
  2. Video – students want their courses to include short videos:  lectures, explanations, examples, demonstrations… “like Khan Academy”.
  3. More Online Courses – students are enrolling in online courses because it meets their schedules and they need more online offerings if they are to complete their programs
  4. Reminders – they want to get alerts, reminders, notifications about what is due and when it is due.
  5. Consistency – students would like for their online courses to have the same look and feel. The layout of the courses, tabs, menus should be the same from one course space to the next.
  6. Instructor Availability – students want to be able to contact their instructor when they have a question or need help and expect to get a response in a timely manner.
  7. Timely Feedback – students are looking for their instructors to keep them apprised of their progress. They would like to get their grades early and often.
  8. Faculty Involvement – students appreciate faculty taking an active role in teaching the course – not so much a third-party website or publisher’s course pack.
  9. Online Testing – they want to be able to take more tests online as opposed to coming to the testing center. They point out that they enrolled in the online class so that they would not need to travel to campus.
  10. Calendar – students would like to know what is coming up ahead of time and for all their courses. A composite calendar of events for all of their courses is their suggested solution.

It is interesting to me that through this survey, students had an opportunity to recommend new and innovative technological solutions, yet they focused much more so on issues of design and delivery – on improving existing processes.

The good news is, we can do a lot of this stuff!

Helping Distance Students Get Onboard

 Some rights reserved by John Biehler
CC-BY-NC-SA by John Biehler on Flickr

Onboarding is a term used for getting new employees acclimated to their new workplace. Also known as “organizational socialization” the process includes introducing new team members to the organization’s values, norms, expectations, policies, etc. It seems to me the business onboarding approach can also serve as a framework for helping distance students get onboard with online learning .

These aren’t necessarily new ideas – just another perspective on the online learning experience, student engagement and retention.  For your consideration, how might “onboarding” provide opportunities for enhancing the online student experience?

1) Transparency: be clear from the beginning about program offerings, what percentage of the degree is offered online, are there any synchronous requirements (e.g. face-to-face orientations, proctored exams, web-conferencing, internships, etc.). Students working long hours or multiple jobs, overseas, etc. may find it difficult or impossible to arrange their schedules to meet such requirements. Designing online programs or courses for maximum flexibility will mean more students can engage at their convenience and ultimately succeed in their academic goals.

2) Personalize: offer opportunities for new students to connect with the college community and to get to know classmates and the instructors personally. Such opportunities can easily be lost with distance education unless we make the effort to reach out and welcome new students. Online orientation should provide the same experience on-campus students receive. Schedule live webinars with icebreakers, polls, short introductions with several campus speakers. Record the sessions for those students unable to connect at the scheduled times.

3) Orientation: new students to your online programs need to learn to navigate the system the same as your on-campus students. One way to accomplish this is for each new student to have an assigned guide to show them where to find support services: enrollment, financial aid, advising, tutoring, library services. Create short (2 minutes-ish) video intros to services. Online orientation and campus tour.

4) Technology: develop student-oriented tutorials for your learning management system (e.g. Blackboard, publisher websites, etc), campus portal, email systems, help desk services, online tutoring – any other online services, as well as any maintenance schedules that can impact availability of services, planned outages, etc. Again, best to have this a personalized experience; a live web-conference session allows for guiding the student through the process.

5) Socialization:  students need to meet other students enrolled in their program and courses.  Social networks (LinkedIn Groups, Program Facebook Pages, Google Communities, etc.) enable students to connect with the campus community and to create program cohorts. Because our student email system is G-mail, every student has access to the campus network and the ability to connect with others using Google Plus.

Campus Connections: stream student activities and campus events: graduation ceremony, career services, visiting campus speakers, hyflex workshops. Permit students to connect to student course and capstone presentations, portfolios, final projects, course and program guest speakers via web-conferencing solutions.

Pay it forward:  As students find their place in the campus community and program they may in-turn, serve as mentors for new students – yet another way for students to engage and invest in their chosen program. As student graduate, alumni may also participate by becoming guest speakers via webinars, helping students and program faculty to better understand the evolving job market and allowing alumni to contribute ongoing to the program and college.

For an in-depth look at online learner engagement – Kristen BettsOnline Human Touch (OHT) Instruction and Programming: A Conceptual Framework to Increase Student Engagement and Retention in Online Education. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. Vol 4 No 3, 2008

The successful online learner…

Students Need Study Fuel by zsrlibrary
Students Need Study Fuel, Licensed under Creative Commons (CC-BY-NC-SA) by zsrlibrary on Flickr.

I was recently asked, “what do students need in order to succeed in an online course?”.

I ran across an article a few years back in the The Journal of Educators Online by Mandernach, B. J., Donelli, E., Dailey-Hebert, A. (2006) that included a fairly extensive literature review. Although their research focused on student success in an accelerated online course, the sum of the literature indicates the successful online student possesses four things: “time, technology, initiative, and competence”.

The successful online learner possesses…

– Time!

Higher education programs offer courses for credit, described in terms of “credit hours”. Typically a 3 credit hour face-to-face course requires at least three hours per week of in-class seat time and as much as two or three times that amount of study time outside of class. The online course is not “self-paced” – in the online course those “seat-time” hours are transferred from the classroom to online. It is not uncommon to spend 9 hours per week and more, for each online class you are enrolled. The online course is as challenging, if not more so, than the face-to-face course. The ability to manage time effectively and to devote sufficient time to being engaged in discussion, research, writing, etc. are critical to success in the online learning environment.

– Technology!

Liberal access to a computer with a high-speed network connection is essential. This means broadband access from home using the student’s own computer – not one that they must share. Most people enroll in online courses for the flexibility and convenience.The successful online learner must be able to log on and complete their work at the times that best fit their schedule. A familiarity with the technology is also required. If the student has not previously completed an online course they will be at a disadvantage. I would suggest instead, enrolling in a face-to-face course which employs similar technology to enhance the classroom experience. This format provides the learner an opportunity to learn how to submit assignments, take assessments, contribute to online discussions, etc., and can help the inexperienced become more comfortable with the technology.

– Initiative!

The online learner must be self-reliant – they will need to be able to solve problems on their own. Most online courses are designed for asynchronous interactivity. The student, their instructor and classmates may not be online all at the same time, so when running into problems with an assignment or use of the technology, help may not be immediately available. There are times when students will have to figure things out for themselves. Online students should be comfortable troubleshooting their own computer network issues and be adept at searching the Internet for solutions, as well as know how and where to look for help when needed.

– Competence!

The most successful online learners are students with a history of academic success prior to enrolling in an online course. The successful online student possesses good study habits, strong reading, writing, and communication skills. If it has been a while since they were in class, the new-to-online student may find the experience somewhat overwhelming. The structure and face-to-face interactions of the traditional classroom may provide the support necessary for the weaker student to become stronger academically before venturing into the virtual classroom. Other support services such as the writing center and tutoring can also help the weaker student prepare for success.

Knowing what to expect before enrolling in an online class for the first time can help students make better informed choices and offer greater opportunity for success.