CC-BY by Wolfgang Greller of Flickr

When Online Learning Fails

A recent article in the Instructional Technology Council newsletter shared some of the challenges and frustrations from a student’s perspective when online learning fails.

An high school student tells of her experience enrolling in two online courses during her senior year. While seeking greater flexibility in her summer study schedule, she instead finds the whole experience somewhat frustrating.

Integrating Technology and the Academy

CC-BY by Wolfgang Greller of Flickr
CC-BY by Wolfgang Greller of Flickr

Eight important considerations about online learning to consider from the student perspective…

1) Students need to understand the online course requires at least as much time as the face-to-face alternative. Many online courses require logging into a course site and completing assignments and discussion postings on a regular basis – as much as several times per week.

2) Familiarity with required technology is essential. New-to-online or to a given learning management system (e.g. Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas) will require some orientation. Students and instructors both need to be comfortable with the technology in order that they might focus on the learning.

3) Simply migrating course content and quizzes to the learning management system does not an online course make. In order for deeper learning to be effected students need to actively engage with the content and with one another.

4) Assessments must align with both the content and the learning activities. It can be frustrating when questions on an assessment are not related to the material. Try awarding an extra point to the student who finds an error in either the content or the assessment – and then of course, correct the error as soon as possible.

5) The level of faculty-to-student interaction is arguably the most important factor impacting student retention and academic achievement. Frequent and timely feedback, instructor availability via email / chat / texting, and some type of faculty presence, permit students to better connect with the course through their instructor.

6) Student-to-student interaction creates for the learner, a sense of community – not only for the course at-hand, but to the institution as a whole, and can positively impact both retention and persistence.

7) Support services including online tutoring, technical assistance, self-help tutorials, etc. become all the more critical when the learner is disconnected from the classroom by both time and place.

8) Lastly, Ms. Shriver points out that she prefers “learning in the traditional classroom setting”. Keep in mind that flexibility is the primary reason students enroll in online courses.  Despite the obstacles she fully expects to take more online courses in the future.

Those of us who are responsible for delivering online learning need to be cognizant of the challenges students face and look at what we can do to ensure the learning experience is of the highest quality possible.

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9.5 mile marker post along highway

Celebrating milestones

Mile Marker CC-BY-NC-SA by Michael McCullough on Flickr

Mile Marker CC-BY-NC-SA by Michael McCullough on Flickr

According to a recent National Student Clearinghouse report, one in five students completes their college degree at a different institution than the one where they began. For many students the path to a college degree may be a long and circuitous route.

When deciding to run a marathon, we don’t get up one day and say “I think I’ll try to get in 26 miles this afternoon”. We set incremental goals – milestones – and then by building upon these smaller successes we eventually reach our objective. We start out working up to a mile, then maybe a 5 K, then a 10 K, at some point we go for the half marathon, and eventually we reach our goal.

I have on several occasions, heard students, parents and faculty say they aren’t interested in getting their associates degree – or a certificate in their program. Their focus is only on getting the bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, according the the National Student Clearinghouse report, only about 54 percent of those starting out actually achieve their goal.

I wonder if this is a cultural norm. How is it we do not value the opportunities for smaller successes along the way? And if indeed, this is the case, how might we begin to think differently and start celebrating the milestones and thereby encourage completion?

Some thoughts on how learning technology might support such a shift…

Use online discussion forums, blogs, and rosters at the start of the course, asking students share something about themselves to the class. Instructors can model by providing a simple introduction: my pets, favorite sports, hobby, etc. This can be helpful in creating a sense of community, especially in the online course where students may feel isolated without the advantages of face-to-face interactions available with the classroom environment.

Social networks  like Google+ Communities can offer a means of connecting with other students moving along similar pathways. Google+ Communities may be particularly well suited for establishing strong cohorts across programs and disciplines. Our campus already uses Gmail as its student email solution, thereby providing every student with an account making joining the network practically transparent.

Second year students might serve as moderators or hosts in the community for newly admitted students. Such communities may also include program alumni who are employed in their field or continuing their program of study elsewhere at a four-year institution or graduate program.

To take the marathon analogy a step further (at the risk of overdoing it) the long run is achieved not only with the help of those running along with us in the event, but also with the help of others cheering us on along the way. Hopefully we can help to make the finish line seem all the more within their grasp.

Should you be “texting” your students?

Texting
CC-BY-SA By Gelatobaby on Flickr

Your students text – and they prefer it as means of communicating over voice calls and email. There are advantages to texting over email and voice calls:  you don’t need a smartphone, it’s always on, and you can send and respond to text messages at your convenience, texting is just-in-time.

Texting lets teens chat casually and quickly, unlike a voice call, which most teens see as an interruption. According to the Pew Internet and American Life project, 63% of teenagers exchange text messages every day with people in their lives. Compare that with the 39% of teens who make voice calls, or the 35% who engage face-to-face outside of school. – The Daily Beast

On our campus students are no different. According to our own 2012 Students and Technology survey, approximately 95% of our students use their cell phones for texting. As educators should we consider accommodating their preferred method of communication in our students-to-instructor communications.

Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education: “encourages contact between students and faculty” along with… “gives prompt feedback”. We know that by providing prompt feedback we can increase the level of learner engagement and that learner engagement is linked to greater student success.

I’m not trying to make the case that texting your students means they will all get A’s, but how we communicate can potentially increase interactivity between students and their instructor. Also, if you yourself are already texting, it should be relatively painless. On the other hand, if you are not a texter – this might not work for you.

As with other class interactions, students need to know what to expect.  I’m not suggesting you be available via text 24-7. However, if you’re going to offer texting as a communication option, be sure to let them know when you will be available and approximately how long they can expect to wait for a response. If you can’t be reached on certain days or after certain hours, let them know what to expect.

One concern faculty have concerns privacy – many people just aren’t comfortable giving out their cell phone number…

Enter Google voice – a phone number that offers texting capability. Google Voice can be used online or can be forwarded to your own phone. It is a free service and the number can be posted right in your Blackboard course or email signature.

My account Google Voice is set up so that voice calls go directly to voicemail, they are then converted to text (albeit not understandable – they still have some bugs to work out with this feature) and then sent to me as a text message or via email. I can elect to answer my texts on the computer or forward to my email or cell phone. I decide when and if I reply. I also have the option of having my calls go to Google chat and connect with me if I am available online – this works well for virtual office hours.

Google Voice Settings for Text and Voice call

If you really want to get fancy, you can create groups (for your courses) and use “custom greetings” – “This is professor Peabody, I am not available at this time. Please leave a message and I will get back to you within the next 24 hours.” Other Google Voice options include  “do not disturb” or having text messages go forwarded to an email account where you may respond via your smartphone or tablet.

If you decide to try texting with your students them to identify themselves in their first message so you may add their number to your contacts list. You might also remind them not to text and drive  (consider including this in your syllabus) – not only is it extremely dangerous, it’s against the law.