Published on 2016/03/16
The EvoLLLution | Online Education 10 Years Later
Online learning has been a feature in higher education for decades and, while it’s risen to prominence in recent years, some of the central problems with educational delivery in the online space remain as prevalent today as they have always been.

I wrote my first piece about online education in 2006. The article, Surviving education online: Key steps for student success, ran in the June 2006 issue of The Educator’s Voice. It still exists today, on a childcare information exchange website that scooped up the tips portion.

In the decade since I wrote that piece many things have changed in online education, and some things have remained stubbornly the same.

The years since I first began discussing ways to help students succeed online have been full of changes. Online courses are no longer dismissed as second-rate substitutes for courses offered in traditional classrooms. Internet access is more widespread than ever before and most students are familiar with using the web to find content, albeit usually for entertainment purposes. Mobile devices like smartphones and small tablets are often the technology of choice, meaning that students may not be sitting in a dedicated study space using a full-sized computer. This preference for mobile also means learning platforms need to be tested for usability on smaller screens.

Despite the fact that a list of technological and social changes in the last ten years could fill a whole page, many of the struggles in online education remain the same. Clearly our eagerness, both as students and educators, to embrace online learning has not been matched by a similar enthusiasm for better practices. Ten years later, students and instructors are still struggling with time management, expectations, logistics of technology and communication issues.

In the 2015-2016 academic year the number-one complaint I’m getting from students in my Humanities 101 courses is, “I don’t have enough time.” Effective time management is an essential skill, and yet many students and working professionals never receive any training in this area. Most students I’ve talked to over the last ten years have no regular method for handling their schedule and battle chronic lateness and missed appointments and due dates. Instructors and advisers are often at a loss for ways to assist students with time management. College issued planners are usually lost or ignored by the second or third week of classes, and though they can text at near light speed students routinely tell me they didn’t realize their phones contained calendar applications.

Many student problems with time management can be traced back to mistaken expectations about online courses. Students sometimes assume the flexibility of an online class means an absence of hard deadlines or due dates. This misconception, especially if combined with a lack of solid study strategies, can lead to a student falling behind very quickly and facing a difficult time catching up. Even though colleges give the same credit hours for the online versions of classes, students may feel that online classes are going to be easier and this assumption leads to poor performance and frustration.

This assumption that online courses are something that can be completed in spare time combined with a preference for mobile technology means the dedicated study area is a thing of the past for many students. Doing course work on-the-go can lead to sloppy and incomplete work. For example, I routinely get discussion questions that are full of typos and missing capitalization because they were typed on a phone. Using a smartphone as the primary means of accessing a course can mean missing critical elements if the learning platform is not totally mobile friendly, and can mean no back up copy of important work. Trust me; I’ve received the heartbreaking emails on this one.

As students struggle with online courses they reach out to instructors, and this too frequently reveals another layer of problems, differences in communication styles and expectations.  Years ago, I told a large audience at a Communicator’s Conference in Portland that electronic communication creates the expectation of instant response. Within the social relationships of many students, held together through texting, instant response is the norm. This can lead to an expectation that the instructor is available 24/7. Combined with any other problem a student is experiencing, this expectation can quickly lead to an inbox flooded with complaints.

So what can institutions do to increase the chances of student success in online classes?

Offer time management training for students and staff in multiple formats. Learning to effectively use the limited hours we get each day is an essential survival skill. Colleges need to incorporate time management strategies into courses when possible and present this material as free-standing workshops when needed. Professional development for staff should include time management training as part of an overall plan to attract and keep the best talent.

Provide more in depth advising for students who register for online courses. Let students know up front about not only the technology required to take classes, but also the time required for study, research and writing. Institutions need to inform potential online students clearly that online options are not the watered down versions of regular classes. Students in remote locations need to know what tutoring and other support services are available to them totally online.

Encourage more collaboration between instructors and students and between the various departments on campus to create higher quality, user-friendly online classes. The heavy use of adjuncts and a stubborn leftover silo mentality in some places means that courses are often developed in isolation. This can blind instructors to usability issues. Academic rigor and adaptability are not mutually exclusive, and instructors in online platforms should be encouraged to look for and employ fresh methods and information.

Online classes effectively fill a gap in the adult education system, however they are not without difficulties. To really succeed in online coursework students need to make good use of their time, understand technology, and refine their interpersonal communication skills. Institutions cannot allow students to register for and attempt these classes with the mistaken attitude that they will be a low-effort substitution for a “real course.” Nor can educational leaders afford to ignore the skills gap that turns online classes into exercises in frustration. Ten years later, the issues around success in online education still have roots in human behavior, and it’s there that we must focus our efforts.

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