Published on 2013/05/09
Three Strategies to Improve Online Courses
While low completion and success rates in online programs are often held up as evidence of the superiority of in-class education, institutions can take great strides in improving their online programming with three simple steps.

Online coursework has increasingly become an important alternative to students in higher education; yet, our recent research suggests community college students (particularly males, ethnic minority students and those with lower prior GPAs) perform more poorly in online courses than they do in face-to-face courses.

What might be some potential strategies to help these underperforming groups succeed in online courses?

1. Better Development of Online Learning Skills

First, the typical online course may require a set of skills in addition to those required in traditional face-to-face classrooms, such as technological skills, self-directed learning and time management. These may represent a strong challenge to many students, particularly those with poorer academic preparation. Therefore, colleges may need to provide more active support to students to help them understand the types of skills required for successful online learning, and to explicitly help them develop those skills.

2. Stronger Connection between Students and Instructors

In addition, research indicates that connecting with a faculty or staff member who encourages the student and shows interest in his or her learning can make a big difference in these students’ confidence, motivation and performance in class. Yet, students often experience low levels of interpersonal interaction with their instructor in online courses. Thus, colleges may need to provide more support for online faculty, to help them learn how to guide, support and connect with students in the online context. For example, in a recent study, we found that online instructors who posted frequently, invited student questions through a variety of modalities, responded to student queries quickly, solicited and incorporated student feedback and (perhaps most importantly) demonstrated a sense of “caring” created an online environment that encouraged students to commit themselves to the course and perform at a stronger academic level.

3. Greater Attention Paid to Creation of High-Quality Online Programming

Finally, it is worth noting that specific course design features and pedagogy that have substantial impacts on successful online learning remain largely unknown. While many online learning quality rubrics exist, there is little empirical evidence thus far establishing a clear link between specific aspects of course quality and concrete student-level course outcomes. Accordingly, it might be beneficial for colleges to observe high-quality online courses (i.e., those with consistently strong learning outcomes, even among high-risk populations), identify the types of strategies leveraged in those courses and explore how to systematically share those strategies with other online faculty to encourage stronger student learning and performance outcomes across the entire online learning environment.

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Readers Comments

Ian Richardson 2013/05/09 at 9:52 am

I’m curious to know what makes these groups (males, ethnic minorities and those with lower prior GPAs) more likely to encounter challenges in online courses than other populations.

I suppose we are expected to infer from the article that these three groups perform the most poorly in traditional in-class education, which then transfers to the online environment. But Xu doesn’t explicitly say this. Could there be an issue with the way online education is currently designed that creates a challenge for these particular groups? I believe it’s important to answer this before making changes to online programming.

Xu’s suggestions apply to improving online education as a whole, for all students. But they might not necessarily work if there are issues specific to these three groups.

Jim Buccelli 2013/05/10 at 2:12 am

This article is an eye-opener. We hear a lot of talk about “college readiness” but significantly less about students’ readiness for a specific delivery format. Yet this is as important as whether they are ready for higher education. “College readiness” support only gets you in the door; having support to understand the mechanics of learning gets you out the door.

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