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Minimizing Online Students’ Transactional Distance to Maximize Value

The EvoLLLution | Minimizing Online Students’ Transactional Distance to Maximize Value
Constant improvement and focus on communication with online students is critical to maximizing the value of the online education experience.

Today’s non-traditional students are focused on pursuing higher education opportunities that adapt to their schedules and allow them to study as and when they’re able. For many, this means online courses are their only option to pursue the skills, knowledge and perhaps credentials they need. Higher education institutions, however, tend to be geared towards serving the more traditional on-campus student. So it bears asking, as more students pursue online higher education, how must institutions adapt to ensure they are maximizing the value of the educational experience for their online learners? In this interview, Tanya Zlateva tackles that question and shares her thoughts on some of the biggest differences between creating value for online and face-to-face students.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the most significant differences between the student experience of online learners and that of face-to-face learners?

Tanya Zlateva (TZ): One difference is that the connection to the learning institution is not so physical and immediate. An on-campus student is surrounded by every facet of the institution—the buildings, the administrative structure, the teaching structure. The student gets a huge amount of information from their physical surroundings; it is a constant immersion. The online student, however, comes into a virtual environment which is much more course-specific. The university itself is not in front of them. Instead it is the course and the teaching team and the help desk. Any kind of additional information about the university is translated through their experience in working with the material.

Then in terms of the teaching and the delivery, most on-campus classes are still in the traditional model of lecture and discussion concentrated in one or two hours. With the online student, the experience probably stretches for a longer time and it is less structured, which has its advantages but it doesn’t create the same rhythm and habit of studying that is imposed on the on-campus student.

Evo: Due to this transactional distance, are online students a little less forgiving when it comes to bureaucratic issues or administrative issues that they might face compared to a face-to-face student, who could be influenced by their emotional connection to the campus?

TZ: For the most part, the transactional distance is not a factor because the online experience is very focused. It depends on the organization of the course and the amount of student support services that are integrated into the student experience.

In our case, we have a student support coordinator for every course and that person starts before the course begins and brings the student into the system, talks to them and checks in throughout the course with them. These kinds of student services have to be put in place. Similar to everything else that happens online, if one has to give an impression of the campus, if one has to give more information about the university, it has to be spelled out.

Of course, on campus it happens naturally. The information is in your surroundings. You don’t have to write it out in detail in materials or in the system. On-campus is implicit; online has to be explicit. Here, the transactional distance is typically larger and therefore it needs to be addressed in a targeted way.

Evo: What does it take for universities create a high-end experience for their online students?

TZ: On the academic side, creating a high-end experience is mostly the same as for on-campus students: Have highly competent faculty who like to teach. There are, however, differences such as the ease of the online environment. The help that is there for students, the responsiveness of the systems, the existence of those graduate assistants or group instructors and of student services people. It’s not mirroring or recreating the campus, but it is translating the course delivery and teaching into the online environment.

On the administrative side, it’s different. It’s much more on the technical, student support side than on campus and instructional design is extremely important. In terms of maintaining course quality, we have to make sure a process is in place that will ensure revisions. The exams are no different. We need to have a process in place for online exams that guarantees the integrity of the degree.

Those are substantial differences between the online and on-campus administration setup that need to be taken into account.

Evo: What are some of the most common challenges to making the changes necessary in creating a high-end student experience, and how can leaders overcome them?

TZ: Bringing the faculty along is the first challenge. The differences between on-campus and online teaching are typically underestimated by the faculty. In the classroom, you have students in front of you, so they will prompt with their questions and comments an adjustment of the material. That cannot happen in the asynchronous online environment. One has to consciously think of what might happen and anticipate the difficulties students might have. Then, faculty need to directly address those issues, spelling them out and providing materials or more explanation, more exercises, more discussion.

The other piece is translating the material—typically written lectures or lectures that they have given for many years in front of the class—into online lectures by working with the instructional designers. There is a synergy but also a natural tension between the faculty and the instructional designers because they have to adjust to one another’s working style, to understand the needs of each other to be able to build a team and compromise and listen to each other.

Many universities and administrators who want to go online underestimate the amount of support, technology, instructional design and student services offices that have to put into place in order to run as smoothly as possible. That misconception is becoming more and more dispelled because people have a taste of what it means to teach with technology, even in the classroom. It is still a big classroom, but there is no-high quality experience without putting that in place.

This interview has been edited for length.

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