Published on 2013/12/18

Minimizing Transactional Distance in Online Learning

Minimizing Transactional Distance in Online Learning
By taking a few small steps towards improving their communication skills, online educators can boost their students’ retention and success rates.

Online learning has transformed the delivery of education for today’s students. People are able to access online courses from the comfort of their own homes. As a result, online courses give people the opportunity to take classes when it is convenient for them. Though the benefits of online courses are countless for many users, there are also certain downfalls to virtual learning. One downfall educators need to become more aware of is the communication barrier between students and instructors in online courses. By reviewing course content each semester, providing specific feedback on assignments and being responsive to student needs, online professors can create a more productive learning environment for all involved.

An important aspect of creating a positive online learning environment is for professors to regularly review course content. Professors can certainly re-post the majority of their course’s content with each new cohort; there is no need to rewrite the whole curriculum since the learning outcomes will presumably stay the same. However, instructors should definitely review course content to verify that the information will be relevant to their new students. For instance, professors should ensure the due dates for assignments correspond precisely to the new school calendar. Doing so will avoid misinterpretations on the student’s part about when to turn in assignments. Reviewing course content seems like a simplistic task, but irrelevant or incorrect information commonly appears in online courses. As a senior in college who has taken many online classes, I have seen instructors simply copy and paste their course information from class to class. In this case, students become frustrated and often have to write avoidable emails to their professor for clarification on “housekeeping” issues.

Another suggestion to improve communication is for online professors to provide specific feedback on student assignments. Feedback is critical in the learning environment since it offers students the opportunity to obtain advice from a subject matter expert. Instructors have to remember that students want to know specifically where in the assignment they went wrong (or right) and if there may be room for improvement. Providing constructive feedback helps students stay engaged in the class, in turn creating greater communication between online students and their professors. Simply posting grades along with “good job” or “needs improvement” on students’ work does not help students understand their errors or their strengths. Without adequate feedback, online students may feel disconnected or uninterested in the class. Feedback also gives students the opportunity to network with their professor.

Online professors should also consider being more actively responsive to students’ needs through email, phone or in the online classroom. Professors can do so by making sure they respond to students in a timely manner, or at least stating how long it will take for them to respond. For instance, the instructor could explain early in the course that students should expect to wait between 24 and 48 hours to receive responses. As professors look forward to having engaged and interactive students in their classrooms, students expect the same from their professors. By being responsive, professors allow online students to experience a well-rounded learning environment in which misinterpretations or class disagreements are clarified as they come up. Additionally, instructors can now even choose to use modern communication methods such as video chat and instant messaging to connect with students. Meeting professors face-to-face for questions is another great option that can foster stronger communication between online educators and their students. Online students who meet with their professors in person gain insights into class discussions on a more interactive basis, which can lead to higher grades and higher retention rates.

Online professors who review course content for its relevance, offer direct feedback and actively respond to class inquiries demonstrate that they are open for communication and ready to support their students. There are many instructors who excel in their communication with students, but I know from personal experience that there are some online professors who need a gentle reminder of the importance of developing great communication in their virtual classrooms.

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Readers Comments

Stephen Gotti 2013/12/18 at 10:02 am

It’s interesting and helpful to know the views of an online student. I would say, however, that as an online instructor, my options are more limited than one might imagine. Institutions have jumped into the online business not because they see it as a new delivery format that increases postsecondary access, but because of the low-cost opportunity attached to online. As a result, they freely cut what they see as “frills” so as to maximize their earnings from enrollment. This means lifting class size caps and not hiring TAs to help instructors. As a result, I’m now teaching an online course with 350 students on my own. It’s hard to offer detailed feedback on their assignments or respond to them within 48 hours. Just wanted to share the other side. Most instructors care very much about giving our students a valuable experience, but it doesn’t seem like institutions do.

Shaun Wright 2013/12/18 at 4:10 pm

As an online student, I agree with von Canon’s remarks. Most professors aren’t taking full advantage of the online platform to share engaging content that’s different from what they can share in an in-person course. The point of going online is that you can link to videos, blogs or interactive tools to teach content. But many professors simply replicate the curriculum used in their in-person courses, and scan PDF pages of textbooks for their online students (which almost always turn out to be upside down, but that’s another issue).

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