While online education is often touted as a way to increase access to education, the quality of online courses varies drastically, Sydney Johnson wrote for EdSurge in 2019. And performance gaps persist amongst African-American and low-income students, according to one study from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.
EdSurge spoke to two online learning experts about the challenges of online student success. Michelle Pacansky-Brock, a faculty mentor for the California Community Colleges (CCC) Online Education Initiative, and Di Xu, an assistant professor at University of California, Irvine‘s school of education, discussed how to better support online students.
Strategy 1: Teach faculty about online learning—in an online course
Faculty will have a better understanding of the online learner experience if they take a few online courses themselves, says Pacansky-Brock. Colleges need to immerse “faculty in a high-quality, high-touch online learning experience for them to understand how it can feel through the student lens in that type of learning environment,” she adds.
As faculty mentors, Pacansky-Brock and her colleagues offer monthly webinars, online courses, and one-day conferences to discuss online course design and online teaching. Administrators should try to minimize the amount of in-person training for online instructors, recommends Pacansky-Brock. “You can’t learn how to teach online in a face-to-face workshop. That’s something that I fundamentally believe,” she says.
Strategy 2: Empower faculty and students to use online tools
Some online instructors rely on PowerPoint slides, says Xu. But static PowerPoint slides don’t translate well to online learning.
Instead, administrators need to empower faculty to use online tools like video, says Pacansky-Brock. “Often times still when faculty think about using video, they naturally gravitate to thinking about online, one-hour online videos. We want to shatter that, and really create a safe place for them to experiment,” she adds.
To get faculty comfortable with video, “we tell them introduce us to your dog… to warm them up to using the technology,” she explains. A low-stakes assignment lets faculty know that their videos don’t have to be perfect. Instructors should take a similar approach when they ask students to try out an online tool, suggests Pacansky-Brock.
Strategy 3: Humanize the online learning experience
Students who feel isolated in their online courses may struggle and withdraw from the class, says Xu. “[S]tudents don’t see and interact with their instructor and other peers that much. They feel lonely, and they feel that the instructors don’t care about their academic progress,” says Xu.
To humanize the online learning experience, encourage faculty to “think about the student experience, who are we serving, and why it is so important to have the sense of caring or connections and sense of belonging in your class,” says Pacansky-Brock. Students want to “feel like someone cares about them,” she adds.
Faculty can show they care by getting to know who their online students are.”[A]ctively reach out to your students… and connect with them,” recommends Xu. And “make an effort to understand what they are going through,” says Pacansky-Brock.
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