3 characteristics of successful next-gen online learning

By Kevin Gibbs and Claire Stuve
October 15th, 2015

Two professors describe online learning platform features that can enable engaging online learning experiences—and why they’re critical to real success.

online-teaching-learningHigh failure rates. Low retention. Disengaged students. These problems exist at many universities, but more and more institutions and instructors, like us, are leveraging online learning to turn that story around—but real success goes beyond just a format switch.

Today, 82 percent of colleges and universities offer at least several courses online in order to try and provide a transformational opportunity for students who can’t spend six to eight hours a day in a lecture hall. For example, at The University of Toledo, we serve a large number of active duty military who are logging into class from around the world.

However, though the online format expands access to a wide market of students, online learning isn’t automatically intuitive or engaging to students. Particularly in large introductory courses, earlier models of online learning often failed to incorporate the types of active learning necessary to keep students engaged and motivated.

As an instructor and an educational technologist, we want to see online learning reflect the quality of great teaching that takes place face-to-face.

1.In Sync is Key

Recognizing the need for a more creative and engaging online solution that fits the lifestyle of both traditional and non-traditional students, the University of Toledo decided four years ago that all online math classes would have a synchronous learning component.

By including synchronous communication, online courses allow students to interact with their instructors live. In addition to these weekly web conferencing sessions, instructors use a teaching and learning platform called Echo360 to stream their lectures online. Students who can’t tune into synchronous sessions, or those who want more review, then have the ability to watch and re-watch lectures at their convenience. For students, lecture capture allows them to hear and see the class lecture, listen to it over again, look at a problem or equation, and see a demonstration of how to solve it. They can rewind, pause, and play the video as many times as needed. For “learning by doing” subjects like math, creating these kinds of engaging experiences is critical to the success of online learning.

2.How Students Use It Matters

In an online learning platform, educators should be able to collect data on which students watch the lectures, where they flag sections for questions, and how often they return to the videos for review—as our educators do with our learning platform.

Having this data allows instructors to intervene and motivate students who are struggling or falling behind, particularly students pursuing careers in STEM (as we know their performance in first-year courses is a primary predictor of their likelihood to proceed in the field). Historically, teaching online made it difficult to catch when a student was struggling. However, by leveraging emerging technology and data generated by these tools, it has made it easier for us to help students before it is too late. Identifying where students are struggling allows instructors to spend time with students more effectively and provide personalized instruction.

3.Consider Adaptive Tech

We are not the only ones seeing an impact—over 700 faculty and staff at the University are using these data- and feature-rich technologies to reinvent online teaching. Students are enthusiastic, too; instructors have received an overwhelming number of requests from students to use lecture capture in both their face-to-face and online courses.

In order to investigate further the impact of lecture capture in learning, this Fall we will be studying how new technologies are affecting the success of students taking introductory Algebra, a key gateway class for first-time students. We will be studying at what time of day students watch videos in the course and how many times throughout the week they do so, especially during the week of an exam.

Additionally, we will be examining other factors that can help us determine the technology’s influence on student success and retention, such as the length of the most-watched videos in order to identify optimal duration of an instructional video.

Also, to help improve pass rates in introductory math courses, students at the University use an adaptive learning system that allows them to spend more time with content on which they struggle. Over the last year, we studied student interest in these systems and if they find the technology beneficial to their learning. In addition, we compared the grades of students who used the adaptive learning system with the grades of students from the previous semester who did not use the system. Students that used the system had an 11 percent increase in the pass rate.

Over the last four years, we have seen data on these educational technologies that support good teaching and learning, leaving us optimistic about online learning. When we equip instructors with better tools to engage our students, wherever they may be, we continue to see the transformative promise of education.

Claire Stuve is educational technologist, the University of Toledo; Kevin Gibbs is a mathematics lecturer at the University of Toledo.

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