Karen Watts has been teaching adult education classes since 1999. A faculty member at Bellingham Technical College in Washington state, she has taught in both face-to-face and online environments throughout her career. In her online classes, Watts says, she often hears from students who are surprised that the class is “so hard.”

Perhaps they weren’t expecting an online course to be demanding. Or, maybe they lacked the self-discipline required to succeed in an online learning environment. Whatever the reason, Watts encounters many more students who struggle to learn online than she sees laboring in a traditional course.

Online learning can be more difficult for instructors as well as students. Not seeing students face to face makes it harder to gauge how they’re responding to the material, and there’s the additional hurdle of mastering the technology. But there are many strategies that instructors can use to help students succeed online, as well as approaches that institutions can employ to support faculty more effectively.

In interviews, faculty and administrators who have extensive experience with online learning revealed these five key challenges that often stand in the way of success—and tips for overcoming them.

1. Setting student expectations.
Many students don’t have realistic expectations about what online learning entails. Watts attributes this in part to the marketing campaigns undertaken by for-profit institutions: “The commercials often make it look like you just sit around in your pajamas and poke around on the keyboard for a few hours, and ta-da—you get a bachelor’s degree.”

Not only are some students under the false impression that online learning is easier than classroom-based learning, but Watts has found that some students “are not as hard-wired for online learning as others.” In addition to being self-motivated, students have to be realistic about their own comfort with technology, as well as their ability to read and do research.

“You need to be OK with being alone with yourself a lot,” she says. “I have run across students who really need that social component to excel in a class. When it’s just themselves and the computer for many hours, they can’t function well.”

At the beginning of an online class, Watts is up front about what students should expect. “I post links to articles about what students have said about being online students. And I explain to students how much they’re going to read, what my approach to instruction is, and how much time they’ll have.”

Institutions can help set proper expectations by making sure advisors are knowledgeable about online learning. Advisors should talk with students who enroll in online courses about what to expect and whether the courses are a good fit for them.

In addition, some institutions are creating onboarding programs to help students learn the skills they’ll need for success before they even begin an online course. For instance, the University of Memphis’ LiFE program measures the readiness of some adult students who are returning to school online and provides interventions for those who might lack the capacity to be successful. The program also includes an onboarding initiative called the Prep Academy, which is a series of mini-courses that students can work through at their own pace, covering topics such as academic strategies, time management, and self-discipline.

2. Building a sense of community.
To counter the feeling of isolation that students often have when taking courses online, it’s important to create opportunities for students to connect with each other, says Sher Downing, an edtech strategist who serves as the vice chancellor for eLearning at the University of South Carolina.

“If a sense of community doesn’t exist, students tend not to do as well,” she says. “They often drop out or disappear, or else they’ll do just the minimum amount of work needed to pass the course and move on.”

Providing a forum where students can talk among themselves is critical, Downing says. Instructors can use the discussion tools that are built into their learning management system, or Google Hangouts, or even a team-messaging app such as Slack to foster a sense of community in online courses.

It’s important to seed discussions by requiring students to make an initial post, says Kristen Sosulski, an associate professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

“We need to structure even informal online learning experiences to make sure they happen,” says Sosulski, who is the author of two books about online learning. “If you just ask students to introduce themselves, don’t be surprised if that doesn’t happen.” She recommends making directions to students explicit rather than open-ended.

But once discussions are under way, it doesn’t take much effort from the instructor to keep them going. Downing encourages students to use discussion forums to post questions and help each other. “Students will start to support each other, just like they’re in a physical classroom,” she says.

[Editor’s note: Come back tomorrow for three more online learning challenges—and solutions.]

About the Author:

A former eCampus News editor, Dennis Pierce is now a freelance writer with more than 20 years of experience in writing about educational innovation.


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