5 major online-learning challenges—and how to solve them, pt. 2

How can you help students succeed in online courses?

[Editor’s note: Don’t miss part 1 of this story.]

Online learning can be more difficult for instructors as well as students. Between not seeing students face to face to gauge how they’re responding to the material to having students overestimate their self-discipline to succeed in an online learning environment, the challenges can be tricky.

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. We covered two of these challenges yesterday; here are three more.

3. Considering the cognitive load of learners.
When teaching online, it can be hard to know how much content students can handle—and when they’re ready for more. For instance, instructors can’t rely on non-verbal cues to help them determine when students are lost or overwhelmed.

Addressing this challenge begins with the design of an online course. Often, instructors will assign too much content for students to read or watch all at once. “Students might not have the skills to sort through all of this information or use it appropriately,” says Kristen Sosulski, an associate professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “Research shows that chunking the material into shorter reading passages and video clips of no more than 10 minutes in length is more conducive to student learning,”

If students don’t have a lot of prior knowledge about a topic, they are more likely to struggle. Instructors can use survey tools to learn how much their students already know about a topic, says Sosulski says, and they can begin lessons with a brief introductory video that establishes some prior knowledge up front.

Karen Watts, a faculty member at Bellingham Technical College in Washington state, considers herself lucky because her online humanities course is arranged around frequent discussions. This makes it tougher for students to hide if they haven’t done the reading or don’t understand the material. But still, “having no eye contact means it’s hard to confirm information transmission,” she says. “Sometimes, students don’t read the instructions I have given—and I don’t find out until it’s too late.” To guard against this, she posts instructions and “how-to” information in multiple locations.

4. Providing support for struggling learners.
Recognizing that a number of hurdles might stand in the way of students’ success, Watts tries to anticipate some of these challenges in advance. At the outset of her class, she posts links to resources that students can turn to for support, such as food banks, suicide hotlines, and articles about issues she knows might come up. She also encourages students to share online-learning tips and strategies with each other.

“One year, I had a lot of students who were parents of small children,” she recalls. “I went to YouTube and found videos of parents talking about how they managed to juggle school and parenting. I posted those links for my students to refer to if they found themselves struggling with this issue.”

Institutions must recognize that they play a significant role in making sure online students are successful, says Sosulski. Colleges and universities should create support structures to help students when they struggle.

For instance, at the University of Memphis, all LiFE participants are assigned a “success coach” who continually checks in with them throughout their online learning experience. “This is a pretty vulnerable student population,” says Richard Irwin, dean of UofM Global, the university’s online learning division, “so we have created a high-touch environment to help them succeed.”

5. Proficiency with the technology.
Understanding the tools involved in online learning, such as the learning management system (LMS), web and video conferencing systems, and various learning apps, can challenge even savvy instructors and students.

“If you’re not comfortable using the technology, it shows,” Downing says. “It becomes difficult to deliver your message when you’re fumbling with the tools that are supposed to be supporting you with instruction.”

Institutions must support instructors and students with training and on-demand resources to help them seamlessly navigate online learning technologies. “Training should be available when faculty members need it, and not just at the beginning of the academic year,” says Downing. For instance, colleges and universities should create a library of self-help video tutorials that faculty and students can refer to when they have questions.

If online learning tools are too complicated, instructors aren’t likely to use them. Institutions can solve this problem by investing in powerful but easy-to-use tools and making sure they work together seamlessly.

California’s community college system offers a web and video conferencing platform to its colleges for facilitating online learning. The system, called CCC Confer, includes high-quality audio and video conferencing using the Zoom conferencing platform, as well as screen sharing, recording, live closed captioning, and automatic transcription services. However, instructors couldn’t schedule or launch conferences from within an LMS, which made the process cumbersome and discouraged many instructors from using the platform.

To solve this problem, the state partnered with technology provider CirQlive, whose software integrates any web conferencing system with any LMS. This has led to more frequent use of the CCC Confer platform for instruction.

With the aid of CirQlive, instructors can schedule a video conferencing session directly from their course page in Canvas. Students can access session from their course page as well, without needing a separate invitation. And once the meeting is over, students have access to the recording via a secure link within the LMS.

By simplifying the use of its web and video conferencing system for both students and instructors, the California’s community college system has “helped to make distance learning simple for all types of user skill levels,” says Rico Bianchi, director of telecommunications grants for Palomar College. “This has led to significant changes in the way we educate.”

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