2.Engaging with support services must be encouraged: Because of students’ often incorrect concepts of the ease of online learning, the value of institutional support services that can help students calculate what is personally realistic during the path to enrollment is critical. However, researchers found that while some students are open to being engaged by these services, others are not. “A future challenge for distance providers is to not only design relevant services that can be made available at the point of need, but to dissuade learners from taking a ‘lone wolf’ approach…from the outset,” says the report.

3.Feelings of belonging help retention: Most students perform better and are more satisfied in their online learning experience if the institution cultivates positive working and social relations among learners, says the report. To build a stronger sense of belonging or relatedness to students part of online learning, the researchers recommend Thornberg’s four metaphors enabling engagement in online spaces: 1) Caves, where distance learners can find time to reflect and come in to contact with themselves; 2) Campfires, or formal environments where students have the opportunity to listen to stories from which they construct knowledge from those with expertise and wisdom; 3) Watering Holes, or informal environments where students gather at a central source to discuss information and create meaning with their peers; and 4) Mountain Tops, where students celebrate their findings and present their ideas to an audience.

4.Digital skills and fluency do matter: Though most students were comfortable after an initial technology orientation period with the online learning platform, some mature-aged, first-time distance learners reported unease at using the technology and often felt overwhelmed. This not only caused them to doubt online learning’s efficacy on their studies, but limited their engagement with faculty and peers. “A future challenge for distance education providers is to develop student’s academic capital and social confidence in the digital environment,” write the researchers.

5. Knowing when to place interventions is critical: Though the video diaries support previous research noting the importance of early interventions, the report notes evidence that a second and “significant ‘high-risk’ period of disengagement exists for first-time distance learners towards the latter part of the semester just before the final assignment was due. Although this second ‘at-risk’ period did not result in immediate withdrawl, it often meant that even highly motivated students began to question their ability to successfully complete their program of study,” highlight the researchers. “…those who demonstrate passive, surface approaches [to their online studies] from the outset are most at risk during the second ‘at-risk’ period that has been identified by this study. This finding raises questions about the optimum moments for institutions to intervene and support students in an effort to develop new habits of mind by evoking more active engagement.”

The report’s authors concluded that distance providers and prospective students alike need to work together to design what is achievable in a way that is not just a “crude calculation of hours available, predicated on the ill-informed assumption that distance learning is a ‘lone wolf’ experience offering more flexibility than on-campus learning.”

Instead, courses need to be designed to complement busy lives, and support services need to adequately help them survive beyond the first few weeks in an “environment that is most likely starkly different than that of a campus learner.”

For much more in-depth information, including profiles of each student and methodology, read the full report, “Stories from Students in their First Semester of Distance Learning.”


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