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E-Learning: Tips for Student Success

Advancements in technology have literally put higher education at students' fingertips in the form of distance learning. As more institutions embrace and offer online courses, the number of students tapping into the option is expanding exponentially. And while the online learning concept is straightforward enough, everything from time constraints to lack of oversight to poor motivation tend to get in the way when students sign up for self-directed, online courses.

The 2012 National Survey for Student Engagement singles out students' time use, programs of study, and co-curricular activities as elements that hamper their ability to engage with online coursework. An absence of collaborative activities can also play a role in a student's ability to successfully complete distance education commitments. "Online leaders were more challenged in their coursework," the NSSE reports, "but engaged less often in active and collaborative learning activities."

Jessica Viecelli-Stimpson, an adjunct faculty member at American International College (AIC) in Springfield, MA, said a lack of instructor guidance could make distance learning particularly difficult for college students. "Students feel a lack of guidance," said Viecelli-Stimpson, "when there's no face-to-face time to ask questions or stop at the instructor's desk on the way out of the classroom."

In many cases, that lack of guidance leads to procrastination on the student's part and, eventually, dropped or failed courses. "They know that they can get the work done this week, but they'll put it off until next week and wind up having to cram it all in," said Viecelli-Stimpson. To offset that lack of face time, she said online instructors must acknowledge the problem, create timetables (and ensure that they are adhered to), and always keep the lines of communication open.

At AIC, for example, Viecelli-Stimpson and other professors check in with students at least once a week to ensure that they are on track for course completion and to address any issues or concerns that pupils may have. She also alerts students about what's "coming up" and sends them work and materials to review. "This helps keep the pupils interested, engaged, and on track," said Viecelli-Stimpson, "even though I'm not standing in front of them at a classroom podium."

Tapping into Technology

Technology can be a great facilitator for instructors that want to keep their online learners on task. Viecelli-Stimpson said AIC professors use tools like Jing screencast software, Snagit screen capture tool, Audacity's free podcasting platform, and VoiceThread's online discussion software to augment online courses and engage students in the experience. Podcasts, for example, can be easily downloaded and then played back on a student's MP3 player at a later date. "That results in a more universal learning experience," said Viecelli-Stimpson, "and not just one that's tied to a computer."

Using screencast software, AIC's instructors can capture a specific area of their computer screens, save it as an image, and/or create a video from the content. Viecelli-Stimpson uses Snagit to post mini-lectures on YouTube and then points her students there to watch the 5-minute snippets. To get difficult details across to her computer applications students, she'll use PowerPoint slides or Excel spreadsheets combined with voice recordings (made by using Snagit) that help students work through lectures, key points, and test reviews.

Viecelli-Stimpson said the screencasts – which are well received by students, who often comment on them in their course evaluations – are particularly useful in helping pupils who might otherwise become confused or frustrated by the online course content. "I get a lot of positive feedback about the various features and tools that my distance learners are using," she said, "and how well these elements help to get the points across."

Starting Off Right

One of the simplest solutions for stemming online dropout and failure rates is to simply have students read their course syllabuses before getting into the actual online activities. As old fashioned as this strategy sounds, David L. Stoloff, a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, CT, said reinforcing it in the distance space can go a long way in keeping pupils on track and engaged in their coursework.

"When you start out on the right foot – with a personal welcome from an instructor and directions on how to read the course syllabus – you can ward off many of the engagement issues associated with online learning," said Stoloff. "They need to understand that the syllabus is a contract and that there's no shame in dropping a course quickly and getting a refund if the commitment can't be fulfilled." Other good strategies include outlining time commitments, explaining expected completion timeframes, and going over course expectations in advance – just like a professor would on the first day of class in a traditional setting.

When it comes to technology tools, Stoloff said online discussion groups – which are typically enabled by a college's learning management system (LMS) – help create a collaborative, online learning environment. In fact, Stoloff said that in most of his classes discussion group participation makes up 10-20 percent of a student's total grade. "They're required to participate regularly," said Stoloff. "When someone drops off, it's easy for me to see that he or she isn't 'actively' learning."

When those drop-offs occur, Stoloff uses the e-mail function within Eastern Connecticut State University's LMS to contact students, remind them to participate, or suggest a course withdrawal or other action. In some cases, he'll invite students to visit him in person to discuss the lack of active participation and any problems they may be having with the course. "In most cases," he said, "the student isn't participating and/or passing the class because he or she hasn't put in the effort."

With 18 percent of undergraduate students predicted to receive 80 percent or more of their education through online courses this year, according to EdTechReview, now is the time for institutions to develop the foundational tools needed to keep pupils engaged, on track, and successful online. "Ignore this step," Viecelli-Stimpson warned, "and it becomes way too easy for students to sit back and let things go until the end of the semester. By then it's too late."


The Human Element of Online Learning

Diane Johnson, assistant director of faculty services for the Center for Online Learning at Saint Leo University, offers these seven tips for creating an engaging online education offering:

  1. Remember that the human element is the most important tool to keeping online learners enrolled and engaged in your program.
  2. Before hiring any new faculty, make sure that person is caring and student-focused.
  3. Faculty members must build relationships with each student and let them know that they really care about the individual's education and success.
  4. Students must know they are not just a name out in cyberspace, but that they are really human beings who are on the other side of the screen.
  5. Instructional immediacy is paramount. "We require faculty to respond to student inquiries in a maximum of 24-36 hours," says Johnson.
  6. If a student misses a deadline, instead of blaming the student with an accusatory "Why didn't you meet this assignment?" a much better approach is to ask, "Are you okay?"
  7. When you build a trusting relationship and invest in the student, he or she is more likely to invest more in the course.
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