From Now On
|Vol 15|No 5|June|2006|
There must be an appropriate phrase for this .
What's good for the goose is good for the gander, perhaps,
After having taught DOZENS of online courses and then finally enrolling in one as a student, I now more fully understand the issues of motivation and time management for online students.
Why did I think that this did not apply to ME when I took a course online? Not that I consciously decided not to carve out time; rather I was smug enough to think that I had the situation well in hand and that I would just naturally gravitate to the course assignments and obligations on a regular basis in the same way that I have always demanded of my online students. I was wrong!
While the irony of the situation had not escaped me, this experience caused me to do some research and reflection on the factors that affect student participation in online courses. There are guides available that are meant to assist online students as well as instructors; many of these have been produced by the institutions that are offering online courses.
As I thought about my own failed experience as an online student, I couldn't help but compare my own proclivities with this list. I certainly consider myself to be self-directed and motivated, can manage my time well, have excellent computer, reading and writing skills, and have continual computer access. The remaining qualifications, mostly related to interaction, are completely subjective and may have played a greater role in my lack of success than I would have predicted prior to this experience. In the end it also became apparent that my good time management skills definitely needed improvement.
Course Factors That Had An Effect
Subject area, the reason(s) for taking a course, and the course objectives will make a difference in the "climate" of an online course. The course that I took was a computer applications course with a hands-on tutorial for creating Websites, based on Dreamweaver software. It was extremely well-organized and the instructor had a very personable style in all of the online lectures and other materials. My comments about the course are NOT meant to reflect negatively in any way on either the course or the instructor. The course is not new and it clearly has worked well for hundreds and perhaps thousands of students since its inception.
Does more or less interaction affect the online course either positively or negatively?
Interaction is a major concern for online education - how is it best handled? Should it be required at all, and if so how much interaction should be expected? The type of course and the type of program will affect the answers to these questions; what's recommended in one situation may not work in another. For instance, a seminar in best classroom practices that is offered to teachers would benefit greatly from online interaction among the participants because one could assume that they would have had direct experiences that are well worth sharing. On the other hand, a course on a straightforward topic such as human anatomy may not be enhanced by student interaction - bones are bones and the facts are cut and dried. This doesn't preclude the necessity for opportunities to ask questions or otherwise interact in the online environment, but some courses clearly lend themselves better to lively discussions and even arguments (arguments conducted in a professional manner, of course).
Why was my online student experience so terribly different from my online teaching experience?
Reflecting on my online teaching experiences, my commitment to regular daily interaction with the students was motivated by several factors. First of all, it was a paid position, and as a responsible individual I honored my commitment to the university and fulfilled the expectations and then some. Carrots - or sticks - such as student evaluations and the hope to be re-hired played a role too. I also made an effort to personalize the online experience for my students, and this resulted in email correspondence beyond the course itself. While this meant that I spent more time dealing with the students, it made me much more involved and definitely enhanced the online teaching experience. I believe it increased student involvement and student satisfaction as well.
Online Delivery as a New Medium
One factor that affects success in online learning is its newness as a method for course delivery.
Many or even most students may be a taking an online course for the first time, and as with most new experiences, time must be allowed to get acclimated (Beaudoin, 2002). While online courses are more and more common and by definition more and more students have had at least one online course experience, this is an area of education that continues to grow. There is no lack of potential students for whom an online experience is brand new, given that the majority of education in our society is still delivered face to face. To date, most if not all high schools and universities are not preparing their students for online courses unless it's experiential - i.e., if the institution offers online courses and the students take them, the students prepare for the online experience as they take the course.
Perhaps more effort toward how-to courses for the online environment would be helpful; indeed, the institutions that are 100% online tend to require such introductory activities, particularly for students who intend to pursue degrees online. If the newness factor is obviated through hands-on preparation and students start their first online course with a certain comfort level, it is likely - although not guaranteed - that their experience will be more positive and that they will continue successfully in an online learning environment. There has been some research done on the retention of online students; clearly institutions who rely wholly or in part on offering classes at a distance have a very real need to know how to keep students enrolled in their courses and how to encourage them to re-enroll in subsequent classes. The jury is still out on what works and what does not work, although interaction with the instructors seems to make a positive difference in retention rates.
Consequences and Recommendations
Luckily because my online class was a course that I was taking for personal enrichment, I was not jeopardizing a degree or my academic career goals. Nevertheless, the rules for being a responsible student should apply to any course, regardless of the reason for taking it. Since this course was scheduled to last for a little more than 5 weeks, time was short and by falling behind I jeopardized my ability to complete the work on time (even when granted an extension). A rule that I applied to myself when I was working on my dissertation - advice which I have repeated to many a doctoral student - is appropriate here: Do SOMETHING every single day. Some days that effort may have only consisted of a few minutes of work; other days the intention to add merely a paragraph turned into hours of quality writing. My own exhortation of making an effort every day worked very well and I kept my nose to the grindstone until the dissertation was completed.
Unfortunately I did not apply this advice to my own online student situation soon enough. Next time I will investigate, plan, and analyze as soon as the course begins or perhaps even prior to enrollment. For the course described in this article, I was able to re-enroll in a section that began 2 months after my false start. Armed with my newfound awareness of time management and student-teacher interaction, I was able to finish the course in a timely fashion. Whew.
Beaudoin, M.F. (2002). Learning or lurking? Tracking the invisible online student. Internet and Higher Education, 5, 147-155.