Becoming a Student Again

With excitement and a bit of apprehension I logged in to my first ever online class. Sure, I’ve taught online classes for years, but this was my first time as a student in an online class that I had paid to take and where grades were given.

I reviewed the “Start Here” module and familiarized myself with the structure of the class before I opened the first lecture from my new instructor. The instructor’s voice came through my speakers and as she began to speak I noted the length of the lecture: 44 minutes. “What?!? I don’t have time for this,” I thought as I slammed my laptop shut. It suddenly and powerfully occurred to me that I did not have control over this classroom and my expectations as a student might be vastly different from my instructor’s.

Eventually, I settled in to the rhythm of the class and my instructor’s expectations. As it turns out, that 44 minute lecture was an outlier (the rest were closer to 15 minutes), and I figured out a way to incorporate the lectures into my schedule (I watched them while on the spin bike).

The Needs of the Online Student

As a working parent, trying to balance family, work, and school obligations, I am the target customer for online education, and I certainly felt the “squeeze” of all these obligations competing for my time. Like many of my students, my days are jam-packed and most of the time, I am scheduled to the minute. Uncertainties can throw my well-planned schedule into turmoil… “Wow, that reading took longer than I expected. No, I can’t participate in a live webinar or meet for a group project at 3pm. I have to pick up kids from school. Darn, this link is broken and the instructor hasn’t responded to my questions about it…now I’ve lost my window for working on this project. My dog died today, and while I had to go to work and had to make dinner, I just don’t have it in me to watch a class lecture and take a quiz. I’m too sad…can I have an extension?”

Meeting Our Students Where They Are

I ended up taking several classes from several instructors over the course of a year. Being a student in these classes exposed me to a number of different teaching styles and techniques and strategies, and I was able to experience these things from a student point of view. Based on my experience, here are 4 strategies for instructors that your students might find helpful:

  1. Provide time estimates for weekly activities. Estimated read times and watch times for learning materials are very helpful for a busy student trying to plan the week.
  2. Chunk the material. As an online student, I rarely had long chunks of time to work on my classes, but I could squeeze in smaller chunks of time here and there. And while students can start and stop a task as needed in the online classroom, it’s rewarding to actually finish a task in one sitting.
  3. Make it easy to find class resources. In the online classroom there are many wonderful learning materials we can easily incorporate (e.g., links to blogs, videos, calculators); but when these resources are scattered throughout 10 learning modules, they can be difficult for the student to find. Provide a works cited page (with hyperlinks) or a glossary of key terms to help students locate material, especially when studying for exams.
  4. Anticipate Questions. This might be tough the first time you teach a course, but over time we often see the same questions arising from our students. We can reduce the delay in response time, by anticipating these questions and providing answers and support ahead of time. This could be a Q&A sheet for complex assignments or a guided worksheet with comments from the instructor to help students get through well-known tricky spots.

The flexibility of the online classroom gives busy students around the world access to educational opportunities that have not been available in the past. These students are working hard in every aspect of their lives and with a little support from us, their online instructors, we can help them make the most of the time they have in order to learn and grow.

-Nikki Brown, Instructor, College of Business

On May 2nd, Ecampus held our annual Faculty Forum which showcases the outstanding work that OSU is doing in online education. Sixteen interactive sessions allowed faculty the opportunity to learn more about innovative teaching methods and share their experiences in online teaching with each other.

This year we were delighted to have Dr. Kevin Gannon, a professor of history and director for the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Education at Grand View University, present a keynote address on a very timely and relevant topic for all online educators – designing online classrooms where inclusive discussions can take place while effectively engaging students with challenging or controversial materials.  His presentation – Sea lions, trolls, and flames – oh my! Navigating the difficulty places in online learning – was a thought-provoking and inspiring call to action for online educators.

We all need people who will give us feedback. That's how we improve. - Bill Gates
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft

In online education courses, providing effective feedback is essential. It’s can be easy to provide students with a number or letter grade on their assignments, but it is the additional feedback where the opportunity for student growth occurs. While there are many forms of effective feedback, there are 5 elements that can help you provide more meaningful and effective feedback regardless of the method of delivery.

  1. Give Timely Feedback
    • Timely feedback to students sends the message that you are engaged in the course and the student’s work. Having just finished an assignment, the student is also going to be more open to the feedback you provide because their work is still fresh in their mind. They have the opportunity to immediately incorporate your feedback into the next assignment, improving their overall performance going forward. Students in a master’s degree program were more likely to ignore feedback comments on their written work that were not provided promptly. (Draft & Lengel, 1986) Including a statement in the syllabus about your expected time of feedback on assignments, and sticking to it, helps students understand your timeline and will reduce questions to you later on.
  2. Start with a positive message
    • Creating a feedback sandwich (compliment, suggestions for correction, compliment) for your student pairs together both specific positive feedback and any elements the students should work on. The positive feedback encourages the student and prepares them with a positive outlook when hearing about areas that need improvement. Finishing again with positive feedback such as “I look forward to seeing your next assignment” tells the student that even though they have corrections to make, their work is still valued and that they can improve on future assignments.
  3. Use Rubrics
    • One of the best tools that can be used are rubrics. A detailed rubric sets clear expectations of the student for that particular assignment. While completing their assignment they can constantly check their work against what you expect to see in their finished work. Another benefit to creating the rubric is that you can use it to analyze their papers with that same criteria. Some instructors have found that by using a rubric, it helps to be more consistent and fair with grading. No matter if it is the first paper, the last paper, or if you might be having a good or bad day, the rubric helps.
  4. Give personal feedback and help the students make the connection between the content and their lives
    • Connection is key. Providing personal feedback to your students while helping them see the connection between the content and their lives will show that you have taken time to personally respond to them instead of using “canned responses.” Students who don’t feel as if the content in the class will ever relate to their lives now, or in their careers later on, will often lose interest in  assignments in general as well as feedback because they don’t see the connection. Getting to know your students at the beginning of the term assists in giving good personal feedback while helping them see the connection between the content and their life.
  5. Consider using alternative formats of feedback
    • Students are used to getting feedback in written form and while that format can be very effective, using an alternative way to provide feedback can be equally or more effective. They enjoy the personal connections that can be created through audio and/or video feedback. Students appreciate receiving specific feedback relating to the grade, rubric, and overall assessment. In fact, some students say that: “..video encouraged more supportive and conversational communication.” (Borup, West, Thomas, 2015) Give it a try!

By employing these strategies, your students will be appreciative of the feedback you provide and you might just get some fantastic feedback yourself. In one case, an instructor shared a great comment from one of their students comparing past courses to the instructor’s:

…I never received personal feedback [in some other courses]. Your course however has been wonderful. Thank you for putting so much time into each of your comments on my writing. I can tell you really made personal feedback a priority. You don’t know how nice it was to really know that my professor is reading my work.” The student goes further to say; “Thank you for taking your teaching seriously and caring about your students. It shows.

Getting personal and effective feedback like this should inspire you to begin or continue that great feedback!

 

References:

Borup, J., West, R.E., Thomas, R. (2015) The impact of text versus video communication on instructor feedback in blended courses Education Tech Research Dev 63:161-184 doi: 10.1004/s11426-015-9367-8

Draft, R.L. & Lengel, R.H. (1986. Organizational information requirements, media richness and structural design. Management Science, 32(5), 554-571

P1090191 - Version 3The 2013 Survey of Online Learning Report was released last week on the Sloan Consortium website.  This annual series tracks trends in online higher ed in the U.S. through use of institutional data and responses from chief academic officers at colleges and universities nationally.  Among key findings of the 2013 survey, three-fourths of chief academic officers think the learning outcomes in online education are the same or better than with face-to-face instruction, but more than 40% of them say that retaining students in online courses is more difficult than in face-to-face courses.

Fortunately, Blackboard has built-in tools to help you monitor student progress.  In addition to the Grade Center, check out the Performance Dashboard and Retention Center in the Evaluation section of your Blackboard course Control Panel.  These tools can be used with no set up, though you do have the option to customize the Retention Center.  The Performance Dashboard gives you a quick overview of each student’s online course activity (for example, days since last Blackboard course access, and level of discussion board participation).  The Retention Center provides a more detailed picture of which students may be struggling or at risk in your course.  A glance at the Performance Dashboard and Retention Center can give you a heads-up at any point in the term about student engagement and success, so that you can take steps to communicate with students about your concerns and offer strategies for improvement.

Beyond this, make sure your students know about the Ecampus Student Success links, which direct students to Ecampus Success Counselors, online tutoring support, Academic Success (ALS) courses, personalized coaching services from InsideTrack, and other services available to OSU online students.

What strategies do you find most successful in retaining online students in your courses?