The Successful Online Student

We are sure that it occurred to you that you cannot examine the skills and practices of faculty without exploring the skills and practices needed by students.

Many faculty members assume that students today have the skills and knowledge to learn online.  The 2019 Educause Center for Applied Research report on college freshmen and seniors at 160 institutions noted:

  • While the majority of students (70%) prefer mostly or completely face-to-face learning environments, specific demographic factors influence these preferences. Students who are married or in a domestic partnership, those who are independent with dependents, those who work 40 or more hours a week, students age 25 and older, and individuals who identified as having both a physical and a learning disability that require technology for their coursework all had a stronger preference for classes that are mostly or completely online.
  • Labs and demonstrations, faculty/student conferences, and lectures were rated as the most preferred activities in completely face-to-face environments. Students see in-class lectures as opportunities to engage with instructors, peers, and course content, and they see technology as a means to that engagement. The majority of students prefer some form of blended environment for collaborations or projects with peers, homework/assignment submission, peer reviewing/peer grading, exams, quizzes or tests, and asking questions.
  • For the students who use them, online success tools have become increasingly useful in navigating their college experience. Tools related to degree planning and degree auditing were valued the most, and “self-service referral systems for social or community resources” (e.g., community events and crisis counseling) and “tools that suggest how to improve performance in a course” saw the greatest gains in perceived usefulness since last year.
  • Dormitories/campus housing and outdoor spaces continue to be rated at the bottom when it comes to reliable Wi-Fi. Outdoor spaces received the lowest marks, with more than a third of students reporting their experiences as poor or fair, while libraries and classrooms still top the list for the best Wi-Fi on campus.
  • Two-thirds of students agreed that their instructors use technology to engage them in class, but it is not always with the devices students already own. Significantly fewer students said they are encouraged to use their personal technology as tools to deepen their learning. Half of the respondents said their instructors ask them to use their laptops in class, and only a quarter reported they were encouraged to use their smartphones.
  • Only half of the students who have physical and/or learning disabilities and who need accessible technologies or accommodations rated their institution’s support positively. Nearly a quarter said their institution’s support (21%) and awareness (24%) was poor or fair. Of particular concern is the 11% of students with disabilities who said their institution was not aware at all of their technology needs, which suggests many may experience barriers to disclosing their disability, including stigma and their own lack of awareness of available support services.

As the number of online offerings rise, the question also arises as to what qualities students require to be successful in these course.

Minnesota State University suggested:

  • Persistence
  • Effective Time Management Skills
  • Effective and Appropriate Communication Skills
  • Basic Technical Skills
  • Reading and Writing Skills
  • Motivation and Independence
  • A Good Study Environment

The Illinois Online Network suggested that an online student is expected to:

  • Participate in the virtual classroom multiple times a week
  • Be able to work with others in completing projects
  • Be able to use the technology properly
  • Be able to meet the minimum standards as set forth by the institution
  • Be able to complete assignments on time
  • Enjoy communicating in writing.

The ECAR Study illustrated that undergraduates today view the web in a somewhat bipolar way.  They see much of what they do online as communicating with peers, connecting with friends, finding entertainment, and informally learning on a just in time basis.  They like course management systems but see them more as places of convenience than as places for learning.  With the myriad of applications now available for online teaching and learning, the opportunity exists today to tap into this informal learning network and add rich capabilities to current learning management systems, thus facilitating learning.  You will have the opportunity to use collaborative writing spaces such as blogs or wikis to expand the communication and networking aspects of this generation’s lives (which they already do) into your formal learning environment.

Given the self-directed nature of online learning, the learning process can feel accelerated and overwhelming.  It requires commitment on the student’s part. Staying up with the class and completing all work on time is vital. Once a student gets behind, it is difficult to catch up. Building structure into the class and providing timelines can help students succeed.  You may have to more intentionally contact students personally to offer assistance and remind the student of the need to keep up.

You should consider ways to build off of these qualities by proactively suggesting time management strategies.  For instance, having online discussions due on different days from written work helps students balance workloads.  You can provide relevant issues for study that tie course content to real world challenges.  Using group work helps build connections.  Finally, your social presence in the online space sends powerful signals and is a strong motivator for success.