7 Ideas for Improving the Online Course Experience for Traditional Students

Education is the movement from darkness to light.” ~Allan Bloom

Last weekend I was hanging out in the kitchen with a friend of my son’s who is just finishing up her bachelor’s degree. She has worked full time while taking classes, and many of them have been online because that fit with her work schedule.

Her biggest complaint? “They’re so boring—just some professor reading slides slower than I can read them. There’s no interaction … no teaching.”

coffee mugs and coffeepot   As it happens, just the week before I’d been chatting about online courses with another friend, also in the    kitchen over coffee. But she is a professor. Her biggest complaint? “There’s no interaction … not enough chances to really teach.”

Problems with Online Courses

Some quick research revealed that my friends weren’t alone in their frustration, and that both educators and students have many of the same concerns about online courses. Besides presentation style, which I addressed in last week’s blog, here are some of the key complaints:
• Questions that come up during a lesson can’t be answered, at least not while they’re top of mind
• Chat rooms aren’t monitored effectively; postings are meaningless; online discussions don’t go anywhere
• Time management is a challenge: if you get behind or miss a class, and you may as well give up
• It’s hard to be organized well enough to manage the work independently
• Being self motivated enough to keep up with the assignments when there’s so little interaction
• Not enough access to the teacher/student

In his LinkedIn post of 4/29/15, Andrew Pass of A Pass Education suggested that the “‘new traditional’ student needs flexible options with respect to time … such as 24/7 access to content and teachers.”

John F. Kihlstrom from the University of California in Berkeley proposed that the best instruction combines an opportunity for discovery learning, followed by direct instruction.

And much research is now pointing toward hybrid courses as a solution for the low success rate of online courses (under 7% completion in some cases). A hybrid course is partly online and partly in a college setting with classmates and the teacher. It’s similar to a flipped classroom model, but with more time between what you do on your own and when you interact with the rest of the class.

In other words, even in online courses, you still need to interact with a teacher. As my son’s friend noted, “You don’t learn anything until you think about it, and thinking about it alone is like thinking in a vacuum.”

7 Ideas that Might Help Online Courses

I don’t think anyone has found the solutions to these challenges yet, but a lot of innovation is going on in the trenches. Here are a few ideas. What about:
1. Using a webinar-style approach, where the teacher could have an assistant monitoring questions and feeding them to the teacher as pertinent? The class could be held live and also recorded, so students who miss the class would still have the benefit of hearing typical questions and the answers.
2. Creating Q & A segments for every lesson to be live on Periscope or Meerkat during a certain time of the week? Or gathering your standard questions and creating a web link or downloadable PDF for the answers?
3. Creating a “Most Common Pitfalls & Solutions” video or PDF to go with each lesson?
4. Using students who have completed a course to lead discussion groups that meet live, using tools like Google Hangouts or Zoom?
5. Dividing students into teams to monitor discussion boards, and grading them on the quality of the discussions?
6. Creating online study/accountability partners to help motivate one another?
7. Using Periscope or Meerkat for student presentations?

What ideas have you tried? I’d love to see a robust sharing of ideas in the comments field, so please voice your thoughts. This is a challenge we need to solve.

Please send me your questions for future issues, and tune in next Friday for Issue #39 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.”

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