Online learning is harder than it looks. Here’s how you can support your learners.
We all know that online education is a significantly different learning medium than the traditional classroom. Learners have more freedom and independence, but they also face more distractions. Without regular face time in the classroom with instructors and peers, many online learners begin feel isolated and alienated from the learning experience..
Furthermore, online education courses tend to be for adults rather than children. Adult learners tend to be more motivated and have better self-direction. But they also view instructors as peers rather than superiors, and have different expectations about the level of communication involved.
Some online courses can be run almost on autopilot. But others, particularly for more complex subjects, require a more hands-on approach from instructors. If you have high completion rates and your learners seem happy, you may not need to provide extra support.
However, if your learners are dropping out of your course, or if they complain about lack of support, it may be time to provide some extra assistance. Here’s a few options to consider if you’re looking for better ways to support your online learners.
1. Offer online office hours.
In any traditional educational environment, instructors are available during set periods of the day or week to talk to learners. There’s no reason this can’t happen online as well. With tools like Google Calendar, Hangouts, and Skype, you can easily post availability slots and allow learners to schedule a meeting with you via video call.
You may not get many takers, but the promise of a lifeline can be reassuring to many of your learners. And if you do end up with high demand for these time slots, you can always adjust how any are available.
2. Be generous with your feedback.
As any instructor who has pulled late nights grading papers knows, thoughtful, thorough feedback takes time. For most instructors, reading through each assignment and leaving a brief comment at the end is all they can manage.
However, in an online classroom, learners often need more feedback rather than less. This helps assure them that the instructor is paying attention to their work and cares about their success.
Fortunately, there are two ways that online education helps teachers manage the workload. First, unlike traditional classrooms, online courses don’t have to be regimented. If learners have different start and end points on the course, then their assignments won’t come all at once. Instead of grading a stack of term papers in a week, you can handle them one by one as they come in.
Second, many quizzes and tests can be graded automatically. Not only that, but you can deliver automatic feedback as well, based on their answer. Instead of just flagging an answer as “wrong,” include an explanation in your quiz to help students understand why they gave a wrong answer, and direct them to a module where they might learn more.
3. Promise a fast response time on emails.
Even more important than feedback on assignments is a prompt response time to emails. If a learner sends a question, they need to know they’ll receive some sort of reply in short order, especially if they have pressing, time-sensitive questions.
First of all, be sure to provide a means for your learners to contact you with questions. It’s a smart idea to create a designated email address for this, so that they don’t get lost in your inbox.
Then, give an estimated response time so that your learners know when they’ll most likely hear from you. Within twenty-four hours is best, but if you aren’t able to respond on weekends you should add a note about that as well.
4. Be lenient when possible…
Many adult learners are taking your course on the side. They may be trying to fit it in on the weekends or in the evenings after work. They may have children or other family members interrupting their study time. And if they don’t have that, they certainly have more distractions at home than they do in your classroom.
It may be more convenient to take a course from home, but that doesn’t make it easier. Letting your learners know that you understand the extra difficulties they face and are willing to make allowances to a certain extent can help alleviate some stress and give them more motivation to finish.
5. …BUT also provide accountability.
Leniency and accountability aren’t mutually exclusive principles, though they can feel that way sometimes. When working with online students, particularly those who sets their own goals, reminders and follow-ups can help keep students on track.
If you grant a learner an extension on an assignment, remind them of the new deadline as it draws near. Or, if you offer partial credit on late work, make sure the learner understand how this will affect their grade.
6. Be proactive in reaching out to learners.
Notice a learner struggling to make their way through your course? Don’t wait for them to contact you. Be the first to send and encouraging email to let them know you’re available in case they have questions.
There’s no need to tell them specifically that you noticed their engagement is dropping. A learner may feel singled out or embarrassed if you lead with a reference to their grades. Simply draft a few emails to send out to learners if they go too long between lessons, fail a test, or are late turning in an assignment. Use the emails to direct them to additional resources, or to offer personal tutoring services.
When you run an online course, your learners rarely have an opportunity to meet you in person. Your instructional videos might help make you more personable, but they’re still formal content that might be a few years old by now. For all your learners know, you set that course on autopilot and haven’t checked in since.
Of course, part of why you created your course was to save you time and allow you to scale to a larger audience. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still communicate with your learners in a way that lets them know you’re still alive and listening.
A blog is a great way to go about doing this. Weekly updates give your learners more contact with you, and provide a relevant place for them to leave comments and ask questions. Your blog will also give you new material to share on social media, build your SEO, and even provide inspiration for new course content.
Student support is a balancing act.
Most online learners understand that an instructor’s time is limited. One of the benefits of online learning is the ability for instructors to scale their course to meet a larger demand. With more learners taking the course, most instructors are looking for ways to cut down on tasks rather than add to their workload.
It is possible to automate some aspects of student support, such as email reminders and answer feedback on quizzes. Others, such as running a blog, can speak to a large number of learners all at once, and provide extra material to direct learners to when they have questions.
For the rest, the amount of learner support you offer will depend on what you are able to take on. Experiment with different approaches to see what works for you. You may find that online office hours are used rarely and only by the most desperate students, and that adding them doesn’t add much of a burden. Or you may find that offering flexible deadlines doesn’t improve outcomes and only adds to the hassle of your course.
Not every solution will work for every course. But with trial and error, you can strike a balance between your own time management and providing your learners with the support they need to succeed.