It took some time, but distance education has definitely made the transition from novel to normal. More learners than ever before are enrolled in online programs, and not just among graduate students. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows the portion of undergraduate students completing at least some of their coursework online grew from just 16 percent in 2004 to 43 percent in 2016.
Colleges and universities are responding to the demand by expanding their portfolio of online offerings, even transitioning courses that were once only available on campus. But great online education entails much more than virtual lectures and occasional email communications.
“True online learning is not simply an attempt to duplicate the classroom experience by extending the reach of the instructor through technologies such as Zoom,” says Dave Lungren, vice president of digital content solutions at Collegis Education. “Effective online learning is intentionally designed to take full advantage of the power and possibilities of online tools and technologies to support engaging, interactive and effective learning experiences for students.”
It’s also essential to remember there are other elements that contribute to a positive student experience. Today’s learners also expect distance programs to offer the same access to resources and sense of community they encounter in an on-campus environment. To find out what it takes to cultivate a positive online student experience, take a look at the graphic below. With the proper elements in place, your institution could be poised to set the bar in distance learning.
Essential elements for creating a positive online student experience
Institutions don’t shoulder all the responsibility for ensuring learners get everything they can out of college. Timothy Loatman, director of academic services for Collegis Education, points out that online students need to take ownership of their experiences since they don’t have an instructor in front of them providing external motivation.
“The student still needs to ‘show up,’ so to speak,” Loatman says. “There is a difference in the user perspective that has to transpire.”
That said, higher education institutions should do everything they can to help ensure that students have a positive experience. The below graphic highlights some of those key elements.
Breaking down the 5 factors
1. Key classroom components
Ultimately, providing a high-quality education is the best way to ensure students have a positive experience at your institution. That requires a few key elements. The first is effective course design that was created specifically for the online environment.
“Courses should be intentionally designed to promote deep student engagement and leverage media elements, such as video, animation and interactive features,” Lungren explains.
Even the most thoughtfully designed course can’t succeed on its own — the faculty member’s ability is just as important. Instructors need to be comfortable teaching in an online environment and willing to make a concerted effort to show that they’re present.
“Faculty should be trained in best practices for online pedagogy and have deep interactions with individual students and the class as a whole,” Lungren advises. Research confirms that regular communication from instructors contributes to positive student experiences.
Colleges and universities also need to ensure they have the appropriate technology infrastructure it takes to support online courses. That ecosystem should include a student information system (SIS), learning management system (LMS), web conferencing system and video streaming system. While these tools are really essential, they also take some getting used to, which is why another core classroom component is student access to 24-hour technical support.
2. Services that provide academic support
Nearly every student faces at least one class that causes them some trouble, which is why academic assistance is so critical for both residential and online students. In a remote environment, it’s simple to host webinar workshops for specific subjects or broader learning strategies. Schools can seek input from students or they can poll staff to find out which topics or skills students struggle with the most.
For students in need of a more focused, personalized approach, virtual tutoring sessions can be a huge help. Some career service departments allow students to register for dedicated 30- or 60-minute blocks with a staff or peer tutor.
It’s also important to consider that for some students, the adjustment to online education itself presents some challenges. Everything from attending lectures to engaging in discussions is different when it takes place virtually. Schools should anticipate this and be proactive by requiring students to attend an orientation specifically for online learners. It can help set the expectation that students will need to be open to new learning techniques and take responsibility for remaining engaged.
“An online learner must be aware of their virtual environment and how it differs from face to face,” Loatman says.
And don’t forget about the importance of academic advising. Making those sessions available to students in a virtual setting ensures that every learner is able to plan their coursework in a way that keeps them on track to graduate.
3. Resources for career development
Believe it or not, career services may be even more important for students in an online environment. One recent survey reports that 93 percent of distance learners chose to enroll specifically to fulfill career aspirations. With that in mind, institutions should really think about bringing career development opportunities to online learners. At a bare minimum, that should include offering a portal to connect students to job and internship opportunities.
But being able to identify openings won’t matter much if students don’t have the tools they need to secure those positions. Colleges and universities can offer a lot of services geared toward helping students secure employment both during and after school, such as resume workshops and mock interviews. Some schools even leverage practice interview software. These tools allow students to record themselves during a practice session, then review the video to identify ways to improve.
Students often find mentor programs invaluable for making professional connections and developing in their careers, and those relationships translate beautifully to the online environment. Schools can facilitate mentor-mentee interactions through a platform that incorporates video conferencing and other communication tools.
Even gatherings that are traditionally in-person events can work in a virtual environment. Consider hosting remote career fairs and employer webinars to help students connect with specific organizations.
4. Support for physical and emotional wellbeing
Students need adequate health resources regardless of how they attend class. Mental health experts point out online learners are just as vulnerable to mental illness and emotional stress as students attending physical classes. This means it’s essential for schools to offer virtual versions of the corresponding support services, including counseling, crisis interventions, mental health education and referral to disability services.
Also keep in mind that students will likely need routine medical care. Lack of physical presence on campus doesn’t have to be an obstacle, either. With the rise of telehealth services, it’s easier than ever to connect patients with providers who can conduct examinations, diagnose conditions, write prescriptions and more.
It’s also wise to remember that students value physical fitness, particularly Generation Z. While physical health resources have traditionally been relegated to on-site fitness facility access, schools with a large online student body have founds ways to encourage exercise. Some examples include health competitions, virtual intramural sports and on-demand fitness class streaming.
5. Aspects of campus life that reinforce a community feel
While it’s easy to forget about the typical socializing, activities and events that occur on a physical campus, students value those elements as much as anything during their college experience. The good news for schools is that students often take initiative to ensure they remain connected to their classmates and the larger community. They’re unafraid to set up online get-togethers like meetings for virtual student clubs and organizations, which allow students with similar personal and professional interests to connect with one another regardless of geographic location.
That said, institutions can do a lot to help students feel more connected to the college community. Virtual tours of the entire campus and also more specific destinations have become increasingly popular. Those videos are particularly compelling for incoming freshmen and transfer students, but they can also help reinforce what campus life is like for distance leaners who will spend little if any time on campus.
And consider how virtual events can help distance learners feel more connected with their peers and the overall institution. With the help of technology, everything from commencement ceremonies to homecoming festivities can be celebrated from a distance.
Stand out as a distance education provider
The elements that contribute to a positive student experience aren’t drastically different for online versus on-campus environments. In most cases, you just need to think about how you can adjust your existing instruction methods, resources and campus activities to work in a virtual setting.
As your institution continues to expand and improve its online program offerings, it’s likely that your faculty members will face a few challenges. But minor hiccups don’t have to cause major disruptions. Find out how to address (and even prevent) issues by visiting our article, “How College Instructors Can Avoid 5 Common Problems with Online Learning.”