The technologically advanced world in which we live has opened innovative modes of learning. One of these modes is known as distance education. Distance education (DE) is students receiving education online instead of in a physical classroom setting. For some students, the flexibility of attending a virtual class appeals to them, especially if they have to work full time jobs or have children to rear. In my quest to understand how my DE learners perceive a DE course, I posed a question to my enrolled students: “Why did you take a DE course?” I received a few responses that made me think differently about how I was going to approach my DE course.
“Going to school online is just easier than sitting in a classroom.” – Anonymous Student
“I think this DE class will be less work than going to school every day.” – Anonymous Student
“I like that I can just do my work whenever I get ready. In a regular college class, there are too many strict deadlines.” – Anonymous Student
I have to admit that I was not surprised by the responses I received because some people, especially those who have never taken a DE course, perceive DE as an “easy” approach to education. However, a DE course is often quite difficult for some learners because this type of course requires a level of discipline, time management and comprehension that takes some learners years to acquire. “The most significant drawback [to DE courses] is that some of the adults taking classes online lack self-discipline and time management” (Wahlstrom et al., 2003). Therefore, without a strong grasp of the soft skills needed to pass a DE course, learners might find themselves in an overwhelming cycle of confusion, setbacks, and unanswered questions, which in turn results in poor work completion and eventual withdrawal from the course.
With an ever-growing push towards online learning, educators across every grade level from primary to higher education are now charged with the task of learning how to implement an effective and rigorous virtual classroom environment for those students who choose the non-traditional route to education. Understanding how to comfortably navigate a virtual classroom while building student engagement is not easy, but from my experience with teaching online, I am learning daily what works and what does not work for my students.
As a college professor teaching a DE course, I have come to realize two key challenges that I face in trying to guide my DE learners to course completion: (1) retaining students and (2) building a reciprocal relationship with my students. I know that if I can bridge the gap between students engaging among each other and with me, then I can reduce the number of students who end up dropping the course once they begin to feel helpless, alone and overwhelmed. There is no doubt that DE courses can be a lonely learning environment, so part of an instructor’s role in teaching a DE course is to predict the student behaviors that result in withdrawal and to address each behavior before it becomes an issue. Consequently, I have gleaned from my experience the importance of the following tips in helping my students reach the finish line in a DE course:
• Daily Check-In – This is time consuming, but it only takes a minute to send a quick email, “Are you, okay?” After the first couple of weeks, students will not need you as much, and they begin to feel secure in their ability to complete assignments. Plus, daily check-ins make students realize that you actually care about their progress; therefore, they are more willing to address their concerns with you than with an instructor who never sends a message, let alone respond to a student’s concern.
• Timely Grading/Feedback – If students see that once they have completed an assignment the instructor has graded promptly, then they will be prone to meeting their deadlines. Instructors always pressure students about deadlines and getting their work submitted on time, but they also need to grade and embed quality feedback on students’ work in a timely manner. Not only are students able to see their grades, but prompt grading and relevant feedback make students feel their work is important, which it is.
• Encourage Collaborative Learning – Now, this is a challenging yet rewarding tip if done well. It takes weeks or even the entire semester to establish a community of learners where students feel secure and confident enough to express themselves and to engage each other with shared knowledge and/or concerns; however, through weekly mandated discussion questions, weekly forum topics, and even assigning points to students to initiate and facilitate a threaded topic for discussion, instructors may begin to see students connect with one another.
• Deadline Bulletin – All assignments, quizzes, exams, and projects have dates and deadlines posted on the assignments or direction pages, correct? Although we think a one-time mention of dates is all DE learners need to see to meet their deadlines, the truth is that for many DE students reading all of the information about their course can become staggering and muddled in their minds. “Adult learners find it difficult to become quickly aware of and comfortable with new patterns of communication, to learn to manage their time, and to take responsibility for their own learning” (O’Lawrence, 2007). Therefore, to help students to assimilate to their online classroom, instructors should be prepared to create a reader friendly list of due dates for all assignments. Implementing a time management calendar for all assignments (as a graded assignment) is also a good method to build students’ time management skills and confidence about completing their tasks on time.
• Skype Works! – Establishing your virtual presence in a DE course is critical to promoting reciprocal relationships with students. Okay, just because we do not have a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom where our students see us twice or more a week does not mean we are invisible. Scheduling a periodical Skype session throughout the semester allows students to place a name with a face, chat with instructors face-to-face about their progress or concerns, meet other students in the cohort, and it makes them feel less intimidated by the instructor behind the computer screen, giving orders about assignments and exams.
Distance education is the face of the new classroom, so educators have to embrace it and work twice as hard as traditional classroom teachers to see results. Teaching from the comforts of home sounds ideal, but the added time, attention, and commitment to excellence it takes to reach students that you do not see triples the time you spend in front of the computer. However, if educators wish to produce a high percentage of passing students in a DE course, then they must model what they expect from their students: a dedication to the process, a commitment to excellence, a collaborative learning environment, and an effective time management system that ensures students’ course completion.