College students arrive in online degree programs with varying levels of competencies, but success in higher education requires many different skills. In addition to the basics, such as numeracy and literacy, certain soft skills associated with virtual work, including adaptability and teamwork, are critical to online student success. Distance learning students must also master technical skills, such as using computer platforms and Internet systems, to function effectively in school. Below, I highlight five best practices in distance learning that will help online students develop the skills necessary for success. Schools that adopt these selected best practices will see students experience greater levels of success and online engagement.
The most frequently cited single reason for student drop-out—both online and at brick-and-mortar institutions—is career indecision. Ensuring students have a clear education plan that matches their career goals should be an institutional priority. Numerous online tools exist to help students choose an academic field that fits their strengths and career goals. One specific career choice program that my school, Sheridan College in Toronto, adopted is the Idea Generator. This program offers a short online quiz that directs students to a career area keyed to their interests and strengths. We have also developed an online career planning micro-course, which guides students through the career selection process. Both these tools have been developed and evaluated by certified career counsellors.
Online students often develop feelings of isolation. They miss out on the excellent benefits in-person sessions provide, such as the chance to forge connections with faculty and engage socially with fellow students. To help online students feel more connected and assist them in accessing some of the same content and services available to campus students, educators and administrators should employ social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, along with other chat functions. Social media can help students feel more connected to their school by allowing for more interaction. Student affair educators who oversee orientation activities should develop a social media program that helps connect distance learners to the institution for more engagement and higher rates of online student success.
Many best practices in distance learning utilize technology, particularly when communicating with students. College staff should offer electronic advising, known as e-advising. This allows advisers to engage with students for guidance sessions and assist them in overcoming barriers. Technology systems can also help prevent the road-blocks that hamper online student success. Many learning management systems have an “early alert” function that identifies students experiencing difficulties and then connects them with advisers or faculty members who can offer e-advising. Moreover, e-advising should be available in both synchronous or asynchronous channels so students can access support systems and garner advice about their educational journey. In my own institution, we have an “ask an adviser” email service. This service features a 24-hour turnaround time on all inquiries so students can get their questions answered quickly. Additionally, our advisers often call students to further explain resources that are available and to give students a chance to ask additional questions.
Keeping students afloat academically is another key practice. A great number of online avenues can serve as remedial or tutorial resources. These external resources can augment what occurs in the online classroom. Free online tutoring services like Learn to Be and other massive open online courses (moocs) help students master additional information and assist with remediation around topics ranging from psychology to statistics. Additionally, a number of universities provide online tutors or writing support services directly to students, allowing them to submit their reports or papers for review. These services do not provide editing, but they do provide feedback to students to help them identify deficient areas and support the development of critical writing skills.
Moocs have spawned some unique online community groups or study groups. These groups can help provide additional support around specific courses or topics. To some extent, the creation of these groups enhances the students’ experiences, encouraging them to engage more deeply with the content of the course and to connect with peers who have some level of affinity to their same course of study. Online students can meet up with other students in person at local libraries and coffee shops. Administrators should make students aware of these opportunities. Online education has opened up many avenues for those who need the time and flexibility to balance family, work and personal demands. Educators still need to continue to refine their efforts to respond to the unique needs of online students. I suggest using these five best distance learning practices for increased online student engagement and success.
About the Author: Joe Henry is the associate dean of student success at Sheridan College. He is a 2012 DiverseCity Fellow and is actively completing his EdD in higher education at Northeastern University in Boston. He writes frequently on student affairs and success. Joe can be found online at LinkedIn and Twitter.
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