Editor's Note: This post is an online instructor's response to an earlier article, 5 Things Students Hate About Online Learning Degrees. Written by online instructor and course designer, Matt Crosslin, this post is part of an ongoing series of conversations between real students and faculty on the quality of online education and learning inside accredited degree programs. If you teach online, or are enrolled in an online learning program, join the conversation about how online colleges are evolving to meet the quality standards and learning needs of both instructors and students.
As I read the top student complaints about quality issues in online education, I saw so much that I could relate to about the state of online learning. As an online instructor, I work the front lines and see where changes can be made in online education. And while it is true that there's plenty of room for improvement in the online learning sphere, and while many online students' complaints are accurate and valid, not all complaints are what they seem. After all, there is always another side to a story. Here are my thoughts, as an online instructor, on the common online student complaints against online courses.
I agree there are some disengaged online instructors out there, I can't deny it. But there is another angle that many students neglect to see or include in their critique of the absent online professor: online students themselves often fail to take advantage of the many avenues that instructors make available for the sole purpose of encouraging interaction. I do everything to open up my online classes to students. I respond to emails within 24 hours. I let students turn in drafts of projects so I can give them free advance feedback, which is designed to help them obtain better grades. I keep my Meebo chat widget open 15 hours a day. Yet only about 2-5% of my students take advantage of any of these teaching strategies I use to open up my courses and engage them as online students. Instead, what I often get (in high percentages) is a mountain of excuses from online students about why they need to be let off the hook, excused from the assigned work, or let go for copying from Wikipedia - you name it. Students who completely ignore my instructions often complain that I am “giving” them a bad grade. But the truth is they lose course points due to the fact that they left out a major component (and/or also didn’t send in their assignment in advance for my free feedback). So, when students talk about poor instructor feedback – ask them what the syllabus said. Then ask them if they followed the advice and steps in the syllabus. Finally, follow it up with what response they got from the instructor. If they followed the syllabus, and did not get the response the instructor promised in the syllabus, then there is a problem.
Customer service can always be improved. Companies that serve the best usually stay on top because they constantly evaluate and refine their methods and procedures. Many online colleges could learn from this mind set. But is the college always at fault for poor quality or service? I can’t count the number of students that end up calling the wrong place inside the university for assistance because they simply didn’t listen. Some students are lax about checking their official school email (which is usually the school's only real means of getting in touch). Others wait until the last minute, miss deadlines, then demand they be given an exception despite their forgetfulness. A report of bad customer service might be just that; on the other hand it might be a student not realizing, or wanting to admit, they made a mistake or failed to follow procedure. On a side note, if you choose to enroll in an online college that is herding thousands of students with only a small staff. . . well, you get what you pay for. The larger the college, the higher the chance that you will be treated like another number. If you want individual attention, and better customer service, pay for it at a smaller institution.
Group assignments: almost everyone hates them. But everyone has to be a part of a team to meet the requirements of most jobs in the work world these days. You think Dilbert is fiction? Wait until you get out into the office world. No one will care if you have lazy co-workers. And you’ll have to learn how to complete team projects with or without their help. Look – if you complain about getting ‘cookie-cutter’ responses to individual work, or not getting enough individual attention, the best solution is for us to put you in groups so we can have more time to interact with each of you. Also, you can’t deny the solid theory behind group work. You really are learning more when you put in the effort, even if you don’t feel like you’re learning more in the moment. If you are genuinely putting in more work than other group members, your reward is that you will get more out of the assignment. Isn’t that the goal of all education- to get the most out of it? Are you worrying more about actually learning better habits and skills, or forcing other online students to do as much work as you?
Quality control exists in pretty much every online education program and school. If a college is accredited, it must maintain strict quality control. Whether people follow these quality standards or not is another question entirely. Do your homework. If it was time to get a new computer, would you just run out and get the snazziest new laptop you could find, or would you look online first to find some consumer reviews? Do the same review diligence with your online college. Don’t look for perfection – just look for schools that are responsive. (Editor's Note: Check the Get Educated college directory for online student reviews of more than 3,000 degrees.)
I work as an instructional designer. Believe me, I get it. Some online courses are not well designed. But as online learning degree programs increase in popularity, many colleges are working to change this. Course design aside, online students often focus their course complaints on learning activities that are actually quite good for them (group projects ring a bell?). I know some learning activities are overused to the point of being cliché. But personally I would put those in the same category as group projects – the more you engage in them, the more you will get out of them. Plus, you might just find that online course design mysteriously gets better the more you, as a student, engage. Much of what I touch on in this post are generalizations about critical online learning issues. Most students I have taught online are hard-working, bright, and diligent, and most of the complaints that I hear about online learning are legitimate. But there will always be a handful of students that only look at one side of the problem, and my intent was to look at just a few possibilities of what could exist on the other side of the issue. I invite other instructors to come up with more insights, and to join me in this critical discussion. For more insider perspectives on online education quality issues, check out Online Teacher Tough Love: 3 Online Learning Tips for Students, Warning to Students! 8 Things Not to Ask Your Online Teachers, Online Learning Faculty Reveal Top 5 Annoying Student Complaints and Becoming and Online Teacher: 5 Perils to Ponder.
About the Author: Matt Crosslin, is an instructional designer at The University of Texas at Arlington’s Center for Distance Education. Matt has been online since 1991, and involved in education since 1994. He has been involved in distance education in some way since he first came online, including being an avid explorer of emerging technologies.