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“Technological Problems, Human Solutions” – overcoming the biggest challenges online students face

In the mass rush to move almost every college course in the country online, everything that could go wrong did go wrong.  But that was an emergency, stopgap, measure.  Now that colleges have had some time to prepare, what are the primary obstacles that students face in getting a high caliber education online?  

We asked members of Calbright’s faculty, who are specialists in online education, what they see as the primary hurdles that colleges have to overcome to help students learn in an online format.  Broadly, their answers covered three different areas:

  1. Keeping the tech intuitive and easy
  2. Creating connections between students and instructors
  3. Creating a sense of accountability for work done

Keep the tech intuitive and easy

It’s right there in the name “online” learning.  If the tech doesn’t work well, almost nothing else can work at all.  But it is the college, not the students, who should be thinking about how the technology works. 

“When most people hear the phrase online learning, their minds often jump to long lectures given over a spotty Zoom connection, constant statements like “Can you see my screen now?“, and disruptions entering the classroom from multiple participants,” said Christopher Burk, a professor of Information Technology at Calbright.  Obviously learning is extremely challenging under these conditions.  

Ben Ringgenberg, also a professor of Information Technology, said that a number of things need to go right with technology in order for online learning to live up to its potential.  In addition to obvious issues, like having the necessary equipment and knowing how programs work, he detailed something most students won’t even consider:  “a comprehensive Learning Management system which works in tandem with a robust Student Information system to manage and dispense student data.”  

That’s something that will be invisible to most students if it’s working well, but that will cause huge headaches for them if it’s not. That’s the hallmark of good educational technology:  it takes demands off the shoulders of students and teachers, not make them adjust to ever more complex systems.  The more students and teachers are thinking about the technology, the less effective it is.

Create connections between students and instructors

“My biggest concern about online learning, and I think this is true for most teachers and campuses, is creating a course that can stand in for the person-to-person dynamic that live classes offer,” said Jennifer Smith, a professor of Workforce Readiness at Calbright.  “Asynchronous instruction is only successful when communication is clear.”

Burk agrees.  “A lack of connection to the person that grades my work is one of the main concerns I have with online education.”  

The issue, Smith said, is that “people are more likely to ask a person for support than an email without a face or a voice.”  Online faculty “need to be able to convey to students that they  can reach out to them if they need additional clarification and support” to a degree that classroom instructors usually don’t have to consider.  

Faculty are essential to this, but they don’t have to do it alone.  Calbright enlists a host of additional support personnel - including personalized academic support staff, counselors, and even free life coaches - to help students feel connected to their education in a personal, meaningful way.  Students will have different needs, but the system works when they never have to feel out of touch.  Online colleges have to invent ways to create that connection.  

A sense of accountability

There is often a moment of panic that can be unique to online learning when a student first enters their Learning Management System or Student Portal and wonders “what do I do now?”

It’s not just, as Smith adds, that “students need to know what the expectations are and how to achieve them,” it’s that the sense of isolation that comes with online learning also creates a lack of accountability for results.  Without that, Burk says, even excellent information can become “an incomprehensible course that doesn’t seem to have a logical flow.”  

That sense of “logical flow,” that “of course this task follows that task, and I can see how to get from A to B,” is much more crucial in a context where students are expected to move at their own pace and fit their classes around their schedules.  The freedom online education provides has to be managed with clear expectations if students are going to be able to use it well.  This has to be worked into every aspect of the online experience, from what’s written on syllabi to what’s included in emails to the way student portals are organized to how faculty communicate.  Wherever a student is in their course, their next step should be clearly visible.  

Technology is the opportunity and the problem at once.  Humanity is the solution

It’s important to realize that none of these issues - even the issue with the technology - are actually about technology, or lesson plans, or curriculum, specifically.  They’re about education as a human experience.  When you can create that sense of being a meaningful part of something larger, instead of just a customer, or a node on a network, or a person struggling alone in front of a screen, everything else with online education gets easier and better.  When you can communicate expectations in a way that makes them accessible and seem achievable, the sense of confusion that can come with an online education vanishes.  For many people, at that point it becomes just as good and useful as an in-person education.  Perhaps even more so.  Ironically, this requires thinking of an online education as a human experience, and not a technological one.  The experience of the students, not the needs of the system, need to come first.