One of the biggest challenges facing online education today is the fact that many people still feel isolated or even alienated by it. This is true of both faculty and students. When the human element is removed, people tend to feel less engaged in a situation. Admittedly, this is primarily true for faculty and students who are over the age of 35 and especially those who are 45 and up.
The younger generations are more adjusted to interfacing digitally and do not tend to feel isolated when communicating with digital tools. However, there are some key issues that can make anyone in an online classroom feel less than welcome. Let's address these issues one at a time.
"I feel like I'm talking to myself." - This is a common complaint from both online students and faculty. What people really mean by this is that the other participants in the class are not responding as quickly as they would like. When we communicate digitally it is often through text (SMS) messaging. This is a real-time communication much like the now antiquated chatrooms where people respond to one another in rapid succession. However, in most online classrooms students and faculty are communicating through discussion boards and email, which are not real-time.
When I first started as an online student I found myself checking to see if I had any replies or responses every hour, but after the first week or two, I realized that was unrealistic. Even though I was usually the first to respond to a discussion thread it was common for there to be very few responses until the final due day for the discussion. When emailing my instructors it was rare to get a response within 24hrs.
One way to combat this is, of course, to explain to students and faculty what to expect. However, another solution is to offer synchronous sessions along with the asynchronous communication. During a live lesson with video & audio capability faculty can engage with the students directly and the students can communicate live with one another.
Another option would be to create an app that allows for real-time communication within the classroom almost like a social media feed for each course. Some of the more robust LMS platforms are offering this option.
"There's too much work." - This is another complaint heard often about the online classroom, especially from students. Sometimes, faculty may have a propensity to create more work for online students in order to assure they are learning the lessons. Students, on the other hand, tend to have poor time management skills and underestimate the amount of work undergrad/grad course loads will demand.
It is important for faculty to understand that the reason most students opt for an online college experience is so they can fit it into their busy life schedule of working full-time and raising a family. While we must ensure that the online experience is as robust and similar to an on-campus experience as possible, we also want our students to succeed. The best way to do this is to never assign more than one big project per week. For instance, if there is a major term paper due that week do not also schedule a mid-term exam. Always stagger the highest point value assignments. If possible give students an easy week in between their most valuable assignments, this isn't always possible.
Faculty may become stressed that they are required to grade all of the assignments that come in waves each week. Students become impatient when waiting on their grades and this can lead to more stress. Staggering large point value assignments is good for both the student and the faculty. I recommend when it all possible having all assignments graded by the end of the next week from the final due date. Waiting more than a week on a grade will leave students feeling frustrated.
"No one is paying attention." - This is less of a complaint and more of a situation on both sides of the spectrum. Faculty may sometimes feel that online courses are a burden as they are used to teaching on campus and don't put their full effort into an online course. This can be apparent in sloppy writing, misplaced assignment dates, and broken links that were not checked before launch. When a student experiences an online class like this they will feel much less engaged and could harbor resentment toward their instructor.
From a student perspective, they are not paying attention because they do not feel engaged by either the material presented or the instructor, perhaps both. It is up to us to ensure that the material presented does not overwhelm a reader or bore a viewer. This means we have to chunk material into digestible pieces and ensure that any digital enhancement we added to the class is indeed a value-add and not simply there because we need a gap filler. No one wants to watch ten hours of talking head videos.
A good way to determine if a portion of a course is appreciated by the student is by asking them their opinion. I have found that it is better to ask directly after viewing a video or interactive material rather than asking at the end of a course. Students may not remember the whole course if we ask them to take a survey at the end. My experience shows it is also beneficial to separate surveys about course materials from surveys about instructors in order to not taint one with the other.Taking the student responses and then improving upon the material and teaching methods will improve student engagement in future course offerings.
"Only Human" - Regardless of our best intentions we sometimes make mistakes. This is simply because we are human and mistakes happen. This is also important to remember when either taking an online course or teaching one. Students and instructors alike will be much more amicable with each other if they communicate clearly and frequently. The less a student or instructor know about each other the more likely they are to dehumanize them if even unintentionally. This is why introductions that offer a little glimpse into your personal life are beneficial. Video introductions are even more useful as they help everyone put a name, face, and personality together. The more we can mimic an on-campus experience in an online setting the more likely everyone will feel that the experience was beneficial.
Online education is only a tool, how we use that tool will determine if the experience is positive or negative. We can't expect digital tools to provide us with human interaction as only another human can do that. However, we can use the digital tools provided to create an open, friendly, and communicative environment. If faculty and students are taught how to use the tools appropriately then communication can remain open. This is why it is important to offer both faculty and students a help desk or training to use the tools at their disposal.