As the popularity of online education spreads, the persistent perception that an online degree is easier or less valid than a traditional campus-based degree has started to fade. And as the perception has changed there are concerns about how students are doing in online classes.
While a recent study from the University of North Carolina Fayetteville State University found that students with strong grade point averages performed as well as students in traditional face-to-face lectures, students who were not at the top of the class struggled in both environments. Study authors David Allen, Fayetteville State’s associate vice chancellor for military education, and Dawn Wilson, a healthcare and management professor at the university, determined that students with a marginal GPA enrolling in online courses “could be setting themselves up for failure by taking courses for which they are not prepared.”
Allen and Wilson write that the key to success for low GPA students may not lay in creating the best online college, but in “more personal contact with the instructor, whether that is face-to-face, or electronically through online chat, texting, or discussion boards.” In order to help students who may be struggling with adapting to an online college course, Delgado Community College introduced the Delgado Online Readiness Module, DORM, in 2010.
As Delgado’s assistant dean Rene Cintron explained in a May 2012 interview with Campus Technology, DORM is designed to provide struggling students with assistance in the two critical areas of online education: familiarity with technology and study skills. Cintron explained that the school’s research showed that students “not getting” the technology of Delgado’s course management system was one of the main stumbling blocks to success.
While Delgado’s research shows that familiarizing students with the specific type of technology they will be working with is crucial to their success in an online college course, others in academia believe that teaching them effective habits for using that technology is just as important. In an August 2011 essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education Rob Jenkins, an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College, called for more schools to develop or adopt products like DORM and to place a greater focus on developing students’ study skills.
“I’m envisioning a one-credit course, taken online, that covers the technical requirements of online classes, familiarizes students with the pedagogical approaches they can expect, addresses candidly the time commitment and degree of responsibility and motivation required [to take an online course],” writes Jenkins. The amount of time students are required to commit to an online course is not insignificant, as Jacqueline Shaulis learned.
Shaulis, who recently completed an online college course, came to realize that just because a class is conducted via the internet doesn’t make it less demanding. She said that, because she wasn’t going to class in person, she “slacked off.”
“I ended up trying to complete a semester-long-course in two weeks, not fun or effective,” Shaulis said. “Online doesn’t mean easy, it means flexibility and maximized learning.”
The oft-noted flexibility of pursuing a college degree online has proven attractive to groups that previously may not have been unable to go to college. A recent study conducted by marketing firm Penn Schoen Berland on behalf Ashford University found that 80% of working moms believe that an online college program is better tailored to their needs than a traditional, campus-based program.
The ability to participate in classes when it is convenient can be appealing to parents of both genders, but the difficulty may be balancing work and family commitments with the coursework. Jeff Gordon, who is pursuing an MBA from the University of Phoenix, explained that it’s been fairly easy to work the five or six hours of class time a week around raising his children and his career as a blogger, but the difficulty has been in finding the time to study.
“I usually try and study another seven to eight hours a week, that’s on top of class time,” Gordon said. “I try to grab study time in one hour increments whenever I can, but sometimes I just have to study late at night or early in the morning when the kids are asleep.”
For Gordon one of the saving graces has been his ability to rely on his wife and family’s support. Because not everyone has a flexible work schedule or is lucky enough to have someone able to help with childcare Debalina Sarkar, post-doctoral associate at the University of Florida, encouraged students interested in pursuing an online degree to do extensive research on the strengths and demands of a school’s program.
Sarkar explained that “time management is essential” for students pursuing a college degree online and advises students to try and schedule out as much as is possible, Sarkar’s recommendations are echoed by other, accredited, individuals in the online education field.
Ray McNulty, Chief Learning Officer for Penn Foster College, recommends that students create reminders with all their due dates and try to schedule time to study every day. McNulty said that even though online college classes offer a greater flexibility, students “have to provide structure for themselves.”
Because not every class is a best-fit situation for every student, McNulty advises students to check out the resources available to them. He advises students to “create a support system” for themselves by examining the opportunities available through school.
McNulty explained that Penn Foster recently re-launched its community page in order to help students in online classes feel more connected to the university. One of the prominent features of the newly redesigned page allows students with similar backgrounds—such as military veterans or parents—or interests—such as those pursuing nursing or education degrees—to create a supportive community.
A support system can be one of the things that helps determine student success in an online college course. Alison Johnston, CEO of online tutoring company InstaEDU, advised students, some of whom may be returning to school after years away, to “ask for help early.”
“In the traditional college environment you can turn to the teacher’s assistant, or the person next to you, but online there isn’t that option,” said Johnston. Sarkar advised students to see if their school offers any free tutoring programs and to be thinking about their future after the class is over.
“Students should research about what kinds of jobs they will be able to get once the course is complete,” said Sarkar.
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