Like all students, those enrolled in online courses reach the end of their academic term with a sigh of relief, but may also fear the start of a new semester and the new challenges it will bring. That’s why even though visions of sugarplums are nice, I suspect that most online students hope that Santa brings them a few very specific gifts that will make their online courses easier to manage:
- 24-hour Real-Time Technical Support: Online courses are generally advertised as courses that students can work on in their own time. But that doesn’t mean that there is always adequate tech support available at 4 A.M. the night before an assignment is due. Sometimes, students are required to submit a help request and wait for a response. This system can be frustrating, similar to opening up a beautifully wrapped gift, only to find socks inside. You know you will use them eventually, and it’s better than no gift at all, but c’mon: socks? That’s all? By contrast, expanded online and telephone tech support is a gift no student will refuse.
- More personal interactions with instructors: I always have students who stop by my office hours even if they don’t have a specific question, just because they want to connect with me. For them, it can be reassuring to simply interact with their instructor, to make sure I know who they are, and am interested in their success. Dr. Susan Ko reinforced this need in her advice for online instructors faced with difficult students: “A phone call, real-time chat or IM or even a Skype session with video cam might be used to facilitate engagement with the student.”
- Etiquette enforcement: One of the biggest challenges that all students face is difficulty dealing with other students in the course. Some students do not take the course seriously and create distractions, try to rally students together against the professor, dominate discussions, or continually make irrelevant or unacceptable comments. For online students, this is especially problematic, because many online discussions are a large part of the course grade and students are expected to respond directly to their fellow students’ comments. Yet faculty members are not always comfortable enforcing course etiquette rules. But as Dr. Ardelle Pate explains, “etiquette is a learned behavior. It has to be taught.” Instructors can teach all their students to maintain appropriate online contact by enforcing the rules not only at the start of the course and in the syllabus, but also throughout the term.
- Tutoring: A common complaint among online students is that they do not get enough support from their instructors. Many of these complaints, however, are the result of misunderstandings about the role of the professor. Most instructors are required to complete only a specific amount of online office hours, and they are not required to teach material that is not of the course. This means that students with skills gaps that prevent them from succeeding in a course need to seek tutoring to fill those gaps. For example, it is not the responsibility of the Calculus professor to teach a student basic algebra outside of class, yet students often demand such extra instruction, thinking that it’s part of the professor’s job. Expanded opportunities for extra help from tutors will help students in many disciplines get the assistance they need in a timely manner.
- An End to Mismanaged Group Assignments: Even the most basic survey of student complaints about online courses shows that group assignments are sort of like getting coal in your stocking. What did you do to deserve this? It seems like there’s always one or two group members who do not do their share, or rely on other group members to make the group successful. Harvard University offers management tips for faculty members who assign group projects, but online courses take place in a different context than face-to-face courses. Students in some online courses complete their work at different times and are on different schedules, making true collaboration even more challenging. Instructors should consider eliminating group projects whenever possible or if they are not relevant to course goals. However, in some fields, like business, group collaboration is a necessary skill because it is required in the work force. Students would probably love to see their professors take more proactive roles in ensuring equal work distribution in group projects.
There are probably many other improvements online students would like to see in the ways that their courses are designed and managed, but my mother always told me that if I was too greedy and wanted too much, Santa might not give me anything. So this list is just a starting point. There’s always next year!
What changes to online courses would you like to see? Submit your ideas here!