The At-Risk Students' Guide to Finishing an Online Degree, Part 1

Posted on April 12, 2013


Ready for a shock? We're fans of online education. To us, there is no better way to mold your pursuit of a degree to fit the schedule of your life, and not the other way around. It puts access to schools, courses, and professors within your reach that you never would have had otherwise. In many cases it makes an affordable undertaking out of what's become an outrageously costly endeavor.

However, just like traditional campuses, online schools are not without their share of students who drop out. Online students drop out at a rate that is 15-20% higher than students who attend class in person. All things being equal, this would seem to imply that in-person education is the option that ensures success more readily.

But as is almost always the case in life, all things are not equal, particularly when it comes to education while working. Fewer than 40% of online undergraduates go to school full-time, and according to a recent survey, the "average" online student works full-time (compared to just 20% of college students as a whole who do so.

Because of their busy schedules, these online students with job and families face risks that can put their degree completion on the line. If you count yourself among their number, check out these tips and tools for guaranteeing you see the quest through to the end.

Risk 1: You get fired, fail class, or both.

The most obvious risk of being a degree-seeking online student with a job is that you'll spread yourself too thin and succeed at nothing. Dedicate too much night time to studying and you'll be too tired to do your job well the next day. Try to put in too many hours at work and your grades will slip. It's definitely a balancing act, and one that every student will have to experiment with on his or her own to find the perfect ratio of time spent.

How you can overcome it:

  • Communicate with your professor and boss: The worst thing you can do is wait until the day a major project is due to frantically email your professor with excuses for why yours isn't ready. Reach out to your professor at the start of the semester and let him or her know that you also work or have family obligations that may conflict with schoolwork. Individual profs may be willing to work with you, but not if you wait until the last minute.

    Scott Mason is the program manager in the Office of Distance Education at the University of Houston. He says, "If students tell their employers and professors that they're working and going to school, it might make them more sympathetic to their issues or concerns, especially if asking for an extension for an assignment or test. However, students shouldn't expect to receive special treatment. Most of their fellow classmates are probably doing the same thing."

  • Combine the two: Most businesses give employees some kind of lunch break or other rest breaks during their work period. Don't waste that time gossiping with coworkers or reading a magazine; spend that time cracking the books or knocking out a little homework. If you're asking, "What work breaks?", you need to look into whether your employer is breaking state law by not giving you a rest period. Although there is no federal law requiring employers to give lunch or other breaks, several states mandate short breaks for every four hours worked.
  • Don't take on too much: Jillian Reading is an academic advisor in the School of Public Health & Health Professions at the University of Buffalo. Although she said working while going to school is beneficial not just for the economic aspect but for the experience a student can gain, Reading cautioned against trying to work more than 20 hours per week. She said students in certain majors might want to consider leaving work entirely to focus on their degree, if possible.

    "Students who are pursuing science-based degrees that require extensive laboratory components come immediately to mind," she said, "or those students who are looking to apply to competitive graduate or professional programs and need extremely high GPAs in their coursework."

Tools to use:

  • Time management apps: If you're like two-thirds of 18- to 29-year-olds, you own a smartphone. With the planning and calendar apps of an iPhone or Android at your side, there's no excuse for ever letting an assignment fall through the cracks. Without a smartphone, a good old-fashioned calendar or personal planner work just as well. The key is to write everything down somewhere.

    Don't worry about buying a calendar app; free options abound. For Android, My Class Schedule, School Helper, and Yasp have very strong ratings by users. For iPhones (and Android), Trello is a great app for individual or group project task scheduling. CalenMob, a reliable version of the Google Calendar for Apple, is also a solid choice.

  • Efficiency tools: Reading gave us two special recommendations of productivity apps that she finds particularly helpful to all her students. The first is Evernote for taking and storing notes and class documents that can be easily accessed from anywhere with an Internet connection. She also likes iAnnotatePDF for highlighting or taking notes on lecture slides and other PDF documents. We would add to those a flashcard app like Flashcards+ and a dictionary app.

Risk 2: Your health suffers.

In any situation where a person is under significant pressure to perform, is faced with a seemingly never-ending list of tasks that need addressing, and is constantly stressed, maintaining good health is going to be an issue. The harmful effects of stress — high blood pressure, depression, muscle pain, loss of sex drive — are well-documented, but stress is not the only risk factor.

Being constantly on the go encourages people to eat fast food, which we don't even need to mention is usually a health no-no. It may also mean cutting back on sleep, which would be bad enough if stress wasn't already causing you sleep problems. Sleep is vital to overall health but particularly knowledge retention, so those long nights you're studying may be doing more harm than good when it comes to remembering information.

In short, working online students run the risk of damaging their health to the point they get sick and can neither work nor study. And, really, is education even worth it if you have to damage your health in the process?

How you can overcome it:

  • Exercise: If your job requires you to be up on your feet moving around, thank your lucky stars; sitting at a desk for both work and school is far too much inactivity. If that's your situation, look for every opportunity to move your body. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Get your textbooks on tape and walk around while you listen to them. Even just standing at your desk instead of sitting could literally save your life. The general rule of 30 minutes of exercise per day still applies.
  • Don't sacrifice your sleep: Contrary to the longstanding 8-hour rule, the optimum amount of sleep for health and productivity seems to be between 6.5-7.5 hours. But what's more important than sleep quantity is sleep quality. Good quality sleep comes from having a restful environment, exercising regularly (another good reason to move around), cutting out caffeine, and going to bed at the same time each night.
  • Watch what you eat: We understand the temptation of fast or packaged food: it's generally cheap, it's easy to pack and eat on the go, and it's usually pretty tasty. But since you're going to such an effort to improve your life by earning a degree, why set yourself back by not taking care of your health? Or think of it this way: junk food may be cheap, but an angioplasty is not.

    Instead of throwing a candy bar in your backpack, bring along a banana (which cost about $0.15 each) or an apple (about $0.50) and some peanut butter, which will give you protein and fiber. For an easy dinner, throw a russet potato (about $0.33) in the oven for an hour while you study. Simple tips like these are all over the Internet; all you really need is the determination to eat better.

Tools to use:

  • Health apps: It's never been easier to find an app that streamlines your efforts to get healthy and lets you have fun doing it. Take your workouts social with apps like Fitocracy and Zombies, Run!. Apps like Pocket Yoga and Workout Trainer teach you hundreds of exercises that you can do without going to a gym. For tips and recipes for healthy eating, apps like Fooducate have you covered, and Food Planner helps you save time at the grocery store.
  • Stress and sleep apps: Sometimes you have to make time to just zone out, even if it's only for a few moments. In those instances, a meditation app like Self can work wonders. Or you can play a mindless game of slingshotting birds through space. For sleep help, try Relax Melodies to drift off and Sleep as Android to track your sleep and wake you up gently.
  • Study area supplies: Setting up a healthy, ergonomic study area is extremely important for online students. For your mouse, we're fans of the Logitech Trackman to stave off carpal tunnel. Microsoft's 4000 is a good, inexpensive ergonomic keyboard. Whatever chair you use should give you good back support and let your knees bend at a 90-degree angle. Refer to OSHA's guide to computer workstations for more ergonomic tips.

Risk 3: You lose your motivation.

At a certain point in your journey toward an online degree, there is a risk that your motivation will begin to wane. You may forget why you wanted to get that degree in the first place and begin to come at your schoolwork halfheartedly. You may think you can just power through on sheer stubbornness, but you shouldn't underestimate the power of motivation in learning.

For example, a new study by researchers at the Educational Testing Service entitled "Motivation Matters: Measuring Learning Outcomes in Higher Education" found personal motivation enables students to perform "significantly and consistently" better on tests than their peers. Researchers from Reed College found in 2004 that college roommates who are studious can have "strong effects" on academic performance. This means that for online students, especially ones with families, the risk of distraction from "roommates" harming your grades might be a concern.

How you can overcome it:

  • Remember why you're there: Sure, you're making money at your current job, but what are you missing out on without a degree? Well, on average over a lifetime, about $1 million for those with just a high school diploma. You're also ensuring your job security. During the recession, jobless rates were inversely proportionate to education levels: 7% for bachelor's holders, 11% for associate degree holders, and 16% for those with just a high school education.
  • Get involved: Connecting with your fellow students is a crucial part of the college experience. Commiserating with them over your shared problems understanding a certain lesson will help you realize you're not going it alone. Reading suggests interacting with students who've successfully taken classes while working to get their tips and tricks.
  • Set goals and reward yourself: We mentioned not trying to take on too much, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't set reasonable study or grade goals for yourself. Make sure they're realistic, otherwise you'll burn yourself out. When you reach your goals, celebrate by spending an evening with family or watching a movie with friends or whatever it is you do to recharge.

Tools to use:

  • Class forums: Many individual online courses will have class forums that are required for class participation grades; most of them have an area dedicated to homework questions and off-topic discussions. Make use of the former if you need it, and the latter early and often. Find out who your classmates are, what they do, how old they are, what they think about the class. That's what college is all about.
  • Motivational apps: There really is an app for everything. Lift lets you set any kind of goal, from ceasing to bite your fingernails to passing the GMAT, and get support from your friends along the way. For motivational sayings on the go, use Inspirational Quotes. For movie pep talks, just fire up the YouTube app and queue up the Braveheart speech.
  • Lean on family: While they can be a distraction, family members are a built-in support team you'd be foolish to overlook. According to Reading, "I recommend sitting down with family members and explaining what you are undertaking and how much work/commitment it will require. Family members who are supportive of student efforts are key." Being up-front and honest may also help you avoid arousing resentment in them over how much time you are spending studying and working.

There's nothing easy about getting a degree, online or otherwise, and for students with time constraints it's even harder. Knowing what you're up against is half the battle of making it all the way through to graduation day.

Autism and Online Learning: A Guide for Teachers

Posted on April 05, 2013

Today, one in every 88 American children is on the autism spectrum. Autism affects more than 2 million people in the U.S. and tens of millions worldwide. But it hasn't always been this way. Statistics show a tenfold increase in autism in the past 40 years, and prevalence rates are increasing 10%-17% each year.

With autism on the rise, many schools struggle to meet the needs of autistic students. Often, autistic adults do not take the next step to go on to college or meaningful employment, even though they may be incredibly gifted. Letting students fall behind should not be an option.

If traditional classrooms struggle to effectively educate autistic students, what can online education offer autistic learners? Tech tools and virtual learning environments present an opportunity to better serve autistic students with flexibility and resources that are well suited to guide them in learning. The more educators learn about working with autistic students, the better equipped teachers and students will be for success.

The Needs of Autistic Students

Autism represents a broad spectrum of students, from high-functioning individuals to those with significant disability. "You've got some kids who are brilliant in one area and can't work at all in another area. There's really a range," explains autism consultant Lisa Jo Rudy. Each autistic individual is unique with their own set of needs, making it difficult for some educational programs to reach every student. But there are common characteristics that online educators should be aware of and work with, including anxiety and difficulties with attention, communication, and social interaction, as well as a need for multiple learning styles.

Strong feelings of anxiety are common among those with autism or Asperger syndrome. Researchers have found that more than 80% of children with autism have at least one anxiety disorder, and many young adults with Asperger syndrome feel intense anxiety, some to a point that requires treatment. Bullying, being put on the spot, time limits, and win-lose situations can be a source of anxiety for autistic students.

Communication abilities will vary among individual students, but all people with autism experience language and communication difficulties of some kind. Teaching Students With Autism: A Resource Guide for Schools identifies common language difficulties among autistic students, including a lack of eye contact, unusual gestures, a lack of expressive language skills, and a difficulty in changing topics.

Social interaction for autistic students can be a challenge, which makes it difficult for these individuals to participate in class discussions. Teaching Students With Autism explains that people with autism have difficulty reading body language and may not pick up on important social cues. They also typically have trouble understanding the perspectives of others.

Attention difficulties are also common among autistic students. They may find it difficult to give their attention to important concepts, instead focusing on insignificant details. A short attention span, and difficulty shifting attention from one stimulus to the next is also common.

Autistic students often need to be presented with a variety of learning styles. Stephen Edelson of the Autism Research Institute explains, "It appears that autistic individuals are more likely to rely on only one style of learning." That means autism educators will need to offer multiple learning styles — visual, auditory, and hands-on — to discover the method that works best for each student.

Success for Autistic Students Online

The benefits of online education can be life-changing for autistic students. One 17-year-old with autism, Daniel, found success participating in massive open online courses (MOOCs) with Coursera. Daniel took a modern poetry class from Penn, thriving in the exclusively online format. He and his parents discovered that the online learning system worked well with his social skills and attention deficit, and the rigorous academic curriculum required him to stay on task. Says Daniel, "I can't yet sit still in a classroom, so [Coursera's online offering] was my first real course ever. During the course, I had to keep pace with the class, which is unheard of in special ed. Now I know I can benefit from having to work hard and enjoy being in sync with the world."

College student Ryan Fox has experienced similar success in online learning. For Fox, high school was distracting and stressful. He had trouble keeping up with teachers and had to start his school day all over again when he got home, relearning all of the information he didn't understand or hear the first time around. But when Fox was introduced to an online learning environment, it made him feel "very organized, calm, and safe." With online learning, he was able to find order and correctness, and knew what to expect, with no surprises and limited changes.

Where Fox struggled in traditional school, he thrives online. He's able to get his schoolwork done quickly and needs almost no accommodations. Says Fox, "When I was really little, I was curious and loved to learn, but then for a while I got so frustrated I forgot what that was like. I think any student who has certain needs and wants to rediscover his or her love of learning should try online learning. I really believe that in the future everyone will learn this way! We will all be able to learn from the very smartest people on Earth, and we will do it at our own pace every day. Our abilities will matter more than our disabilities."

How the Online Environment Helps Autistic Learners

Online learning can be a good idea for students with Asperger's or high-functioning autism. "For these students, open-ended time limits, the ability to repeat activities over and over again, and other modifications could be quite helpful," says Misty Jones, Board-Certified Behavior Analyst with Kids First Spectrum Services.

Studying online can remove elements of anxiety for autistic students. Although cyberbullying exists, online learning tools may allow autistic students to study without fear of negative interaction. The digital environment also offers the opportunity to remove anxiety triggers like being put on the spot and working within time constraints.

Autistic students can benefit from focused communication available in the online learning format. Many struggle to learn in a classroom environment where most communication is verbal. Online, autistic learners can benefit from visual tools, cues, and guided notes, as well as interactive and scenario-based learning. Autistic adult learners may also be more comfortable communicating online, especially through social media.

Online learning is also useful for catering to the social needs of autistic students. Communication is often more black and white, with limited social cues, and a lack of non-verbal communication that can be difficult to understand. Additionally, the typical discussion board format takes away students' pressure to respond immediately.

Educators can support autistic students' attention needs with clear, guided online instruction. In the online format, autistic students who may struggle with short attention spans and misplaced focus can be carefully walked through concepts in a step-by-step guide that emphasizes the most important information.

The online learning environment also offers the ability to teach the same material in multiple ways for a variety of students. As autistic learners typically benefit from learning in one specific style, each lesson should be available in multiple formats to allow students to choose the learning method that they can use best, whether they're visual, auditory, or hands on. This is difficult in the traditional classroom but possible online. Educators can offer lectures in audio or video, written text, or even in step-by-step interactive guides, all in one learning hub.

Additional benefits of online learning for autistic students include the ability to repeat learning materials and interactive elements over and over, flexible course offerings for students with "splinter skills," and open time limits. Autistic students also appreciate the consistent format of online learning, as it can be difficult to deal with small differences in each individual classroom.

There are many benefits to online learning for autistic students, but there can also be challenges. The online environment is so appealing to the autistic brain that some students struggle with cyber addiction, creating an unhealthy imbalance. Additionally, autistic students who need to develop in-person social interaction and appropriate behavior will not find many opportunities online. "Most of our students need so much real life practice to develop skills that the Internet is more of a leisure activity. It's supplemental to what they are learning in vivo," says behavior analyst Jones.

Recommendations for Online Teachers with Autistic Students

  • Make use of discussion boards: Being put on the spot can make autistic students feel anxious. But online course discussion boards give them the opportunity to create a planned and well-crafted response. Avoid live chats or group Skype discussions that may cause autistic students to freeze up.
  • Help students build their responses: A great way to improve online participation among autistic students is through planned, guided discussion. Autism consultant Lisa Jo Rudy recommends that online educators "have the conversation ahead of time, and prep them, and actually have them go through and prepare. ... Give them a lot of time and a lot of extra prep before the event itself." An online tool with question prompts that allows students to build responses for later discussion may be helpful.
  • Allow students to try again and again: Autistic students may need to take extra time to process information and complete tasks. They may even need to do activities more than once to understand the concept and focus. You can cater to this need by offering learning materials without limits on time or turns.
  • Carefully monitor for cyberbullying: The online learning environment can make autistic students feel safe, but bullying may bring up feelings of anxiety. Preventing cyberbullying can make all students feel more comfortable and open in online learning.
  • Allow students to pick and choose courses: Autistic students with splinter skills may do well in math but struggle with writing. Rather than restricting students to freshman- or senior-level courses across the board, give students the opportunity to pick the right course level for their skills.
  • Offer multiple learning formats: Encourage autistic students to adopt the learning style that works best for them by providing students with materials that fit different learning styles. Lectures may be delivered in audio/visual format or interactive walk-throughs, as well as in text documents.
  • Guide students on a learning path: Give students the freedom to spend as much time as they need, try tasks multiple times, and allow them to do it all in a variety of different formats, but remember to guide their learning at all times. Keep their focus and attention by always showing them the next step to take.

Online learning for autistic students is largely still in development, but there's growing potential, especially at the high school and college level. "So much of what goes on in high school is not about learning academics but about fitting in with other kids. If that is what's standing in the way of a young person finishing school or excelling academically, then online is the way to go," says Jones. "For those individuals who could go to college if it weren't for the social aspect, it is a great way for them to get an education."

What's next? Dictation tools, resources for turning ideas into outlines, and even exclusive online degree programs for autistic students. Says Lisa Jo Rudy, "A lot of those types of support can be built into virtual learning environments, and probably will be, because they're not only useful for students with autism, but for any student."

The Fundamentals of Feedback for Online Students

Posted on April 03, 2013

Of all the massive open online courses out there, what are the odds that the one to devolve into a massive mess in its first week would be called "Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application"?

On January 28, the Coursera class went live, and instructor Fatimah Wirth of Georgia Tech kicked things off by inviting her 41,000 pupils — many of them educators themselves — to form themselves into groups via a shared spreadsheet in Google Drive. Two hours and a crashed Google server later, students were voicing their confusion and consternation in hundreds of threads on the class forum. The group situation was not their only concern; many had trouble understanding class requirements or getting videos to play. By February 2, Coursera had announced it was suspending the course.

It's a tribute to MOOCs that this is the first major story of a massive open course falling on its face. Many educators have praised Professor Wirth for her willingness to even tackle the subject, much less push the envelope of the world of online education. And even though it didn't come off as planned, the class managed to teach us all about an important aspect of online learning: the impact of student feedback.

Whether they're reaching out for help, expressing gratitude for a particularly exceptional lesson, complaining about a shortcoming, or just proving that they're out there and they're listening, both for- and not-for-credit online students maximize their learning experience when they give their professors feedback.

Courses For Credit

In general, online classes taken for credit are much closer to the traditional classroom experience. Because they're much smaller (and paid for), professors can be expected to respond to feedback in a timely manner. Of course, the reverse is also true: one student of 30 has much less room to hide than one student of 30,000.

Participation in for-credit classes is even more vital in an online environment than a traditional one because the teacher is not able to see confusion written on a student's face as he lectures to know he needs to go back and review. If the professor hears silence from the student quarter, he has to assume everyone is up to speed in their learning. This participation applies not only to how much a student is learning but how well a professor is communicating.

Debbie Morrison is an online curriculum developer for The Master's College, who has taken both for-credit classes and MOOCs. (She was one of the 41,000 students of "Fundamentals of Online Education" and wrote about her experience on her blog.) She said she always tries to incorporate student comments with the closed, for-credit courses she designs.

"I like to analyze student feedback at two points in a newly developed course: first, halfway through, which serves as formative feedback that allows the instructor to make any adjustments to the course before it ends by reviewing the student responses," she said. "The best method is an anonymous survey with three or four open-ended questions that students can freely expand.

"The other point, which I recommend for all online courses, is the end-of-course feedback survey. This provides summative feedback for the professor, course designer, and institution administrators. This feedback is helpful for identifying the course from several perspectives: the technical experience (problems with videos, logging on, etc.), the instruction, the course interface, etc."

Since online schools are on the forefront of educational technology, students have an important role to play in shaping what works and what doesn't. For example, student feedback has helped educators develop some good practices for instructional blogging. Most online schools continually seek out feedback through permanent web forms, while others, as Morrison mentioned, employ surveys either before or after a course begins.

Some of the tips for for-credit classes can also apply to open courses, but they're especially advisable when you're enrolled in an online school where you'll be taking more courses in the future.

Read the syllabus first.Teachers of online courses — for-credit and otherwise — are no different than those in traditional classrooms in that they don't much appreciate questions that are plainly answered in the syllabus, introductory video, in the first forum thread, or somewhere else on a course's web page. Before you add a question (or worse, negative feedback) to a forum or email the professor, make sure your criticism does not qualify you for one of online students' most annoying complaints.

Be tactful. That being said, legitimate suggestions for improving a course's user-friendliness can be effective, if delivered appropriately. After all, teachers are people like the rest of us, and they're apt to respond much better to a polite private email than a snarky forum post that the entire class can see.

To clear up what would be a legitimate criticism, Morrison said online students should be able to find information on the site about how to participate, a schedule of topics for the weeks, a place to access content, and resources for help (i.e. YouTube videos, Q& A page, etc.). This information should be easy to locate. If it isn't, you've got the ammunition for an email.

Keep up with the course. Many classes will make participation on discussion boards and forums a mandatory exercise, e.g., a certain number of posts and a certain number of replies. Know that professors can spot in a heartbeat the people that copy and pasting from elsewhere, just as they can spot the people writing just to write, with nothing real to add. You will be tempted to fall into one of those groups unless you're studying, keeping up with the material, and developing your own insights.

Go above and beyond. As an online student, it's more difficult to stand out and make your presence known to professors because you're not meeting in the same room. So you have to develop another way to show them you're absorbing what they're teaching. Strike up a conversation via email with them about a news item that's relevant to your coursework. Create a forum thread asking your classmates' thoughts on a book you read to help you in class that wasn't required. You could even write your prof a snail-mail letter once the class has concluded, thanking them for a good semester — you can bet they would remember that!

Open Courses

Open courses, especially MOOCs, can be a different ballgame from for-credit courses because of their potential size and the fact that instructors are volunteers. However, as we've already shown, students in these online classes can have as much or more sway on how they're developed and implemented by sharing their thoughts with their professors, the vast majority of who welcome such discussions.

John Owens is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, Davis. His first experience with MOOCs, Udacity's "Introduction to Parallel Programming," is available now.

"I feel like the time I spend answering questions and discussing topics with students is one of the most gratifying teaching experiences I've ever had, and my understanding is it adds an enormous amount to the experience of the students as well," Owens said. "I think the ability for students to give feedback and ask questions during the class is critical to the success of the MOOC in terms of clearing up particular parts of lectures, extending what they learn into more advanced areas, bringing the external experience of students into discussions between students and staff, and keeping them excited about the material and how it might be useful to them."

Owens added that because his course makes use of pre-recorded videos (as the vast majority of MOOCs currently do), it's not possible to make changes once the course has started ("unless something has gone horribly wrong"). However, open courseware (OCW) professors can and do take student feedback into consideration after a course has ended and factor it into the updates they make. Follow these pointers for using feedback to its maximum efficacy.

Use the forum. Hands down, the heart of open course student feedback is the forum. It's here that students discuss anything and everything with their teachers and with each other. It was forum posts, not blogs or articles, that spurred Coursera to action on "Fundamentals of Online Education." Feedback posted here has the added benefit of helping anyone else taking the course who might have the same question.

Needless to say, different sites handle their forums in different ways. Udacity's Discussions page for a course lumps all threads together, though they can be sorted by activity status, newest, "hottest," most voted, and unanswered. Students can see how many views and answers a question has, and students may posts up or down based on their level of helpfulness. Udacity also has a full-fledged Feedback Program that seeks out input from current, former, and prospective students.

Coursera's class discussion boards are a bit better thought out. Forums are divided into sub-forums that, in addition to course-specific threads, usually include areas for questions and comments about the lectures themselves, clarification for assignments, general discussion, course material feedback, and technical feedback that Coursera staff members monitor. As with Udacity, students can see a post's views, votes, and replies at a glance, but unlike Udacity staff replies are clearly delineated with a gray icon saying so.

Bear in mind that most OCW professors are volunteers. Speaking of staff replies, teacher response times in a MOOC will vary widely from minutes to days to weeks, depending on the amount of students, the individual teacher's schedule, and other factors. But as a presumably self-directed learner, the MOOC student's expectations of a professor should be low; very low, according to Morrison.

"Quite honestly, I don't expect the professor to answer student questions," Morrison said. "A MOOC is completely different than a closed, for-credit online course, with 30 or 40 students maximum. A MOOC has thousands. I would not expect feedback, and it is unrealistic to think that the instructor reads every discussion board and can answer every question."

Depending on the size of the class, a professor may have one or more assistants who handle questions and comments for him or her. Of course, all that isn't to say MOOC professors simply post their videos and check back in three months. Many spend hours of their own time responding to forum posts. Morrison said that a Coursera course she's currently taking on e-learning and digital cultures has offered two Google Hangouts with the instructors where they shared some of the student feedback and posts from the previous week. In her Introduction to Sociology course, Professor Mitchell Duneier reads letters and specific forum posts students have sent and left.

Take it outside. Because access to class forums is usually restricted to enrolled students, prospective students have no way of viewing them to learn about the course. For general reviews of open courses and their instructors, Coursetalk is an excellent tool. Courses offered by eight MOOC open courseware providers — including lesser-knowns like Venture Lab and Canvas Network — can be sorted by rating, subject, or university. Former students give their thoughts on how interesting the material was, how entertaining the professor, how helpful the tools were, and more. Knollop is a similar MOOC review site that includes offerings from MIT's OpenCourseWare, Harvard OLI, and Open Yale Courses.

Just days before this writing, another Coursera MOOC made news in the education world for its professor quitting the course, requiring the course's suspension. Though the details are still murky, the professor had apparently spent time arguing with students over the course workload, insisting he "will not give in on standards." In other words, he seems to have gotten fed up with all the negative feedback and thrown in the towel.

The moral of the story is that feedback can be powerful stuff. "Fundamentals of Online Education" proved that not once, but twice: thanks to feedback from students who wanted the course to continue, Coursera lifted its suspension the next day.

Digital Research: The Double Edged Sword

Posted on March 11, 2013
In the midst of the throes of the Internet age, we have more resources available to us than ever before in history—whatever questions we have can be Googled at the drop of a hat, and answers are granted within milliseconds. And as our Internet use goes increasingly mobile, answers are granted even more quickly, since there's no need to wait until a computer is near. Though all of these resources and information often allow us to be more knowledgeable, the instant gratification of the modern search engine certainly may pose some unhealthy research habits, particularly among students, for whom research abilities have a big impact on scholarly success. Today's students have grown up in the digital age, and are generally accustomed to having questions answered at the click of a button—but that doesn't mean they all know how to conduct meaningful, thorough research. Studies show that while a majority of students turn to search engines when conducting research, most of them are behind the times when it comes to utilizing keywords or smart search methods to retrieve the best possible results. Three in four college students monitored were deemed incapable of conducting a "reasonably well-executed" Google search, and for many educators, the concern is that while students do have a great deal of data at their disposal, most of them don't know the best way to access it.

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Studying the Long-Term Effects of Online Education

Posted on February 26, 2013


Online learning has grown into an integral element of higher education. No longer an experimental novelty practiced by a handful of tech-loving pioneers, digital classrooms have enjoyed a steady surge in popularity for their low cost and ease of access. But you can't change the way people approach learning without permanently impacting a few things along the way. Recent studies offer plenty of insight when it comes to better understanding how online and blended courses influence the students enrolled in them. And current trends and undertakings might reveal some of the possible hamstrings they might encounter — and, thankfully, some of their possible solutions.

As It Stands Now

According to the Sloan Consortium, more than 6.7 million American college students are currently enrolled in at least one online course. This follows a steady increase from previous years, and educators these days generally look upon blended or wholly Internet-based classes favorably. Seventy-seven percent reported that they believe that the learning outcomes for such courses met or exceeded those of the traditional in-person options. And when it comes to administrators, 69.1% say online education is a major component of their future plans.

The U.S. Department of Education's 2010 evaluation of online learning unearthed compelling reasons to keep providing digital classrooms. Like the Sloan Consortium after it, the organization noted that students from online classes display the same amount of competence as their counterparts; however, they did not see the same examples of them performing above the stated objectives. Individuals enrolled in blended courses merging online and face-to-face educational strategies yielded the highest results of all. These findings provide schools with more evidence towards greater on-campus tech integration.

Because online education has proven itself a viable alternative — if not outright replacement in some instances — to brick-and-mortar institutions, it is now available for military personnel and their qualified dependents using the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Even if they enroll in Internet-based degree programs, they receive a living stipend, just like their equivalents in more traditional classrooms. Most online education options have by and large proven themselves well worth the investment.

The Cost of Going to Class

And with tuition at more traditional colleges and universities increasing, online schooling might very well supplant face-to-face in the coming years. College Board findings noted that the published tuition and fees for public, four-year schools "increased by 31% beyond the rate of inflation over the five years from 2002-03 to 2007-08, and by another 27% between 2007-08 and 2012-13."

If these numbers continue to rise, the comparatively low cost of online courses and programs might force more and more students toward them. Education experts, investors, and innovators agree. Brick-and-mortar schools cannot survive unless they become more affordable.

As The New York Times noted in 2008, gas prices also impact the decision regarding which type of classroom students opt to enter — digital or face-to-face. The same sentiment holds true now, when the national average hovers around $3.776 per gallon. So many economic factors influence the sustainability of online education, all of them currently favoring its status as a permanent option.

Size Really Does Matter

Although they've been around since 2008, it wasn't until 2012 that massive open online courses (MOOCs) hit the mainstream. Although these classes, with enrollment in the hundreds or thousands, have made education more accessible for many students, they aren't without their downsides. The Sloan Consortium study discovered that despite all the press and positivity levied towards MOOCs, most professors and academics remain skeptical regarding their efficacy.

And these concerns are not unfounded. While online classes' more "traditional" form typically engages and educates on par with face-to-face learning, MOOCs still need some maintenance to meet these standards. Ten percent of students (or fewer) enrolled in these courses complete them, with 20% held up as a victory. Only 9.4% of American schools plan to incorporate MOOCs into the curriculum, and just 2.6% have them already. It'll take some tweaking and following through on these promises of democratizing the learning process before more colleges and universities embrace the relatively new approach.

The Physical Tolls of Online Learning

Because the structure of online courses places learners behind a computer or smartphone screen all day, concerns unique to them arise — and require addressing. Research may prove that pursuing an Internet-based class or degree plan undeniably proves a fine academic undertaking. But that doesn't mean that potential issues should go ignored.

Face-to-face interaction is a necessity in social education, and even advocates of online lessons believe the best programs need to account for this discrepancy. Sherry Turkle's 2011 book Alone Together analyzes how the rapid influx of technology has dramatically altered human communication. Digital spaces provide more conduits for connecting with others than ever before in history, but the MIT professor noted how they also promote more instances of loneliness and inauthenticity.

Mental health isn't the only concern: optometrists worry about the physiological side effects of spending too much time on a computer. An estimated 50% to 90% of individuals behind the screen suffer from some degree of eye strain as a direct result of their technology usage. For the ones with astigmatism and other visual impairments, this means even further damage over time. Computer Vision Syndrome could escalate and compromise ocular health if online education entirely overtakes the traditional campus. At the present moment, all enrollees can do is adjust their screen settings and take regular breaks to give their eyes a rest.

How Things Can Get Better

"Learning needs to become more open, mobile, social, and analytical because today’s students — active learners — demand it," says Stacey Fontenot, Vice President of Product Marketing, Academic Platforms at Blackboard. Just because there are concerns regarding online education doesn't mean it needs to disappear altogether, especially since most of the concerns have fixes in place or currently being developed.

"Engagement with the learning should always be the primary focus (after the content itself), and that means dynamic, participatory experiences," she continues. "The question isn't whether education tools are physical or digital, but rather which tools are interactive and which ones are static. Digital is not a requirement, but adaptive and flexible are … The new education experience will be more consistent with what teachers and learners have come to expect from current technology."

MOOCs are only about five years old, which means educators are still looking for comparatively solid strategies. It stands to reason that more schools will warm to the idea of online courses for hundreds of students once the pioneers discern how to approach the inherent problems; some of the solutions will come simply from trial and error. In November 2012, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation donated more than $13 million toward 12 grants experimenting with the MOOC format. Nine of these went to colleges such as Georgia Institute of Technology (which partners with provider Coursera) and University of Wisconsin (whichpartners with Desire2Learn). All of these schools and their associates plan to develop MOOCs in subjects like English and math, tracking the positives and negatives along the way.

Even beyond the generous Gates Foundation gifts, other progress in the MOOC sector might reveal the tactics necessary to keep them for phasing out into just another higher education fad. The MOOC2Degree initiative offers free, professionally developed courses that participating institutions accept for credit. Major MOOC provider Udacity now proctors final exams for its Intro to Computer Science course, thanks to its relationship with Pearson. University of Colorado accepts transfer credit for select Udacity courses. All of these pushes might hopefully uncover a valid solution for the retention issues currently inspiring skepticism and apathy. Improving MOOCs could very well lead to spreading the perks of online classrooms to even more students.

Another way to increase MOOCs' sustainability might involve incorporating more social media, blogs, and wikis. Pearson studies noted that 33.8% of higher education professionals now include at least one of these tools in their curricula. Although wikis and blogs remain the most popular media, all the aforementioned digital resources increase student engagement and knowledge retention. Both of these benefits might promote MOOCs as an attractive option in due time.

Collaborative textbooks, sometimes in wiki format, open up even more possibilities for greater learning opportunities. These not only make education more accessible through teamwork, but they often lower the cost of required reading materials as well — if they don't eliminate them altogether. One of the most show-stopping examples of an effective multimedia textbook is Smarthistory. Run by Khan Academy, professional art historians and other approved contributors lend their knowledge, photos, and more to cover the entirety of humanity's creative achievements in the visual arts. For free. The Dynamic Textbook Project, presented by University of California, Davis, provides an ever-changing online academic environment where allowed participants promote the STEM fields. Visitors receive a comprehensive look at chemistry, biology, physics, geology, and more at no cost. Visitors who truly love these industries and have something to offer are encouraged to contribute to the overarching body of work.

Blackboard also embraces the push toward group efforts with its upcoming xpLor initiative. Teachers upload course materials, and their contemporaries or students (or both) alter them as they see fit. Everyone enjoys a chance to contribute their own creativity and perspectives in a dynamic environment, rather than merely downloading an assignment and working straight from the instructions. Built-in copyrighting and Creative Commons tools allow educators to share work for others to alter without worrying about plagiarism. "Versioning" help them keep track of changes without requiring loads of documents. The xpLor initiative launches in summer 2013.

The socialization might bother some parents and educators, but they don't need to worry. K12 Inc.'s 2009 study on the subject, which focused on the comparatively more vulnerable kindergarten through high school demographics rather than higher ed, proved that students enrolled in full-time online courses boasted social skills at or exceeding their mainstream classroom counterparts. Just because their classes take place on the Internet does not mean they completely disconnect from kids their own age. While they foster many of their communication and collaboration skills online, they do participate in field trips and extracurricular activities for face time.

At the college level, Meetup.com groups based around online courses are available for study groups, field trips, and general hangouts. Students hoping to collaborate face to face take advantage of the site (Facebook as well) to organize a wide variety of events, so they never have to fret over slipping into antisocialism. MOOC leader Udacity tackled the problem with its laudable Udacity Meetup efforts. More than 3,000 students in nearly 500 cities participate in the offline communities to share their love of collaborative learning beyond the digital walls.

In the long term, online education seems destined to keep traveling a positive path. Some aspects, particularly when it comes to guarding against vision loss and building sustainable MOOCs, still require some adjustment. But more studies and more experiments will hopefully unveil more solutions. For now, though, the overall student and professor reports illustrate how things are and will probably continue to be largely fine in the online learning classroom.