What Do Online Students Want?

online students The range of online student needs is wide and varied. Every learner enters his or her program with individual goals in mind, as well as a set of expectations for what the experience will be like. These goals and expectations affect student satisfaction, which in turn impacts student success, often measured in terms of retention and graduation rates.

Are our students’ expectations realistic? How can we provide what they need to achieve our course learning objectives, and integrate their preferences for interaction and access? Studies conducted by individual professors, institutional research centers, and education associations are exploring the perceptions of online students.

Educator Debbie Morrison shares key trends and themes found in the feedback from students enrolled in 20 online classes at her institution. These students expressed a desire for:

  • Mobile Access: Morrison found that students are choosing mobile devices more than ever before as a way to access course materials, specifically videos, provided in a mobile-ready format.
  • Peer Interaction: Working with classmates can range from discussion forums and peer critiques to live debates and group projects. These all help the development of a class community in which members establish presence and connection with each other.
  • Detailed Instructor Feedback: Students want more than just a grade for an assignment – how did their projects meet expectations, where specifically could they have improved their submissions? Added details and clarification make the experience more meaningful.

Jeffrey Bailie of Kaplan University surveyed more than 60 online students to find out how their preferences matched the expectations of more than 20 institutions offering online learning. Student preferences were identified in three primary areas:

  • Personal Communication: The majority of students thought that online faculty should send an email to each student prior to the first day of classes – 50% preferred one day before class starts and 40% wanted to receive this email one week in advance.
  • Instructor Presence and Engagement: Students expect their online instructors to access the course at least once each weekday (56%). They also want instructors to be active in discussion forums 2 or 3 days each week (53%).
  • Timely Responses from Instructors: A quick turnaround is expected for grades and student questions. The majority of students surveyed (51%) want to a reply to email within 12 hours. They also expect for “minor” assignments to be graded within 3 days (56%) and “major” assignments within a week (62%).

In an article for Faculty Focus, Associate Professor Jennifer Luzar shares her experience with online student wants and needs. Among the items on her list, the following address two areas affecting the overall student experience, which are also in our control:

  • Task Reminders: Online students are often juggling jobs, family responsibilities, and other commitments with their coursework. Providing due date reminders and “forecasts” of important things coming up in the next couple of weeks can help students stay focused and meet class deadlines.
  • Good Course Design: Course navigation and organization make an impact on student success. Can they find all of the posted materials without having to refer to a handbook or student guide? How easy is it to move back and forward through various folders and screens? Luzar says, “the fewer clicks the better.”

Online learning isn’t the best option for every student. A study from Marie Fetzner at Monroe Community College (NY) asked unsuccessful online students for feedback. The top three reasons given for not completing their online courses were: 1) getting behind with class assignments; 2) dealing with personal issues; and 3) difficulty handling study, work, and family schedules. Fetzner and her study participants suggest that online learners can benefit from:

  • Early Orientations: One-third of students said they would not take another online class. Mandatory orientations sessions that take place well before the first day of the first online class can help students assess their readiness for online learning, and make the choice to change their registration to a blended or face-to-face option before the semester starts.
  • Soft Skills Training: Orientations and tutorials often focus on technical skills (i.e., how to log in to the LMS, how to use a library database), with less attention to skills like time management and organization. Helping students develop these skills early in their programs is another way to support their success.

Preparing this article inspired me to look back through the end-of-course evaluations I’ve received over the past several years. Here are a few of the themes I found related to student preferences in my online courses:

  • Multiple Activity Types and Options: It’s easy to get stuck in an online course rut, asking students to participate in discussion boards and submit written assignments (e.g., reports, research papers, journals, essays). Students appreciate a little variety with options for submitting multimedia files, for example, as well as assignments that require activities other than reading and writing (e.g., conducting interviews, building models, testing new tools).
  • Individual and Group Work: This is another way variety can be introduced into a course. Finding a balance of activities students complete on their own with those they work on in pairs or groups is challenging, but important. The options here may vary based on the course topic and objectives.
  • Relevant Assignments and Resources: The principles of adult learning describe the need for a practical approach that integrates prior knowledge with new experiences, in pursuit of relevant goals. My students appreciate hands-on activities that include real-life scenarios with lessons they can apply at work.

Researching this post was an eye-opener for me. While I do meet a lot of these student needs in my courses (e.g., I respond to email quickly, course navigation is simple), my efforts in other areas are lacking. With grading, for example, I almost always get behind at some point during the term, and I rarely send out due-date reminders.

What do your online students want? How could you enhance the learning environment and help them set realistic expectations for the experience? There’s always room for improvement. Conduct your own formal research project or informal inquiry to find out more about the students entering your courses. Use the following tasks to launch your own initiative:

  • Re-review your course evaluations across terms or semesters to identify patterns and specific suggestions for change.
  • Add a short, mid-course survey to gauge student expectations and satisfaction with class interaction, materials, and access.
  • Compare notes with colleagues in your program to share ideas about curriculum and course design revisions.
  • Connect with your institution’s assessment experts to explore options for collecting course data and student feedback.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog