Tuesday, July 26, 2011

College Students, Studies Aside: Here are Five Ways YOU Can Control Your Success in Online Classes Right Now

(Before I start this post, I admit that online learning was not my intended topic for the week. However, I am troubled by the study reported in this Chronicle article "Community College Students Perform Worse Online Than Face-to-Face".  Of course, a headline of this type is going to breed tons of press and loads of advice about what colleges and faculty could be doing differently to make online courses more successful. While the data and hypothetical recommendations are tossed around, this post is for fall 2011 students who are actually contemplating online courses).
"How in the hell do you teach public speaking online?"

I can't tell you how many times I've been asked this question by both communication colleagues and non-comm colleagues, alike.

But the bottom line is I have taught public speaking online or partially online for the better part of 13 years and have had some national recognition for doing so (Look at my blog bio to get the specifics on this). I wasn't always successful with online teaching. In fact, when I first started, my course was terrible and my retention was even worse.

Living in a rural area and teaching at a college dedicated to widening educational access for everyone forced me to get good at it. So I took what I knew about adult learners from my undergrad degree and rebuilt the online public speaking course. And got some attention for doing so.

Since that time, I've met thousands of thriving and struggling online students. There are zillions of reasons why students both ace and fail online courses. When research comes out, such as that reported in The Chronicle, finger pointing comes next: Some say it's the college's fault for not requiring students to take an entrance test, similar to English or math placement exams. However, due to the open-access nature of community colleges, I do not believe we can dictate which students can and can't take an online class solely based on the delivery mode (Colleagues, if I'm incorrect, please comment! In fact, comment anyway!). 

Some say that students' success in online classes is largely based on faculty and their online product. Of course, faculty play a major role in the quality of an online class, both in its content and delivery. But regardless, many students do well in "less than" online courses and many students fail in exceptionally designed online courses.

At this moment, I'm not thinking about the more global issues that The Chronicle piece raises about online classes. I'm thinking about you, wonderful incoming fall student, who can take some action now to increase your chances for success in an online class. 

It would take me 20 posts to discuss all of my tips for being a strong online student. So, let's just focus on five items you can work on between now and when school starts. And, as is typical with my advice, you'll see a communication twist. Ready? Here goes: 

1.  Talk about your readiness for distance learning and realistically assess whether or not it is for you. 

Talk to a prof who is well-known for online learning (doesn't even have to be one whose class you will be in), a student who loved online learning and one who didn't love it, an educational adviser, or even by taking a distance learning readiness quiz like this one or this one or this one (or one that your college offers!).

Sound like a lot of investment and time? Well, if you are planning to be a full or part-time career online student, finding out what online learning really looks like is worth that time.

Even more important: find out before you register for an online course, not after, and not in the first week of the course (if you can help it). If the technology or the characteristics of online learning sound like they are not for you, and the issues are not things you can readily overcome (like that you will never like reading large amounts of material online), then online learning may not be for you at this time. Have those conversations to find out the truth about this unique delivery mode. Doing so will increase your chances of success and give you time to get into a face-to-face class, weekend class, evening class, etc. that still works for your schedule.

2.  Discuss the obligations of online learning with anyone who has the potential to support you (or hold you back).

Many, many of my students do their online work in the early morning, late evening, and some float in and out of the course site while they are at their jobs (not that I'm saying this is the ideal). In a traditional class, you have set times for your learning and you are conveniently away from work or home. Online learning will be very different. You will be in the thick of the exact distractions you are usually away from.

So, whoever it is that you are taking time away from--your parents, spouse, kids, boss, lizard, etc.--to "do school" needs to be on board and agreeable to your time needs. If they are not, then you may need to secure a different place to do your work (Starbucks? Library? Mountain top with wireless?) or actually be out of the house for the set times of a face-to-face class.

3.  Talk to an adviser or a prof about classes that would be better suited for you to take online--and those from which you'd benefit from face-to-face attention.

In my college years, and even today, I could easily take an English class online, but algebra or science? No way. I need complete face-to-face contact to help me through my most challenging subjects. I know myself: My first fluster over equations or cells and I would just shut off my computer and get some ice cream (in another city so that way I would have a commute excuse for not going back to the computer!).

Be truthful with yourself about those subjects that would make sense for you to take online and which ones absolutely won't work. The only exception to this is if a) you are willing to get additional help with that topic, either from the prof, a tutor, or another resource entirely; and b) if you have the time to dedicate to bringing yourself up to speed--even with that help.

4.  Once you've decided that you might want to take an online class, get in touch with the prof, get a syllabus, and ask questions before the class starts

I can't tell you how many students start my online public speaking class or my intro class and then are flummoxed to find that they need equipment to record speeches, a five-person audience, a well-lit location for recording, a way to upload presentations, etc. Fortunately, I send my online students a welcome letter detailing these requirements a few weeks before the term starts. Some students drop immediately because they don't want the hassle of recording themselves. I totally respect this decision and applaud it! These students are giving themselves a greater chance at success.

Not every prof sends a welcome letter or gives students a heads-up about requirements, however, so you may have to search out details about the class structure yourself. Get in touch with the prof, say to that person:

-"I am going to be a student in your online class this fall. Do you have a syllabus from last term and a sample schedule that I could take a look at?"
-"I'm thinking about taking your online class and want to see if this is the right format for me. Do you have a... (repeat the above)."

If the prof is not there because it's summer, then contact that person's department secretary, who often works year-round and hopefully isn't in Bermuda at the time you're calling. You can also go to a coordinator, department chair, or division chair. If all else fails, you can contact your educational planning office. Someone should be able to get you access to a syllabus.

When you get the syllabus and schedule, read these documents closely!

Most students want to know, "How much time will I be expected to spend online?"

There may be an explicit statement about this in the syllabus, but you may be able to gauge it in other ways: Look at the amount of discussion board points or a list of discussion board requirements. Lots of discussion board equals lots of online interaction. You're going to need to read posts, post your own posts, and respond to each other's posts--maybe a whole bunch. You can also look for group work or online reading assignments. This equals more time online. (And I'm not even mentioning e-mailing with your prof or other classmates, doing online activities, etc. This should be laid out in the syllabus).

Another point to examine:  The number of days/weeks that you have in between assignments for help/feedback, and even the prof's e-mail response time. You will be able to get a feel for how the course operates.

If you are still unsure about anything, e-mail the prof and ask some specific questions, not just a general "How does this class work?". You can also--gasp!--pick up the phone and call the prof or go make an in-person appointment.

Two important notes to this: Your prof is required to be on campus a week to several days before you are required to be there. That person will likely have pre-campus meetings and his/her "out of office" may still be on e-mail, but at the least, when he/she is checking and responding to e-mail again, yours will be waiting.

Second note: You typically will have access to your course management system earlier than your first actual class start date. Log in and check out the site. This will also give you important information about the course structure.

If you start to feel seriously nervous, ill, sweaty, nauseous, etc., your mind and body may be telling you something. If you truly do not believe you can handle the workload, the schedule, the requirements, or that you have the dedication for this type of learning system, then listen to that gut feeling and read tip #5 below.

5.  If you find yourself under water before or during the first week or your circumstances have changed, tell your prof and find another class option.

My message here is do not just fade away from your online course without letting someone know that you have a) changed your mind about this mode of delivery; or b) a life circumstance will prevent you from being in school at all.

When students have negative perceptions about education because they feel insecure about an online course, it is easy for them to become lost from the system. Do not let this happen to yourself!

If the class is not right for you, go to the prof immediately and say, "I have realized that the online version of this course is not right for me. Can you help me find a face-to-face course that would work for my schedule?" You may also be able to find a hybrid course that meets partly online and partly face-to-face, an evening class, or a weekend class.

Yes, the rest of the classes may be closed. However, there might be some wiggle room since you are an existing student.

If the prof can't help you, get an adviser to assist from your Ed Planning office (or equivalent) to figure out what you can still do in that term.

The bottom line is, do something--don't just fall out of college entirely just because an online class didn't work out. Take even one class so you maintain your momentum. 

Before I close out, back to The Chronicle piece for a moment:  It makes me think about something sad, but the person involved would want me to mention that I'm thinking of her:  My best friend Sherri Patterson died of breast cancer at age 36 (it was back in 2000). Before her cancer was diagnosed, the doctor said that statistically speaking, her chance of having cancer was extremely low due to her age. When Sherri learned that it was the big "C", she said, "Well, statistics don't really matter when it's you."

I bring this up because my best friend was hugely into education and I like to pay tribute to her. I also bring it up because you are going to see many statistics about students succeeding and failing in online learning. As a college student, reading about problems in online learning can be a heart-sinker when this may be the only way you can "do college".

I say think of my friend Sherri's words:  Some statistics about the number of students who finish online classes, or even college as a whole, based on their experiences in online classes, doesn't have to apply to you.

Know what you're getting yourself into. Do as much pre-work to find out as you can. And by all means, ask tons of questions.

You can even ask me questions about online learning. Write a comment or send an e-mail to chattyprof@gmail.com.

If I don't know, I have a bunch of colleagues out there who might. And our goal is to keep you out of the negative online student statistics and rather a gigantic, monumental college success.

(Okay, that was totally cheesy, but I'm sticking to it! Seriously, send on some comments or questions. Colleagues, if you have other pre-term tips for students in online classes, I'll update this post!).


  1. I am a great fan of hybrid classes. Courses entirely online make it more difficult to relate the knowledge and "discussions" just aren't the same. (Plus, my professors never have office hours at any time I could go, as I work 9-5 M-F.) However, I am not able to make it to class 4-5 times a week for a 5 credit class, so going once a week for 2 hours and doing the remainder online works best for me. I still get face-to-face time and have the freedom of schedule online provides.

  2. I've been teaching online for 3 years, and I just wanted to say that this is excellent advice! One comment and one tip:

    Comment: Not all institutions allow students to access their online classrooms before the beginning of the semester; mine does not. I wish it did. (So I made a series of short, amateurish screencasts giving the students a preview and a tour.)

    Tip for students: If you find yourself in difficulty at ANY time during the semester, not just the beginning, you should immediately contact the instructor. Many of us (no, not 100%, but most) will be helpful and will try to help you find ways to succeed if we know why you have stopped logging in, but in the absence of information, all we know is that you're no longer there.

  3. Melissa, as you probably can guess, I have settled into hybrid classes, myself. I really enjoy seeing students and I also like the freedom of the schedule. I will second that the hybrid format works for you--I know this firsthand by the quality of your work :-). I'm so glad to hear from you. Ellen

  4. Carol, I'm so glad that you commented. Your students are fortunate that you have those screencasts--what a great idea! Of course, I agree with you about the immediate contact of the instructor. It's really the answer that can help so many college issues. I'm very appreciative of you writing. Ellen

  5. Good advice! It's really a shame when people give up before they give it a real chance.

  6. I agree. Or are willing to be a little more communicative or work a little harder to make it work. Thank you so much for writing, Amber! Ellen