We live in the Digital Age in which many of us spend a great deal of time each day using technology. Most of us are connected via a mobile device of some sort as we move through our daily routine, and we make use of electronic communication options, such as email, social media, and text messaging. There is an increasing number of us who are telecommuting, working our full-time jobs from home. We have even defined ourselves as “digital natives” or “digital immigrants” to help explain this brave new world.
Within this context, education has embraced the move into technology as much as possible. For example, online learning has been around for over a decade already. My own children have grown up watching dad teach from home. According to The Sloan Consortium, enrollment in online courses increased by 21% while ground campus enrollment in higher education only increased by 2% in 2010, and today over 5.6 million students are online (The 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning, November 2010).
Within this context, my colleagues and I have noticed something interesting: Our online students seem even more intimidated by e-learning than in the past. Consider, for example, that about one-half of adults still report some type of “computer phobia” that may affect their success in an online class (Saade, R.G., Kira, D. & Molson, J., “Computer Anxiety in E-Learning: The Effect of Computer Self-Efficacy.” Journal of Information Technology Education. 2009). Perhaps this is at least in part because of the difficult economic time or maybe students are becoming more comfortable sharing their fears with faculty. Whatever the explanation, here are four main ways faculty can ease the fears of students about e-learning.
With technology often comes the ability for students to self-enroll in classes. I’ve noticed as a department chair that this keeps enrollment somewhat fluid. Students who are nervous about e-learning tend to shop for courses and faculty with whom they feel comfortable. They may add, drop, and add a class until they find one in which they feel comfortable.
Therefore, one of the most helpful steps faculty can take is to provide preterm information. This includes not only setting up the class with all of the documents typical to an online course (e.g., welcome letter and syllabus), but also course announcements, direct emails, and other means for students to overcome their basic fears.
For example, either create or link to an existing tour of the course site. Using video capture software, take students on a tour of the main links in the course learning management system, show them how areas like the dropbox work, and where to go for help. Provide screen shots that include arrows to direct them through the various processes they will need to complete during the term.
It’s also helpful to create a welcome video with some advice for student success and encouragement to contact you by email or telephone if they have any questions or concerns before the course begins. The University of the Sciences offers some additional helpful suggestions for setting a good tone for your students even before the start of an online class.
Think of this almost like an invitation to a social event or informal meeting at your home. What would you do to make your guests feel welcome?
Relevant, Functioning Content
More than two-thirds of online students are working adults with families and their average age is over 30-years-old. Therefore, they do not have time to spare. Make sure the course is laid out in a user-friendly manner, that it’s easy to navigate, and that students do not have to dig through layers and layers of information to find what they need.
Las Positas College provides an excellent checklist of items to include. Even if the online college you’re teaching for has a standardized course set up for you, it doesn’t hurt to compare and contrast it with an inventory list of best practices like this to see what is/isn’t there for students and how the information is presented. It’s helpful to run through the site as if you were a student, checking to make sure all links are working.
Also, one fear students have about postsecondary education is relevancy. From the preterm set-up through the end of the course, be sure to make connections between the curriculum and students’ work and personal worlds. When I teach composition, for example, I make frequent links between rhetorical concerns, such as audience awareness in academia, their professions, and their personal communications (e.g., emails to family and friends).
If the course site functions well and students are seeing the relevancy of the content, this helps alleviate some fear.
Keep in mind, however, that a well-functioning course with good content is only part of what relieves student fears. There is a human side to education that is still a part of e-learning. Faculty must have a strong sense of presence in the classroom. This includes regular responses to student questions and posts in discussion boards, frequent updates on grading, checking on students who aren’t participating, and other such activities.
It’s also helpful to check on the student outreach policy and options at your school. Many colleges and universities have programs, such as this one at Caldwell College that allows faculty to notify an advisor if students appear to be struggling in or disengaging from the course. The advisor then facilitates a connection between the student and available support (e.g., tutoring, disability services, etc.).
Even when students are doing well, it can be helpful to send them an email or even give them a quick phone call to see how the course is going for them or to see if they have any questions. My students have always responded favorably to such outreach. Even if they don’t have any questions, they typically express gratitude that I asked.
Finally, the fourth main way to ease students’ fears about e-learning is to foster a strong sense of community and support. I often share with my students that we have a common mission and purpose to see that everyone succeeds in the course. As we move through our activities, I often make more specific requests. For example, I may ask that they make sure others have fully responded to a discussion board prompt so that no one falls short of expectations.
Faculty should also try to provide an informal area for students to gather. This could be some sort of “student lounge” area within the course site or a social media site (e.g., Facebook page) set up specifically for classmates to get together for socialization. Online Classroom offers some additional tips for building community in online courses.
Just as in a ground campus environment it can be beneficial for students to get acquainted before and after class, online students’ fears can be alleviated by bonding with classmates for their mutual success.
Given the importance of helping online students become comfortable with e-learning, let’s keep the conversation going. Please share any suggestions of your own in the comments area below.
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