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How to Better Engage Students in Online College Courses

How to Better Engage Students in Online College Courses

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Start a transportation and logistics management degree at American Public University.

By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University

During an online chat, a student of mine commented that “the difference between online and on-campus is online you have to do everything yourself.” The only thing you have to lean on is your computer and it takes a while to get a reply from your professor, she said.

She said she preferred online classes because she could do the work from home. “But I also liked the face-to-face,” she added, “because I could ask questions when I needed to and have an answer right away.”

Her comments got me thinking about which students prefer – online learning or attending an on-campus school. Therefore, I prepared a series of questions and I emailed them to 100 students at three different online universities. They were asked for their honest opinions, comments and experience with both teaching methods.

The students were mostly active-duty military, some married, some single. Twenty-nine students responded via email over a period of eight weeks for a 29% reply rate, which seemed reasonable given that this was a voluntary and non-graded questionnaire. (The names of the students and the online schools are not identified in this article.)

The research approach was to categorize positive and negative attributes for online and on-campus learning and administrative experiences. Their replies uncovered different elements of findings.

Positive Replies for Online College Classes

The majority of replies were in support of online or virtual classroom experiences. For example:

  • I can explore a subject I may not understand at first without feeling the scrutiny of an entire classroom.
  • I can do things at my pace. The online experience is easier when professors provide a PowerPoint lecture or video lecture. For some reason, this only tends to happen in my science classes, math, and marketing.
  • From a cognitive neuroscience perspective, having both visual and auditory formats helps retention.
  • In the online forums, I have the opportunity to read and digest everyone’s point of views/ideas/suggestions without people trying to talk over each other to get their point across.
  • My online professors always give a pretty quick response to my written questions.
  • I prefer online rather than in person because I don’t have time for in-person classroom anyways; this is perfect for my life.
  • My choice to do online courses was so I could do them at my pace. I always found it hard to keep up in school, as I am a slow reader and it took me longer than most teachers gave to learn the subject.
  • I have found online instruction better, because it’s more flexible and easier to fit into a busy schedule and work a job at the same time.
  • For most of my classes, I can get a response pretty quickly and being in Asia, I feel the time difference helps me.
  • I prefer online to classroom for many reasons. I am in more control of my time. I have a job and many other responsibilities to juggle; I simply would not have had the opportunity to resume classes beyond community college without the ability to learn online.
  • Honestly, I believe that I have more direct access to instructors at an online university.
  • Online instructors realize emails or messaging are the primary way students communicate with them; therefore, I believe they are [a] little more responsive to email or the message system.

Positive Replies for On-Campus Courses

  • Live classroom lectures are great and having the instructor physically present does make the classroom experience more rewarding.
  • With face-to-face, you can ask questions and get answers there and then.
  • I prefer going to a physical class because the set schedule helps me with my procrastination problem!
  • I prefer in class better; I feel that I get a better grasp of what I need to learn and what my teacher feels that is important to learn. Sometimes, having someone tell you about a subject is better than just reading alone. I choose to do online classes only because of my time restrictions and my family/work life.
  • I like face-to-face because I can get the help I need right away. If I’m stuck, I can get the boost I need immediately from the professor or other classmates.

Negative Comments for Online Classes

  • Online learning is actually harder, because there is not a set schedule or time you have to be to class.
  • Some people do need their hands held and that is OK. My advice to them is that online learning is not for them if that is their learning style and they need that interaction constantly.
  • I think subjects like science or math are more difficult online where you can’t ask questions or see examples.
  • I have also had instructors that I had no idea if they were even there and would have to ask to grade a paper so I would know what they were looking for. This has happened multiple times and I had to wait over one to one and a half weeks to get something back.
  • If I don’t understand something from the lesson, I would have to email the instructor and wait for his or her response.
  • I’ve had online teachers take three to four days to respond to emails regarding assignments. I’ve even had a teacher drop me from a course by accident and not respond to any emails I sent them.
  • Online, I have to look up the answer. If I’m having difficulty understanding the answer, I have to wait for someone to respond that can help me understand.

Negative Comments for On-Campus Classes

  • In the traditional brick-and-mortar university, the class meets once a week. Usually, I have access to the instructor for that one day for, let’s say, three hours. I can email him/her if I have a problem, but I find he/she doesn’t get back to me until the next class which is, of course, a week away.
  • I become bored and get agitated, sitting in a course for three hours, socializing, taking breaks or having a discussion that doesn’t benefit me.

Suggestions to Improve Online Engagement with Students

  • I do think that one improvement would be a chat option for teacher-student issues. It’s real time and can be scheduled and would make things easier then messaging back and forth, having to wait for a reply.
  • I do like the message option because I pay attention to that first and foremost. If the matter is urgent, then I will put urgent on the message.
  • When I took my first online course and we had a weekly online chat or live session with our instructor, I could ask questions directly and not wait for an email response. Maybe in the future, this method could be used on a bi-weekly basis like on the weekly written assignments are due to aid in questions.
  • The only suggestions I have, which one of them is something you did, is incorporate a few times videos/podcasts as a reference or forum topic. The other is, which is something could work well for our career field, is a group project, something such as a group of 2-3 individuals are a company and we have to interact with another “company” in the supply chain.
  • I had one marketing professor that would film a weekly welcome and review questions from the past week and issues coming up. The videos were nothing fancy, but it made it easier to talk to her. Especially when we had to create our own video from that class.

In the End, It Is the Student Who Is Responsible for Gaining an Education

Online versus on-campus is really a matter of learning styles. If you are comfortable in a physical classroom, then enroll in a brick-and-mortar university; if your learning style is online, then enroll online.

Discussions with college professors over the years indicate that how we approach student engagement is strikingly different for online students compared to on-campus students. The working adults who enter online colleges to earn that B.A., M.A. or MBA degree sign on for a long journey that often can take up to 15 years to complete compared to four to five years at an on-campus experience.

Students attend online classes for different reasons than young on-campus students. The students I deal with range in age from around 25 to the 70s, with most in their 30s or early 40s. Many can be described as working adults or active military. As with many on-campus colleges, students come right from high school and their working experience might be a fast-food job.

Online Students versus On-Campus Students

My personal educational experience was all on-campus, nothing online. I have now taught well over 5,000 online students for the last decade or so. When comparing the issues that a teacher faces with encouraging and promoting student engagement, there are some differences that help link the two and cross that bridge of online and on-campus learning.

Online education provides little play and party time with fellow students, whereas on-campus students have a party and play lifestyle.

Online students are “going to school” whereas on-campus students might be just “doing school” because parents are paying for their play and party lifestyle.

Online teachers listen, whereas many on-campus lecturers just talk.

Bringing the On-Campus Experience into the Online Campus

What can online teachers do to improve the student experience? They could stress the sense of purpose for going to an online school. They could make the course experience more exciting. They could be a coach and mentor, not just a teacher.

Also, they could add more curiosity and innovative thinking to the discussions. They could get more personal with their students, asking them about family and work.

A solid justification for online learning and teaching is found in these 29 students’ honest views. These points they made are a statistical fact, a list of actions and processes to follow to attract online students.

These online views are part of today’s success story in online education. But more is needed because the online world is part of the growing arm of technology insertion into our daily lives at home, the office and in our online classrooms.

Now is the time to ask: What can we add to this justification as online professors? One answer is to visit your local college or university grounds and websites. Look at the level of open invitation to be part of something important and big and meaningful that appears at every corner of the campus. You feel part of a large family of strangers and friends.

I did. I visited two community colleges and two very large-scale university campuses. I ate and talked to students and teachers, listened to impromptu music concerts on the green grass fields, saw pickup basketball games and heard laughter. Listen to the on-campus lifestyle and let’s keep thinking how to bring it into the justification for online learning. These 29 adult students have a life away from a tree- and flower-lined campus where time seems to slow down or stop.

Can we bring some of this experience into our online world? Yes. Walk on a campus, then listen to your online campus for common sounds and sights.

Every week, there are online webinars given by our teachers for our teachers. Maybe we should offer more webinars for these online students. Perhaps we can bring those students into our online campus webinars as listeners, as participants, as guests.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, at Fort Lee, Virginia.

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