What Online Students Want

I attended a meeting today that presented survey findings for my institution’s online students. The students revealed to researchers that they were happy with the online education experience in that it fulfilled their goals and dreams while being challenging and fun. (Things I look for when taking classes online…) However, they say the experience in general leaves them feeling “hollow” and “empty.”

Ultimately, students felt that the online campus should “build a better life for them and their families.” Additionally, they looked for the following benefits after taking online courses:

  • Improved work-related skills
  • Increased critical and analytic thinking skills
  • Increased ability to solve complex, world problems
  • Enhanced leadership skills
  • Clear and effective writing skills

BUT—they didn’t like group work–AT ALL. Hmm…seems to me their five desired outcomes in the list above, as well as requirements of a global economy, can be related directly to success in working in groups. Data says they don’t like it. We gotta stop doing that.

They also worried about hard course work, loan repayment, that all of their work wouldn’t pay off, and the fact that they were too busy with other things in their life. The last time I thought about participating in an online educational program, it seemed that the responsibility for success ultimately resided with me evaluating if it was the right time to jump (monetarily, spiritually, wholly) into something so demanding. It wasn’t the role of the institution to be accommodating to me. It was me choosing the institution on what they (and I) had to offer. But, I guess we live in different, more competitive times now…don’t we?

Additionally, researchers reviewed 18 different areas and highlighted opportunities for all of us involved in the online endeavor. The five biggest opportunities for improvement were focused on:

  • Career advice
  • Tutoring help
  • Quality of technology
  • Consistency of technology
  • Tracking of progress across a program

Of the five areas of improvement, I really don’t have control over any of them. I’m not an advisor. I can’t provide career advice, I don’t make a very good tutor in areas outside of biology, and I can’t really track progress across a program. I can identify resources and direct students to them, but that’s about it. As for the quality and consistency of technology…I don’t have much control over that either, except for creating precise instructions and tips. And for all the complaining about quality and consistency, I don’t see students up in arms over Twitter v. Facebook v. Snapchat v. Tinder. They navigate all of those incredibly well! Additionally, any institution of higher ed that limits their design units to rigid technical expectations in the name of consistency will throw any and all flexibility (one of those other things online learners really love) as well as any chance of ‘fun’ totally out the window.

I work with faculty members to build logical courses with opportunities for engagement, learning, and community. If my subject matter expert is not on the same page, there’s not much I can do to turn the tide thanks to a certain imbalance of power at any given institution. Faculty are faculty, and some of us are not, unfortunately.

Additionally, we can throw all our money at research and say we are moving forward in the name of data, but until we eradicate things like red-tape, politics, silos, inefficiencies…the only thing we’re going to do is continue to spin our wheels. Anyone want to talk about the train wreck, money dump, time suck that is called ANGEL?

What do your units/institutions/organizations do to improve your learner experience and how do you validate it? I’d be interested to know.


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