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Student Readiness to Learn Online

We are sure that it occurred to you that you cannot examine the skills and practices of faculty without exploring the skills and practices needed by students. 

Many faculty members assume that students today have the skills and knowledge to learn online.  After all, they are called the Net Generation.  The Educause Center for Applied Research has surveyed college students for the past five years and annually reports on their use of information technology (ECAR, 2010).  The 2010 report on college freshmen and seniors at 9one hundred institutions noted:

  • Laptop ownership is up to 83.8%
  • Nearly two-thirds own an internet-capable cellphone with nearly half using the smartphone to access the web
  • Students spend an average of 21.2 hours a week online for school, work and recreation
  • Technology is primarily for communication; 97% are members of social networks like Facebook
  • 81% consider themselves very skilled at using technology and the internet
  • Most prefer “moderate” amounts of information technology in their courses over “extensive” use
  • Face-to-face instruction is preferred to online instruction; students perceive online classes as “more demanding”
  • A positive view the use of a course management system like Blackboard has dropped from 70% to 50% in the past three years as students look for more features like found in Facebook.  Convenience remains the dominant reason for using a course management system.
  • Nearly half the students rated their instructors’ use of information technology as effective.

It is worth noting that one Net Generation member described her technology skills (and those of her fellow students) as an ocean that is miles wide but only inches deep (Windham, 2005).  Our students often have skills in narrow areas (like Facebook) but lack deep expertise in using technology.  The ECAR study was heavily slanted towards full-time on-campus students, which traditionally steered away from online courses.  However, programs are beginning to see student demand rise for online courses, and some programs like VCU’s Homeland Security program are designed from the start as totally online programs.  As the number of online offerings rise, the question also arises as to what qualities students require to be successful in these course.

University of Central Florida has a wealth of information for their students as to their readiness for online courses (UCF Learning Online, 2010). It is comprehensive and includes:

Another set of guidelines that is more text-based is provided by the Illinois Online Network (2008), who suggested that online students should possess the following qualities:

  1. Be open-minded about sharing life, work, and educational experiences as part of the learning process.
    There is a degree of anonymity associated with the web that sometimes allows individuals to open up in ways that do not occur in campus classrooms.  Introverts as well as extroverts find that the online process requires them to utilize their experiences. This forum for communication eliminates the visual barriers that hinder some individuals in expressing themselves. In addition, the student is given time to reflect on the information before responding. The online environment should be open and friendly.
  2. Be able to communicate through writing.
    In the Virtual Classroom, nearly all communication continues to be written (though new audio and video forms are emerging), so it remains critical that students feel comfortable in expressing themselves in writing. Some students have limited writing abilities, which should be explored and addressed before or as part of the online experience.
  3. Be Self-motivated and self-disciplined.
    With the freedom and flexibility of the online environment comes responsibility. The online process takes a real commitment and discipline to keep up with the flow of the process.  Faculty can assist students by providing structure to the class in the form or time lines or draft opportunities.
  4. Be willing to "speak up" if problems arise.
    Many of the non-verbal communication mechanisms that instructors use in determining whether students are having problems (confusion, frustration, boredom, absence, etc.) are not possible in the online paradigm. If a student is experiencing difficulty on any level (either with the technology, with the course content, or just with life itself), he or she must communicate this immediately. Otherwise the instructor will never know what is wrong. This also suggests that faculty should use tools such as course statistics to spot trouble issues and address them earlier as opposed to later.
  5. Be willing and able to commit to 4 to 15 hours per week per course.
    Online is not easier than the traditional educational process. In fact, many students will say it requires much more time and commitment.
  6. Be able to meet the minimum requirements for the program.
    The requirements for online are no less than that of any other quality educational program. The successful student will view online as a convenient way to receive their education – not an easier way.
  7. Accept critical thinking and decision making as part of the learning process.
    The learning process requires the student to make decisions based on facts as well as experience. Assimilating information and executing the right decisions requires critical thought; case analysis does this very effectively.
  8. Have access to a computer and the internet.
    The communication medium is via computer; the student must have access to the necessary equipment.  This may involve use of on-campus computer labs if the student does not own the necessary equipment.
  9. Be able to think ideas through before responding.
    Meaningful and quality input into the virtual classroom is an essential part of the learning process. Time is given in the process to allow for the careful consideration of responses. The testing and challenging of ideas is encouraged; you will not always be right, just be prepared to accept a challenge.
  10. Feel that high quality learning can take place without going to a traditional classroom.
    If the student feels that a traditional classroom is a prerequisite to learning, they may be more comfortable in the traditional classroom. Online is not for everybody. A student that wants to be on a traditional campus attending a traditional classroom is probably not going to be happy online. While the level of social interaction can be very high in the virtual classroom given that many barriers come down in the online format, it is not the same as living in a dorm on a campus. This should be made known.

In summary, the Illinois Online Network suggested that an online student is expected to:

  • Participate in the virtual classroom multiple times a week
  • Be able to work with others in completing projects
  • Be able to use the technology properly
  • Be able to meet the minimum standards as set forth by the institution
  • Be able to complete assignments on time
  • Enjoy communicating in writing.

The ECAR Study illustrated that undergraduates today view the web in a somewhat bipolar way.  They see much of what they do online as communicating with peers, connecting with friends, finding entertainment, and informally learning on a just in time basis.  They like course management systems but see them more as places of convenience than as places for learning.  With the myriad of applications now available for online teaching and learning, the opportunity exists today to tap into this informal learning network and add rich capabilities to current learning management systems, thus facilitating learning.  You will have the opportunity to use collaborative writing spaces such as blogs or wikis to expand the communication and networking aspects of this generation’s lives (which they already do) into your formal learning environment.

Given the self-directed nature of online learning, the learning process can feel accelerated and overwhelming.  It requires commitment on the student’s part. Staying up with the class and completing all work on time is vital. Once a student gets behind, it is difficult to catch up. Building structure into the class and providing timelines can help students succeed.  You may have to more intentionally contact students personally to offer assistance and remind the student of the need to keep up.

Alan Roper (2007) studied successful online students who had completed at least 80% of their degree credit online with a GPA above 3.50.  He identified seven attributes to their success:

  • Develop a time-management strategy.
  • Make the most of online discussions.
  • Use it or lose it (find ways to use the course content).
  • Make questions useful to your learning.
  • Stay motivated.
  • Communicate the instruction techniques that work.
  • Make connections with fellow students.

You should consider ways to build off of these qualities by proactively suggesting time management strategies.  For instance, having online discussions due on different days from written work helps students balance workloads.  You can provide relevant issues for study that tie course content to real world challenges.  Using group work helps build connections.  Finally, your social presence in the online space sends powerful signals and is a strong motivator for success.

 
 
Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 09/22/2009
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