The Benefits of Online Learning Are Also Its Weaknesses. That’s Where...

Opinion | Digital Learning

The Benefits of Online Learning Are Also Its Weaknesses. That’s Where Advisors Help.

By Janet Morrison     Nov 15, 2021

The Benefits of Online Learning Are Also Its Weaknesses. That’s Where Advisors Help.

The last time I taught in a physical college classroom was in 1999, when my adult students shook off their weariness from a day of working and taking care of their children to pay attention to their classmates and me for three hours.

Much has changed since then, as the world of online learning built for working adults has grown. As an advisor at an online college, I know that adults are attracted to the flexibility of an asynchronous online learning environment and the pace of accelerated semesters. This model has become more common in the past year as a result of the pandemic and as colleges look for different ways to reach their students while teaching remotely.

While asynchronous online learning works well for many students, it is not without its challenges, and those can be the very same attributes that make it attractive—that’s the paradox of online learning. Students who are balancing multiple responsibilities of jobs, children or aging parents are generally attracted to the anytime/anyplace virtue of online courses, but they may also need the most help in managing all of these things.

Let’s examine the characteristics of online education and how they both enable and constrain learning, plus consider tips for how advisors can help students resolve these tensions.

A Flexible Schedule Requires Structure

Not having to show up at the same place and time as classmates enables students to schedule their schoolwork around their life responsibilities. But for some students, that flexibility can easily turn into missed deadlines.

I recall one student who would wait until the night of the assignment deadline to dive into their schoolwork. All too often, they would wind up needing to ask their instructor a question about the assignment but had no time to receive an answer before the deadline passed. As an advisor, I was able to help them develop better habits needed for success.

Advisors can help students establish healthy work habits by sending helpful advice for meeting deadlines before classes begin such as:

  • Plan ahead: Get a “lay of the land” of the course by reading the syllabus. Use a planner to indicate major course deadlines, review it regularly and implement steps to meet those deadlines.
  • Block out time: Schedule regular time each week to devote to schoolwork and stick to it. Don’t wait for an assignment notification to get started.

Anywhere Access Benefits From Dedicated Space

Mobile learning management apps enable students to do their schoolwork and attend class whenever and wherever they have an internet connection. They can check announcements during work breaks or read discussion posts while waiting for a flight at the airport.

While “on the fly” logging in can work well for some course responsibilities, many assignments require focused blocks of time to think and write. In my academic coaching work with students whose grades are slipping, it’s not unusual for me to hear a student describe working on their schoolwork while at their jobs. When I probe further, the student realizes that their attention was fractured to the point of not being able to complete an academic task.

A devoted space can lend itself to learning. If possible, students should find a place that can be dedicated to schoolwork and that provides ideal learning conditions. This means removing distractions like mobile devices and unrelated browser windows and soliciting the help of friends and family to honor their space.

Autonomy Can Lead to Isolation

Some students need to be explicitly encouraged and supported to express themselves in discussion posts and assignments in an online environment. If students don’t have to talk or be seen, they can slip into feelings of isolation. This can be addressed by setting expectations for engagement and developing students' inquiry skills.

Through the admission process, online orientation, in conversations with advisors, and with course instructors, we can help students understand the value of discussion, engagement and the cultivation of knowledge through collaboration. It’s essential that we let them know that they do have something valuable to say.

But simply saying so doesn’t make it easy for students to express themselves; for instance, asking questions is a learned skill. Advisors can coach their students in how to approach an instructor and how to frame a question that gets at what they need.

One particularly rewarding advising experience occurred when a student—unhappy about their grade—asked me, “How do I phrase a question to a teacher that does not sound combative?” I helped them frame their question to their instructor in a way that avoided defensive “why did you?” statements and instead used a problem-solving approach: “I want to understand.”

Slow Down to Move Ahead

Online colleges often compete for students by touting rapid program completion. Subsequently, students may underestimate the time and effort required to earn a college education.

One student proposed taking the maximum credit load for four terms in a row, while working full time and parenting. Staying positive, I commended their ambition, and then we imagined and articulated the reality of their days and weeks with such a schedule. The student realized this schedule may not be doable. Although they didn’t immediately alter their course, they are now aware of the risks and are prepared to alter their path should the need arise.

If students do fail a course, that F and the shame that may come with it may create setbacks and potentially derail a student’s progress. Advisors are in a position to suggest to students that sometimes they have to slow down to move forward. This might mean suggesting taking fewer credits per term. Advisors can also coach students to become aware of their strengths and to develop healthy academic habits and routines. They can offer tools to help students manage their time.

Finally, proactive outreach to students goes a long way to let them know that they are not in this alone. Advisors are there to encourage, guide, coach and navigate students toward additional learning resources. After all, the students who are least likely to ask for help are those who need it most. A robust communication plan entails proactive outreach to new students as well as to students who are showing signs of struggling academically.

Successfully managing the paradox of online learning requires a both/and mindset. It requires human contact: listening, inviting, encouraging, and connecting. Admissions counselors, academic advisors and coaches, instructors, program directors, and anyone else who interacts with students play a role in managing expectations and providing support. We must be transparent and let students know that the work will be hard but that they are not alone in their journey.

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