I am a proponent of online learning and I chose to do online courses over in-class courses for several reasons, flexibility of time and place being prime. As an online student, I enjoyed some online courses more than others and I thought to myself, what did I expect from a good online course?
Sense of belonging to a community
We are social beings! Sharing with others and being part of a community is fundamental to development and learning. One of the most common complaints that online students have is that they do not feel the sense of belonging to a learning community due to the lack of face-to-face interactions with their peers and the instructor. There is a lot of research that suggests, that creating and maintaining a sense of community among online learners is a crucial factor for the students’ overall learning experience. Research also suggests that there is a connection between students’ sense of community, learning outcome, and academic achievement. A number of instructional strategies like ice breakers, collaborative group projects, sharing resources and allowing students to share resources, asynchronous discussions, instructor videos etc. can enhance the people dimension by promoting interaction and engagement.
Asynchronous discussions, building knowledge together
According to research, asynchronous discussion forum is the most prominent tool when it comes to online learning. It promotes collaborative knowledge construction and students enjoy constructing knowledge together with their peers and the instructor. Asynchronous discussions occur independent of time and space, allowing students to participate at a time that works best for them. This gives students the time to consider their thoughts before expressing them to others, which can be of particular benefit to students who may need time to understand or reflect before responding to a question. Discussions have also been proven to foster deep meaningful learning, increased student engagement and interaction (building community), and overall enhanced learning. Read Dr. Alexandra Makos’s blog about online asynchronous discussions.
Students want to see the teacher to be able to make a personal connection with them. Students appreciate instructor videos, feedback from the instructor, office hours set up by the instructor where they can get their queries answered and having synchronous conversations (video or text) with the instructor.
Well organized course and clear expectations
Good online course experiences start with setting clear expectations up front. Students expect to learn what’s required of them, what type of commitment they’re getting into, and how they can get support. Students cannot be expected to “know” how to discuss effectively either online or in person. Nor can they be expected to “know” how to work effectively in a group setting, engage in self-reflection learning activities or complete assignments. As an instructor, you will need to prepare students for the work they will be doing in the course. This means not only teaching them the mechanics of using the environment/tool, but also how to engage in meaningful learning throughout the course using varied instructional strategies.
Multiple modalities for different learning styles
Students appreciate having different modalities to support their learning. Adding in different formats for learning allows students to engage with the course material in different ways. Some people might learn better with reading resources, others through discussions and some others through self-reflection activities like learning journals or collaborative group work. Dr. Kimberley Mackinnon elucidates in her blog post, how faculty can keep things interactive for students in online courses using different instructional strategies, which is a great read.
Some research that supports the aforementioned claims about student expectations from an online course
Afify, M. K. (2019). The influence of group size in the asynchronous online discussions on the development of critical thinking skills, and on improving students’ performance in online discussion forum. International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning (IJET), 14(05), 132-152.
Cornell, H. R., Sayman, D., & Herron, J. (2019). Sense of Community in an Online Graduate Program. Journal of Effective Teaching in Higher Education, 2(2), 117-132.
Depres-Bedward, A., Avery, T., & Phirangee, K. (2018, May). Student Perspectives on the Role of the Instructor in Online Learning. Paper session presented at the meeting of the International Conference on Educational and Information Technology, Cambridge, UK.
Galikyan, I., & Admiraal, W. (2019). Students’ engagement in asynchronous online discussion: The relationship between cognitive presence, learner prominence, and academic performance. The Internet and Higher Education, 43, 100692.
Lambert, J. L., & Fisher, J. L. (2013). Community of inquiry framework: Establishing community in an online course. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 12(1), 1-16.
Mann, A., Avery, T., Hughes, R.,& Cooper, K. (2019, April). Welcome to Online Learning: Pedagogy and Practice in Instructor-Generated Videos. Paper session presented at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Toronto, ON.
Oztok, M. & Brett, C. (2011). Social presence and online learning: A review of the research. The Journal of Distance Education, 25(3), 1-10.
Oztok, M. (2014). Towards understanding knowledge construction in online learning. In J. Herrington, J. Viteli, & M. Leikomaa (Eds.), Proceedings of the World Conference on Educational Multimedia (pp. 2087-2091).
Phirangee, K., Demmans Epp, C., & Hewitt, J. (2017, April). Community in Online Courses: The Roles Played By Course Length, Course Facilitation Methods, and Student Actions. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Antonio, TX.
Phirangee, K. & Malec, A. (2017). Othering in Online Learning: An Examination of Social Presence, Identity, and Sense of Community. Special Issue on Social Presence and Identity in Online Learning. Distance Education, 38(2), 1-12.Sadera, W. A., Robertson, J., Song, L., & Midon, M. N. (2009). The role of community in online learning success. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5(2), 277-284.