As online degrees begin to become more accepted by employers, distance learning institutions need to make sure that their online courses are agreeable to their students. It does no good to make sure that a course meets current industry standards, passes peer review, and introduces students to the skills they will need to succeed in business, if the students hate the way a course is presented and drop out in droves.
Instructors need to not only adapt their knowledge to an online format; they must adapt their classroom techniques, as well. The biggest complaint of online students is that they feel isolated, which, in truth, they are. If the instructor doesn’t make an effort to allow his students to become engaged both during class and outside it, his students will tend to believe that their time and money are being wasted.
Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, all of these websites have been used by instructors who want to give their students a chance to connect. Each can allow more leeway than the traditional discussion board did, as students can respond to each other almost in real time, with pictures, video, and links.
Class blogs are another way for instructors to delve into all of the rules, routines, and expectations that they have for a class, without having to redo them each term. The instructor can also encourage students to post to the blog, with tips for other students or ideas for group projects, among other items. Appropriate class projects can even be posted, to give the next crop of students ideas for their own presentations. Memes can be built across generations of online students in ways that are not practicable in traditional classrooms.
Students in online classrooms may even find that they become more involved with their classmates than do on-site students who must shush during instructor presentations. This may be especially true for those instructors who employ frontloading teaching techniques. Frontloading, or the reverse classroom, comes from the Khan Academy style of instruction, where the presentation is made to students outside of class, and then class time is devoted to riffing off that presentation. An entire class may be held on Twitter, as everyone gets a chance to chime in instantaneously. The Twitter format reins in those who tend to be wordy, while those whose tweets are less than stellar can be forgiven their failure to elucidate complex ideas tersely. Can’t think of what to say? Just post a link.
The informality associated with social networks can work to loosen students up, as well. After all, they’ve grown up chatting with their friends, texting their innermost thoughts, and posting dubious pictures for the world to see. On average, though, online students tend to be older than traditional college students, more knowledgeable about the world, and more exacting in what they want from higher education. They tend to want to direct their classwork more than do on-site students, and to provide instant feedback, whether they are satisfied or unsatisfied. Any instructor who allows his students the ability to get a point across through social networking has provided the means to engage their interest.