As a college professor teaching online courses, I had to overcome my obstacles with the basic technologies of e-learning before realizing an important fact: Student success in the traditional high school classroom does not necessarily translate into success in college courses that use online technologies like email, discussion boards, e-research, and online group projects.  When online technologies replace or supplement the traditional lecture hall, new factors can prevent normally high performing students from achieving their past levels of success.  Consequently, just as we wouldn’t give middle school students a complicated book and expect them to learn, we can’t expect college students to learn online just because they have a computer with an Internet connection.   

For both instructors and students alike, the introduction of online technologies has significantly changed the college classroom and higher education experience.  From Microsoft PowerPoint presentations of group projects to instant messaging software that allows students to communicate immediately with other students, the technology commonly found in today’s college classrooms is offering instructors and students many new tools that have the potential to dramatically improve learning. 

According the US Department of Education, distance education courses in 2002 accounted for more than 3.1 million enrollments at US colleges and universities (Thomas, 2003).  These completely online courses, furthermore, represent only a fraction of the number of on-campus courses that are using the Internet and computer technologies to facilitate learning in subjects ranging from foreign languages to physics. And while not all classrooms at colleges and universities are equipped with Internet connectivity, the other options for high-speed wireless connections through cell-phone technologies (currently available for less than $75 per month in many cities) are offering students access to classrooms at many of the country’s colleges and universities.  

And while many students come to college with remarkable skills for finding and downloading music from the Internet, most come with little experience or knowledge regarding how to effectively use online technologies to advance their studies. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 49% of college students first began to use the Internet when they entered college (Jones, 2002).  In view of that, how can we better prepare students for online success?

Two essential skills we have found for student success in online courses are: (a) adapting old skills and habits from the traditional classroom for use in the online classroom, and (b) developing and applying new e-learning skills and habits for the online classroom (Watkins & Corry, 2004).

From building a robust vocabulary of technology related terms to adequately preparing for success in online discussion board debates, building the learning skills for the online classroom takes many of the skills and habits for success from the traditional classroom and applies them in new ways using technology.  In addition, some technologies have dramatically changed how students interact with their instructors, peers, and course materials, thus requiring the development of some new study skills.  Together, these skills can help ensure the success of students in most any course that uses online technologies to either supplement or replace on-campus experiences.

Transforming your current courses and materials to include a focus on e-learning skills does not, however, necessarily require a great amount of work.  By integrating online activities, resources, and materials into your current course, you can build online success skills into your current courses, and provide students with the information, practice, study skills, and experiences for success in their other college courses that use online technologies.

Here are six tips for helping your students to be successful in online coursework:

1. INCLUDE AT LEAST ONLINE ACTIVITY OR ASSIGNMENT IN YOUR COURSE.  For example, have students create an annotated bibliography of student support Websites available at your college (e.g., registration, student services, disability services), or require students to submit written assignments as email attachments. By utilizing technology in your course, you give students the opportunity to develop online skills that can be applied in many of their other college courses.  

2. BECOME FAMILIAR WITH COMMON TECHNOLOGY TERMS AND USE THEM WHEN TALKING ABOUT THE COLLEGE’S RESOURCES AVAILABLE TO STUDENTS (e.g., USB memory, instant messaging, discussion boards, 802.11b and g technologies, Blackboard, WebCT, servers, firewalls, Ethernet).  There are many books and Websites with additional information on basic technology terms, but talking with your local technical support staff is probably the easiest and fastest way to learn the “lingo” necessary to discuss the available technology resources with your students.

3. PROVIDE STUDENTS WITH THE NECESSARY INFORMATION FOR GETTING TECHNICAL SUPPORT AND ACCESSING CAMPUS COMPUTER LABS.  Since technical problems are not an everyday crisis for most of us, typically we only worry about technical support when our Internet stops working the night before an assignment is due. As a result, we should encourage students to prepare a list of technical support phone numbers, hours of operation, and a contingency plans (i.e., local libraries with computers or an alternative campus computer lab) to ensure that they are prepared when an unexpected computer crisis occurs.

4. OFFER STUDENTS OPPORTUNITIES FOR ASSESSING AND IMPROVING THE TECHNOLOGY SKILLS THEY WILL LIKELY REQUIRE IN THEIR COLLEGE COURSES.  For example, if your college uses Blackboard, WebCT, or another online management system to support its courses, then students should be encouraged to practice using the system’s resources (e.g., chat rooms, discussion boards, calendars, assignment submission) in many of their courses.  These opportunities to practice using the technology can be extremely helpful in later semesters when other instructors at the college make assignments with the expectation that all students have already developed these skills.

5. SUPPLY LINKS TO WEBSITES IN YOUR LESSONS. By simply including links to online resources you can both assist students to achieve the goals of the lesson and help them develop the technical skills necessary for success in today’s high-tech college courses.  Be sure to review your text books since many of them will include numerous online resources, and save you the time of searching the Internet for applicable links.

6. ENCOURAGE STUDENTS TO INTERACT AND COMMUNICATE WITH OTHER STUDENTS USING EMAIL AND OTHER ONLINE TECHNOLOGIES. For example, establish a course listserv that will allow students to email all of the other students in the course using just one generic email address; or as an alternative to traditional on-campus office hours, have your “office hours” online one or two weeks each semester using a chat room or discussion board.

Technology should not be a barrier to the success of today’s college students; yet many students do not come to college with the necessary skills to fully utilize this resource to support their academic success. By integrating e-learning study skills and online technologies into your courses, you can however easily guide students to online success as they transition from the traditional high school classroom to your college’s high-tech learning environment.

References:

Jones, S. (2002). “The Internet Goes to College: How students are living in the future with today’s technology.” Retrieved January 9, 2004, from http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/pdfs/PIP_College_Report.pdf

Thomas, D. (2003, July 18). Press Release: “Distance Education Continues Apace at Postsecondary Institutions.” Retrieved January 9, 2004, from http://www.ed.gov/news/pressreleases/2003/07/07182003.html

Watkins, R. & Corry, M. (2004). E-learning Companion: A student’s guide to online success. NY: Houghton Mifflin.

–Ryan Watkins, Faculty, Educational Technology Leadership, George Washington University, DC. Professor Watkins is an author of E-learning Companion: A students’ guide to online success (Cengage Learning) and 75 Activities and Games for Interactive E-learning (Wiley/Jossey-Bass).

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