Research Reveals Student-Instructor Relationships Shape Online Learning Success
Posted By Eliana Osborn on April 15, 2016 at 4:39 pm
Taking courses online is a great way to meet the demands of work and family while still pursuing higher education. The problem is that too many students don’t have a great experience with online classes, leading to low pass rates and academic consequences. New research published in the journal Computers and Education reveals some design features that lead to greater student success.
Shanna Smith Jaggars with the Community College Research Center at Columbia University and Di Xu of the University of California-Irvine looked at different elements of online courses to see which ones were related to higher grades. The biggest factor leading to student success? Quality interpersonal interaction.
A frequent complaint from students about their online classes is how isolated they feel. Learning in a classroom involves not just the instructor but also peers; in the best classes, you don’t just hear a lecture but instead, contribute and hear from multiple people. That can be difficult online.
Often, the interactive element of a web-based course is a discussion board. Forced participation for a grade can lead to meaningless exchanges that aren’t anything like a discussion. If the professor is not involved, students quickly realize the forum is not a source of value or learning. Perhaps, that is why the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided significant resources to the Online Learning Consortium to focus on best practices.
Jaggars and Xu looked at online courses for two community colleges, where first-time students are often drawn to the flexibility of such classes. Their findings were clear. “Frequent and effective student–instructor interaction creates an online environment that encourages students to commit themselves to the course and perform at a stronger academic level.”
Previous research has found that student time spent watching lectures, as well as how they interact with a digital textbook, can help predict outcomes in online classes. If students have a connection with their professor, they are more willing to do the tasks asked of them.
Online relationships are no different than those happening in person, just more pronounced. Students who get useful, professional feedback from instructors will always feel more engaged in their learning. A large study including community colleges and all other types of universities has found some success with early warning systems, where students get feedback about their participation and success before it is too late to turn around their performance. These systems can be automatic or slightly personalized by instructors, but are generally impersonal.
As online education only continues to grow, discovering elements necessary for widespread success will be critical. Computers can distribute information and technology can make it snazzy, but the crucial element of interpersonal relationships may be harder to perfect without face-to-face contact.