The last time I taught in a physical college classroom was in 1999 when my adult students shook off their fatigue from a day of work and caring for their children to take care of their classmates and me for three hours.
A lot has changed since then as the world of online learning for working adults has grown. As an advisor at an online college, I know that adults are drawn to the flexibility of an asynchronous online learning environment and the pace of accelerated semesters. This model has become increasingly common over the past year as a result of the pandemic and colleges looking for other ways to reach their students while teaching remotely.
While asynchronous online learning works well for many students, it’s not without its challenges, and those very attributes can make it appealing—that’s the paradox of online learning. Students balancing multiple responsibilities such as work, children, or aging parents are generally drawn to the benefits of anytime, anywhere online courses, but they may also need the most help managing all of these things.
Let’s examine the characteristics of online education and how they both enable and constrain learning, and offer tips on how counselors can help students resolve these tensions.
A flexible schedule requires structure
Because they don’t have to show up at the same place and time as classmates, students can plan their schoolwork around their life quests. But for some students, this flexibility can easily lead to missed deadlines.
I remember one student waiting until the homework deadline to dive into his homework. All too often, they had to ask their instructor a question about the assignment, but didn’t have time to get an answer before the deadline. As a consultant, I’ve been able to help them develop better habits needed for success.
Advisors can help students develop healthy work habits by sending helpful advice on meeting deadlines before class begins, such as:
- Plan ahead: Get an overview of the course by reading the syllabus. Use a planner to show important course dates, review them regularly, and implement steps to meet those dates.
- Lockdown time: Schedule regular time each week to devote to schoolwork and stick to it. Don’t wait for an assignment notification to start.
Access from anywhere Dedicated storage benefits
Mobile learning management apps allow students to complete their schoolwork and attend class whenever and wherever they have an internet connection. They can check out announcements during breaks or read discussion threads while waiting for a flight at the airport.
While on-the-fly login can work well for some course assignments, many assignments require focused blocks of time for thinking and writing. In my academic coaching work with students whose grades are dropping, it’s not uncommon for me to hear a student describe how they work on their homework while they’re at work. As I investigate further, the student finds that his attention has been broken to the point that he is unable to complete an academic assignment.
A dedicated room may be appropriate for study. If possible, the students should find a place that can devote themselves to their school work and offers ideal learning conditions. That means removing distractions like mobile devices and disjointed browser windows, and enlisting the help of friends and family to stay in place.
Autonomy can lead to isolation
Some students need to be explicitly encouraged and supported to contribute to discussions and assignments in an online environment. When students don’t need to speak or be seen, they can feel isolated. This can be addressed by setting expectations for engagement and developing students’ inquiry skills.
Through the admissions process, online orientation, interviews with advisors and with course leaders, we can help students understand the value of discussion, engagement and knowledge building through collaboration. It’s important that we let them know they have something valuable to say.
But just saying it doesn’t make it easy for students to express themselves; For example, asking questions is a learned skill. Counselors can coach their students on how to approach a teacher and how to frame a question in a way that gets them what they need.
I had a particularly enriching counseling experience when a student, dissatisfied with his grade, asked me, “How do I phrase a question for a teacher that doesn’t sound combative?” defensive “why did you?” was avoided. statements and instead used a problem-solving approach: “I want to understand.”
Slow down to advance
Online colleges often compete for students by promoting quick completion of the program. As a result, students may underestimate the amount of time and effort required to earn a college education.
One student suggested taking the maximum credit load for four semesters in a row while working full-time and being a parent. I stayed positive and complimented her ambition and then we imagined and articulated the reality of her days and weeks with such a schedule. The student realized that this schedule might not be feasible. Although they did not change course immediately, they are now aware of the risks and ready to change course should the need arise.
When students fail a course, that F and the shame that comes with it can lead to setbacks and potentially hamper a student’s progress. Counselors are able to suggest to students that sometimes they need to slow down in order to move forward. This could mean that you suggest taking fewer credits per semester. Advisors can also coach students to become aware of their strengths and develop healthy academic habits and routines. You can offer tools to help students manage their time.
Finally, proactively reaching out to students goes a long way in letting them know they are not alone. Advisors are there to encourage, guide, coach, and navigate students to additional learning resources. Because the students who ask for help the least are the ones who need it the most. A solid communication plan includes proactively reaching out to new students as well as students showing signs of academic difficulty.
Successfully dealing with the paradox of online learning requires a both-and mindset. It requires human contact: listening, inviting, encouraging and connecting. Admissions advisors, academic advisors and coaches, educators, program directors, and anyone else who interacts with students have a role in managing expectations and providing support. We need to be transparent and let the students know that the work will be hard but that they are not alone in their journey.