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Online Courses are For Whom?

When I have attended meetings or conferences and the topic was online courses, a great deal of attention is paid to the "target audience" for online education. The assumption is that online courses are ideal for certain groups:

  • Workers seeking to complete a degree.
  • Rural residents unable to relocate or travel to a campus.
  • Disabled students requiring accommodations.
  • Non-traditional students (meaning everything from older to unusually young).

These might be ideal "targets" if a university operates as nothing but a business, but even private institutions have a responsibility to deliver the best, most meaningful educational experience to all qualified students. I would argue the pressure on for-profit institutions is actually greater because there is a skepticism in academia towards the profit motive.

And what we ignore when we think of "target audiences" is that the descriptions do not reflect the personalities of the students.

Online courses, from hybrids that meet at least a few times physically to those courses entirely online, require students who exhibit some character traits that are not always present in college students. Placing an unprepared student in an online course increases the odds he or she will not complete the course. Low grades, dissatisfaction with the course, and other negative outcomes could lead a student to exit post-secondary learning.

Instead of targeting students by their locations, ages, or special needs, we should be considering if a student is ready for online learning. We should help students determine their preparedness for online learning. What are the traits necessary to online success?

  • Self-motivation,
  • Time management, and
  • Tech savvy.

Too many students believe an online course will be easier than a traditional course. Those of us with online teaching experience will tell you that the time requirements and effort are greater online.

Depending on the format of the course, synchronous or asynchronous, a student has to maintain a strict schedule. The students in asynchronous courses, in which there are no "live" virtual meetings, have a tendency to fall behind on assignments. Instructors can send repeated reminders, post an online calendar, and take other step to prod students along, but if a student doesn't go online he or she won't complete assignments.

I've had motivated students with no time management skills. They do want to succeed, but they've never learned to keep a calendar or weekly schedule. Teachers have always been there to remind these students of deadlines and expectations. I tell students, if you don't keep a calendar without being told to, an online course is going to be difficult. I teach students to put deadlines in their calendars on the first day of class. MS Outlook, Apple's iCal, and various free alternatives are ideal for this.

I have found that students who aren't comfortable with computers don't do well in online courses. I've had online systems that required downloading Java, QuickTime, or other support software to play media clips or edit documents. If a student isn't comfortable installing software or adjusting browser settings, then an online course becomes both technology training and whatever the intended content is. I've had English students tell me they learned more about Windows in my class than in any other! That's not what I want to be thanked for by students, though at least they valued the information.

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