Online learners are a diverse group, and while many online learners also attend classes on campus, there are a cluster of characteristics, traits, and preferences that figure more prominently in this group of learners as a whole. Understanding the range of characteristics, some of the common reasons students are motivated to take online courses, and what common barriers they face, provide useful insight as you step into facilitating online.
There is some evidence that there are consistent differences between learners who choose in-person courses relative to those who choose online courses (Roddy et al., 2017; Bailey et al., 2014). Online learners comprise a somewhat older and a more mature population, typically ranging from about 25–50 years old (Moore & Kearskey, 2005). They can bring rich life experience to the online course (Bostin & Ice, 2011; O’Shea et al., 2015), but they also have more commitments outside their academic life, such as busy work schedules, that can pose a challenge for these students (Greenland & Moore, 2014). Some online learners are completing their entire degree remotely and could be living many time zones away, while others are local and taking on-campus courses or are in a co-op work-term.
Given the amount of flexibility and control online learners have over their learning, they must take responsibility for their own learning. Adopting effective learning strategies is a positive predicter of higher grades (NSSE, 2013). However, online facilitators very much contribute to student success (Hughes, 2014). In the following units we’ll explore this important role more closely and provide you with strategies and approaches that contribute to student success.
In a larger-scale factor analysis study, Muilenburg and Berge (2005) identified eight barriers to student success in online courses:
As will be outlined in the following units, the facilitator can have a significant impact on helping students to overcome these barriers (Lovitts & Nelson, 2000; Beaudoin, 2002; Muilenburg, & Berge, 2005; Dennen, 2008; Oomen-Early & Murphy, 2009; Joyner et al., 2014; Jaggars & Xu, 2016; Roddy et al., 2017).
Another important issue to consider here is the possibility that during the term some students, in both in-person and online courses, will experience a disruption to their mental health and wellness, such as anxiety, depression, or an exacerbation of a pre-existing condition during the term. While many of the principles around student mental health and wellness that have been explored in the on-campus context apply to the online learning context, identifying and offering support to online students, who may not be local, poses additional challenges. In Unit 3: student-facilitator interaction we provide more detailed guidance on identifying students at risk and addressing mental health and wellness issues. Most of the approaches and strategies we suggest throughout this resource to enhance student engagement, interactions, presence, and a sense of community also positively contribute to student well-being.
If you are creating learning materials, resources, or experiences (e.g., labs or tutorials) for your online course, it is important to remember that some of your students may be hearing or visually impaired and video is not an accessible format. If you have included a video in the course (e.g., asynchronous presentation, demo, or announcement) or a virtual classroom session (e.g., synchronous tutorial) you may be required to provide a transcript and/or verbal description of what is being displayed in a video.
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