New Answers for E-Learning

Wikis and avatars are improving the educational experience

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With dorm bills and gasoline prices skyrocketing, it's no wonder 3.5 million students are now opting to stay home and take online college courses. Unfortunately, as many of those students have discovered, E-learning courses have disadvantages, too. Online courses often can be more boring and less educational than traditional classes. They also tend to have higher dropout rates and—on average—yield lower grades than regular students get.

That may finally be changing for the better, however, as E-learning is getting an upgrade. Some professors and schools are redesigning their courses to take advantage of the Web's interactive and visual possibilities, adopting some bleeding-edge technologies such as gamelike simulations and digital avatars to make online courses more exciting and more effective than traditional classrooms. Many students even say that a good E-learning course inspires them to work harder. Matt Kerr signed up for an online art history course last year just to satisfy a general education requirement at Sierra College, a community college outside Sacramento, Calif. He was so inspired by teacher Michelle Pacansky-Brock's audio lectures, "VoiceThread" demonstrations, and assignments that opened his eyes to the art around him that he ended up creating an extensive art blog and did "a lot more work than if I was just sitting in a classroom, listening to her," he says. "I really liked it."

Researchers say that students who stick to courses that offer several of the E-learning field's best practices can cut their chances of dropping out by as much as 50 percent. Here's their advice on what to look for in an E-learning program.

Accreditation, transferability, and reputation. The federal government won't give financial aid to students attending schools that aren't accredited by an approved organization. It lists all schools' accreditation here: ope.ed.gov/accreditation/. But as one student (who asked not to be named) learned this year, accreditation is just the beginning. Colleges are often picky about which courses they'll accept as transfer credits. He spent $12,000 and a year of his time grinding out papers for one school's online communications courses, then discovered that some of his classes might not be accepted if he wanted to transfer. "I wish I'd researched better," says the 27-year-old Simi Valley, Calif., resident.

Schedule. Some online courses are "synchronous," which means all students must be online at the same time for live discussions or exams. Others allow students to work independently throughout the week but have deadlines for assignments and tests. Still others allow students to work at their own pace and finish the course as quickly, or as slowly, as they like. Researchers say one of the biggest reasons students fail at online courses is that they aren't honest with themselves about how much time they can actually devote each week to an online course and whether they have the discipline to work without traditional course structures.

Technology. A growing number of online courses are requiring students to participate in blogs, wikis, or gamelike simulations. Those activities require students to have good computer skills and access to well-equipped computers with high-speed Internet connections. Students nervous about technology should look for online schools with readily accessible help desks and other technological guidance.

Course design. E-learning students are generally happier with courses that start out with a well-organized and detailed syllabus and clear, logical grading criteria. Karen Swan, who researches online learning at Kent State, says most online students are happier with courses that offer lots of smaller, weekly or biweekly assignments instead of big midterm and final exams.

Moreand betterways of delivering lectures and information. "My pet peeve is professors who just paste PowerPoint slides, a textbook assignment, and a quiz into a course shell in Blackboard" and think they've created a good online course, says Darcy Hardy, who heads the University of Texas's TeleCampus. The best online teachers provide information in many different ways. Sierra College's Pacansky-Brock, who was named 2007's best online professor by the Sloan Consortium, posts her lecture notes, provides audio podcasts, and uses VoiceThread—a new program that allows students to hear her talk and see her draw on and annotate slides of artwork—to get her lessons across.