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.
More—and better—ways 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.
The best online teachers also exploit the Web's opportunities for interactivity and eye-catching graphics. Barbara Christe, who teaches biomedical engineering technology at Indiana University-Purdue University- Indianapolis, uses simulations that allow students to scroll over circuit diagrams to see how changes in current affect resistance, for example. Michigan State University has developed a Jeopardy!-like website, packed with quiz questions that science and math students can answer to see how well they've mastered key concepts. The University of Maryland-University College has developed a gamelike simulation of a crime scene for students in its criminalistics class. And a growing number of teachers are experimenting with presenting lectures and information as avatars in Second Life.
Student community. Isolation is one of the most common reasons given by online students who drop out or fail, so "community-building is part of the art of teaching," says Julie Little, interim director of Educause, a nonprofit devoted to technology in education. Some schools, for example, are trying to match students with peers who take at least some of the same online classes each semester, so they get to know each other and can cheer each other on. Other colleges turn each course into an instant community by requiring students to post information about themselves on a class blog, Web page, or Facebook. Most typically require students to share their reactions to readings, assignments, and other students' work at least once a week. Many also require students to join together to work on team projects. Professors at Old Dominion University have E-learning students collaborate on a wiki textbook, for example. The University of Maryland is even creating virtual clubs and honor societies.
Quick and thorough responses by professors. "The evidence shows the more access, more interaction, and more opportunities for feedback learners have from instructors, the better they do," says Christine Geith, the executive director of Michigan State's Global Online Connection. Geith, who earned her doctorate online, says she learned to seek out classes with professors who were available during more than just standard office hours. That means the best online teachers are easily accessible, if not by phone, then by E-mail, instant message, or some other method. Overseas students taking online courses stateside might prefer professors who use Skype or some other free long- distance service, for example, she notes.
While some of his online courses took as little as one hour a week and were easy A's, Sierra College student Kerr says he'll seek out more online courses like his art history class. He says he finds the best classes by checking with classmates and researching professors on sites like ratemyprofessors.com. The six or so hours a week he figures he spent on the art history class was less than he typically gives to a traditional class, but much of that time is spent commuting or sitting bored in a classroom, he says. During his online class hours, he was immersed in research, thinking, writing—and learning. Says Kerr: "I'm saving gas, I'm saving time, and I'm saving money."