Flexibility, cost and convenience are driving more college students to take part in distance learning. The latest report from the Digital Learning Compass says that more than 6 million students — nearly 30 percent of all postsecondary learners — have taken at least one course online.
At the same time, the market for distance learning is becoming even more competitive. Students are casting a wider net when looking for opportunities. According to Learning House’s “Online College Students,” more than half of online students requested information from three or more schools in 2017, an increase of nearly 30 percent over the previous year. In addition, many students weren’t entirely happy with their ultimate choice, with 59 percent saying they would change the way they searched for an online program if they had the chance to do it again. And, of course, the nature of distance learning makes it possible for students to search in nearly any geographic region, with no limitation as to how nearby an institution may be.
In an article for The EvoLLLution, authors Amanda Major and Jennifer Sumner from the University of Florida write that “transactional distance,” defined as “the space felt between instructors and students,” is a major barrier in creating and sustaining distance learning programs. This sense of detachment can occur at almost any point in the learning process, from finding a “real” person to speak to during the application and enrollment processes to handling nuanced communications in virtual classrooms.
Many schools are adapting innovative ways to decrease transactional distance and enhance student engagement and success in online courses. Here are four strategies institutions can use to increase engagement and position students — and themselves — for better outcomes.
1. Instill a Culture of Online Learning Across the Campus
In The EvoLLLution, Major and Sumner recommend that the goal of supporting students in online courses starts with institutional leaders and should be interconnected with all student services. That covers everything from integrating registration systems for both online and campus courses to providing the same services to both types of learners, including tutoring and library resources.
2. Increase the Role of Coaches and Mentors
Online learners who feel disengaged can regain a sense of belonging when they have access to staff and faculty who can serve as coaches and mentors. While students’ faculty and advisers can continue to help with academic matters, their coaches and mentors may assist with more complex and even personal issues. As an example, a new report found that the mentor program at the all-online Western Governors University led to greater student success.
3. Tap Instructional Design Specialists to Improve User Experience
A list of online learning best practices from Brown University emphasizes partnerships between faculty and instructional design specialists. Faculty members bring their content and teaching mastery to the table, while IDs have expertise in learning theory, learning management systems and creative online tools. Together, they can develop courses that use varied methods to deepen learning, as well as let the instructor’s true voice come through to better connect with students.
4. Consider High-Tech Innovations for Higher Education
Some schools have run successful distance learning programs using technology such as predictive analysis and biometrics. For example, Education Dive reported on how Middle Tennessee State University monitored student data to predict which students were most in need of academic support. At the Paris School of Business, facial recognition software will use real-time feedback to help track students’ focus and tailor content to them while they are taking the course.