Online learning: What Students Say

Thank you!  

All your help made possible our article here in Educause Review – following a great discussion at the the 2016 Ann Ferren Conference.  You can watch the panel here, or see the PowerPoint.  Special thanks to Dr Melissa Scholes Young, Sarah McKinley ’19, and Chandler Randol ’18.  More from the Ann Ferren Conference is here.  Thanks again for all your help.  And from a prior presentation on MOOCs.

Help!  In preparation for a conference on teaching and learning, a couple of us are asking students:  online courses are popular with students, but what do they like and not like about those courses?

metro-cIf you’ve taken an online course (esp. from a college/university), please take a few minutes to share your thoughts about any or all of these questions.   Please post (anonymously, if you like) at the bottom of this page.  And please share with a friend!  Thanks very much–

Why did you choose to take an online course?  Convenience (“location”)? Asynchronous (any time)? Course topic? Requirement (graduate early, etc.)?  or a combination of these, or something else?

Did you expect the course to be easier or more difficult than a regular course? Was it?

What was the best surprise of the online-aspects of the course?  Not “the book was good,” but something about the course’s “online-ness.”

What was most disappointing about the course?  Not “the book was bad,” but something about the course’s “online-ness.”

Material was presented in a variety of ways: assigned books in hard-copy, online readings, instructor’s videos (on Blackboard, YouTube, etc.), third-party videos (C-SPAN, Disney, YouTube, etc.), instructor’s online PowerPoints or other written notes, etc. Which of these was most helpful/effective? Which of these was least helpful/effective?

How was the “classroom community”? What efforts were made to facilitate discussion among students? What worked, what didn’t?

You have an audience of online instructors – mostly regular university professors who sometimes teach online, or who are about to teach online for the first time. What is the most important thing for them to know?

Thank you so much – please share with a friend or friends – and thanks again!

(Your comments may not appear right away – thanks)

22 Replies to “Online learning: What Students Say”

  1. I took an online class because I was traveling abroad and could not be in the classroom to do the work. When I look back I definitely preferred taking online classes. I took an introductory sociology and psychology class at my previous college. I really had no expectation of the class, I just knew it was the only way be able to take classes over the summer. The surprise in the beginning was the how easily it was to forget deadlines. Deadlines for quizzes and exams and homework was originally difficult because I wasn’t hyperaware of the dates since we are usually warned weeks and days in advance in the classroom when assignments and quizzes were due. The best surprise was how easy it was to do my work on my schedule and not the other way around. A lot of times assignments were due at the end of the week and I did it on the day I could. The times were so flexible it almost didn’t feel like I was taking two classes at all. The materials used in my classes were the test books and sometimes short videos. I thought they were both fine materials for the class. In both of my classes, the classroom community was actually pretty strong. However, I thin that was because my professor required us to respond to our classmates posts so we did partake in many discussions. I think I would want professors to know that online classes lend themselves to flexibility and a lot of people take them because they need that flexibility. I would hope that professors wouldn’t create a schedule that would derail that. I also think part of the reason I was able to do well online was because both classes had a consistent schedule that I knew without even looking at it after the first week. With a program that doesn’t require students to go to class, consistent schedules are very helpful.

  2. Why did you take online course?
    I took it for the convenience, I had a three day week and didn’t want to extend that to five days based on one additional class. It would have been tedious to have to travel to campus for one extra class and it would’ve made interning harder with one afternoon class in the middle of a stretch of free time.

    Did you expect the course to be easier or more difficult.
    I expected the course to be easier but with a lot more work. All of my online classes have been very heavy on assignments, which are due either by the end of the week or everyday. Yet on the flip side the assignments are a little more easier than they would be in a regular class. I personally prefer this because the constant assignments forces me to stay on task and keeps the material that I’m learning fresh on my mind.

    What was the most disappointing part of the course?
    Sometimes I wanted to interact with the professor more personally and that was harder to do. Within the online classes I’ve taken professors typically upload videos of them talking. I wish there would be a live component or section so that questions can be asked in real time.

    Effective materials?
    I’ve mainly had professors upload videos and powerpoints of lectures. I think the powerpoints are only useful if they are detailed otherwise the videos are extremely helpful. I’ve also had professors direct me to use online sources such as Khan academy for lectures. Lastly some of my professors use online coursework that they make you buy with the book, these can be extremely tedious and long but I find that they do work! Yet on the flip side you can find answers to the questions online. If they are utilized correctly they can be extremely helpful.

    How was the community classroom?
    The only interaction I ever have with the classroom online is first day introduction posts and if there is a group project. For the latter we typically correspond via email, everyone does their part and emails it. Otherwise there isn’t much interaction and it is harder to facilitate as people taking online classes typically have stricter schedules.

    My advice.
    Don’t forget that you are teaching an online class, provide clarity. Also I would recommend that they be more open to live-streams or at least live office hours offered throughout the week for anyone that wants actual FaceTime with the professor.

  3. My initial reasons for wanting to take an online/hybrid course was for convenience and to be able to do the work and “attend” class on my own time. The location for the face-to-face meetings was over an hour away from my house. Plus, as a full time teacher, it is nice to be able to work according to my schedule. The topic of the course was one I was very interested in and the fact that it was a hybrid made it much easier to be able to take the course.

    My favorite aspect of the class was the use of Facebook to not only complete and submit assignments, but also create an online community within the class. The format of Facebook allowed me to feel more included in the group and I liked how a lot could be done on Facebook.

    The work for this course was great because it utilized many aspects of online learning. In addition to PDFs and novels, the use of YouTube, online publications, and short lecture videos posted by the professor enabled us to get the material in multiple formats, and I felt assured that I was on the right track through the professor’s video updates.

  4. well, it was an easy way to get the ones I wasn’t very interested in out of the way with minimal effort. most of the classes on the topic were online anyway. and I worked full time and didn’t really have a lot of time to spare.

    1. Why did you choose to take an online course? Convenience (“location”)? Asynchronous (any time)? Course topic? Requirement (graduate early, etc.)? or a combination of these, or something else?

      Free MOOCs to gain a new skill (stats with Duke through Coursera, R programming through edX). I also took some community college classes online seven years ago…

      Did you expect the course to be easier or more difficult than a regular course?

      Easier, given the nature of the MOOC. I thought it was about the same as a regular course in difficulty, however.

      What was the best surprise?
      I could speed up video lectures to about 1.5x speed, which cut down on boredom significantly and customize the lecture for myself.

      What was most disappointing about the course?

      It is very easy to get lost in the sites and can be hard to find information; there is often no instructor you can contact (obviously different in a paid online class though)

      Material was presented in a variety of ways:

      Video lectures (on the site which allowed speed controls–if I had to watch at 1x speed it would have been hard for me to even complete the course) were quite helpful
      Interactive lessons (present in both edX and Coursera) where I work through problems independently, then am presented lessons from the lecture in writing, and work through more problems and examples, were the most helpful.
      The least helpful was the digital textbook, which was basically a scan of a text and felt very backwards and outdated.

      How was the “classroom community”?

      Grading projects was democratized: Students had to grade three other projects to receive a grade on their own project. The rubric was very clear and it was helpful to get REAL feedback from other students (in classrooms people are too afraid to be honest so they are just nice instead, which is unhelpful). It was also good simply to see other projects. Finally, applying a grading rubric gave an idea of what standards are sensible.

      There were chat boards, but I never used them, and preferred to work on my own.

      What is the most important thing for them to know?

      Balancing the pace for assignments is tough and different than a classroom course. Students are taking online courses for the schedule flexibility, but it is very easy to drop out through forgetfulness or because scheduling has become difficult. You do not want to punish students who slip up one week by having them miss grades, but you do not want to have very few grades (say, one mid-term and one final) because students will try to cram all at once.

      What worked well in my Coursera course was a very hard deadline for the exams, and a rolling deadline for weekly assignments. This meant that you could fail to do the work one week, but quickly recover with some extra work, but could never delay action until the workload buried you, and were forced to keep pace.

  5. From a CUA student (thank you) –

    Why did you choose to take an online course? Convenience (“location”)? Asynchronous (any time)? Course topic? Requirement (graduate early, etc.)? or a combination of these, or something else?

    I chose to take an online course because I would be studying abroad the next year and wanted to make sure I had enough of the right credits. Also, I picked the class 1) it was an interesting topic, 2) the politics credits were flexible and I could make it count as American or World politics, 3) I had the teacher before and really enjoyed his class

    Did you expect the course to be easier or more difficult than a regular course? Was it?

    I expected it to be easier than a regular class. I would say it wasn’t an extremely difficult class but I got a great grade and was never concerned about my standing in the class.

    What was the best surprise of the online-aspects of the course? Not “the book was good,” but something about the course’s “online-ness.”

    My professor recorded himself and posted videos for us to watch! I expected Youtube videos and readings but it felt like a more hands-on approach.

    What was most disappointing about the course? Not “the book was bad,” but something about the course’s “online-ness.”

    It was hard to figure out what was expected from our work. It’s hard to even get input from other students let alone the teacher.

    Material was presented in a variety of ways: assigned books in hard-copy, online readings, instructor’s videos (on Blackboard, YouTube, etc.), third-party videos (C-SPAN, Disney, YouTube, etc.), instructor’s online PowerPoints or other written notes, etc. Which of these was most helpful/effective? Which of these was least helpful/effective?

    The video lectures as well as the video clips we watched were the most helpful. Readings were the least. I retained more from watching and listening that staring at pages.

    How was the “classroom community”? What efforts were made to facilitate discussion among students? What worked, what didn’t?

    We did online discussion boards and although everyone participated, I felt everyone was saying the same thing with a handle of people providing original thought to drive the conversation.

    You have an audience of online instructors – mostly regular university professors who sometimes teach online, or who are about to teach online for the first time. What is the most important thing for them to know?

    In a classroom, you’re not afraid to reach out to an individual student. Do be afraid to reach out to students in a virtual classroom. Email us. Ask us questions about the class. Let us ask you questions.

  6. From a colleague who has taken online courses – thanks!

    I love online courses. Maybe it is partly because I do not love driving at night in bad weather to wherever.

    The flexibility of time is so valuable to me. If anything, I put in more hours of study because my class time is not limited and I have not exhausted time in transit. The ones I have taken have been very substantive and targeted what I can use in my classes. My teachers were very clear and very specific about requirements and due dates from the start, so I knew exactly what I had to do to succeed. They were consistent. They provided positive and prompt feedback on papers or projects I submitted. So far, I have not had any negative experiences.

    1. A colleague of ours replied (and I’m paraphrasing here):

      Online class was not for me. In the one I took, there was no syllabus and I got behind early. But in any case I just could not do this kind of work at home – I need a work environment and structure – not “at home” and “whenever.”

  7. From a friend who took online classes in grad school (thanks!)

    I absolutely love the convenience of online classes but learn more form physically attending class because I prepare more for them.
    I personally enjoy meeting others while going to class as opposed to being “forced” to read someone’s introduction online and have to comment on them – I get nothing out of it it.
    I do feel less stressed taking an online class and pace myself better than when I take a regular class.

  8. From a (classroom) student of mine – thanks!

    So, I’ve only taken one online course. It just finished….. I thought it was pretty terrible (nothing cutting edge or interactive about it…here’s the text, here are some crappy instructor notes, here are your assignments, etc) so I’m not sure it’s the best case study for input…
    There was nothing positive about it for me. And I wouldn’t take an online course again unless I had to (I really need face-to-face interaction).
    I think students consider online learning because they’re tied up or engaged elsewhere, have competing priorities and it just makes sense for them given their circumstances – the idea we’re pitched as students time and time again by universities wanting to capitalize on this reality/market is that ‘the classroom can come to you and it’ll be like you’re in the lecture hall!’. that sounds great, really. But I can’t help but feel that this was total crap: In this last course I took – economic development – I was working with outdated materials, sloppy notes, a package that was clearly put together by someone random about 12 years ago…bits and pieces updated here and there
    There was nothing ‘living’ or dynamic about this or the material, which is funny to me given that academia is meant to be both of those things.
    So, I paid the same amount of money as I would have for a ‘regular’ course and can say honestly I got nothing out of it except the credit I need to graduate.
    [Me: Although, does it also seem like you would not have gotten much out of it if it were a classroom course?]
    Yes and no. My sense is the prof would not have been able to get away with what he did in a classroom setting. It wouldn’t have been glamorous though if he did, I suppose..
    A tidbit I had from before: What could help? Use the tools and platforms students are already using. If we really want to bring the classroom to them, let’s capitalize on technology, diverse perspectives we has access to and the fluidity/ease with which we can access and share information. For example, real-time engagement with COP 21 could be a really cool online course lesson. (and by platforms we are already using, I mean FB, Linkedin, etc.)

  9. From four classmates in a hybrid course:

    The instructor’s short introductory video at the beginning of each week — it summarizes, contains useful information in a mini-lecture, and maintains that personal feel. Also, maintaining a balance between textual media (online articles) and say documentaries on Youtube– those are helpful as well.

    The intro videos are very helpful. I agree with __ that it was really helpful to watch videos and have readings. The videos really brought the readings to life. The weekly assignments definitely keep you on your toes. It did not take long to learn the schedule and keep on track. Things to consider changing: Adding an additional in-person meeting would be great. We all enjoyed talking to each other and it is nice to connect the faces with online comments. Maybe a group video chat?? I have no idea if that is possible with the classroom technology that __ uses, but could be a good way to get folks “together.”

    The time this format affords to read everything assigned. I also like the expectations of assignments due throughout the week. More manageable and interactive. Also liked the video mixed with text. I think one more meeting would be nice, so about one a month. Maybe try a Skype format or conference call one week?

    Asynchronous allows me to be with my family more and still get the work done once my children are asleep. It also allows us time to do the required readings and find more on the Internet as far as news media sources and articles. With this allotted time, we are able to read our classmates posts, absorb their ideas and thoughts, think of a response and then post that to them in a fair amount of time. While the length of our posts varied, I think the requirements allowed for us to examine topics that sparked our interests more, while also allowing for other topics that we may have struggled with a little less.

  10. From American Univ (thanks!):

    I like online courses because they are easy to fit into my schedule. I was able to complete an internship last semester and take all the classes I needed to take because I took an online course. I don’t think I would take one again unless I absolutely needed to because I found it was difficult to communicate with my professor.

    1. And another American Univ undergrad, on social media in a classroom course:

      I found online communication through Facebook to be an effective way to engage with classmates and my professor. Since a block class only meets once a week, it is easy to detached from the content during the days between classes. However, with the use of online communication, this is not the case. I enjoyed the opportunity to share relevant news articles, which provided insight into peers’ interests

  11. Also from American Univ:

    I think it is really helpful for me to have infinite tries on homework assignments so I learn the material and see what I am getting wrong. Instant Feedback. But online courses do let me down. Being required to post and reply to message boards is the worst. No sense of community is built. I really enjoy asking questions in person and I feel like it is harder to ask professors for advice and recommendations when I do not have a personal connection with them.

  12. Another from American Univ:

    It’s difficult to have communication with professors since they could be in different time zones, areas. Also, when they teach online it’s easier to be distracted by life.. However, it’s great if you have a job because you can access it at anytime you want

  13. An undergrad:
    Love to work ahead/at my own pace
    I’m very mobile; class is always with me
    Google Docs/slides etc are great to collaborate with others for online projects

    Can be tempting to work on the go, which is not advantageous to retaining what you learned
    Working from home can be difficult with distractions

  14. From a CUA undergrad – thanks:

    I like it when the transcript of the lecture is included with the class video. Makes it easier to follow along and review material.

  15. From a former undergrad student of mine about her grad school experience – thanks!

    I did my MS with both online and in-person classes. Group assignments in the online environment are absolute torture. There are often significant time differences and an accountability void with technology. Online classes (in my experience) tend to have more low point deliverables. In-person courses are lighter on the amount of coursework and more discussion driven. While I prefer to have fewer high point deliverables, the convenience of online classes is alluring. Most of my online professors have been exceptionally accessible by phone or email, which is very helpful.

  16. From an AU undergrad (which makes me wonder when “back in the day” was):

    I took quite a few back in the day! I think that things I liked were:
    Versatile schedule
    Fewer assignments
    More concise learning

    Harder to connect with professor
    As a result limited networking
    More difficult to grasp abstract concepts or have them explained
    Harder on people who thrive in lecture setting
    Requires much more use of the textbook

    Hope that helps!!! [it does, thanks!]

  17. I chose an online course for convenience. I was working full time and didn’t want to commute across town after work. The first course was about what I expected. The materials and instructor were good. I felt a little disconnected from the experience since we were all participating at different times – hard to build a relationship with teacher or fellow students. The most annoying aspect was the requirement to comment on discussions. These mostly just ended up as “yes, what she said” and didn’t add anything useful. I withdrew from the second class because the instructor had no idea how to interact with adults – he treated me like I was in high school – in tone and in his expectations for students.

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