How to create an effective online environment

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This guide describes findings from CCRC’s qualitative research on online education in one community college system. Drawn from interviews with online students and faculty and observations of online courses, these findings shed light on areas of weakness in online learning. On the basis of these results, this guide presents recommendations to administrators looking to improve online learning at their college.
Creating an Effective
Online Environment
Why Might Students Perform More Poorly Online?
Online courses present a number of challenges particular to their format. Besides basic technologi-
cal proficiency, online courses require students to possess an array of well-developed non-academic
skills; students must be able to manage time, stay organized, and recognize when and how to ask
for help.1 Online courses also require instructors to be conversant with interactive technologies
that enable them to create a strong instructor presence and engage students in the virtual space.2
CCRC research indicates that students perform more poorly in online courses than they do in face-
to-face courses.3 Evidence from recent qualitative analyses suggests that online courses may not Evidence from recent
be providing the range and intensity of supports that students need to perform well online.4 With qualitative analyses
the popularity of online courses rapidly increasing, what can administrators do to create an effec- suggests that online
courses may not be
tive “online environment” so that growth in online learning does not go hand in hand with higher
providing the range and
course failure and dropout rates?
intensity of supports that
This guide describes findings from CCRC’s qualitative research on online education in one com- students need to perform
munity college system. Drawn from interviews with online students and faculty and observations well online.
of online courses, these findings shed light on areas of weakness in online learning. On the basis of
these results, this guide presents recommendations to administrators looking to improve online
learning at their college.
This is part two in CCRC’s online learning practitioner packet. To learn more about
student outcomes in online courses, see What We Know About Online Course Out-
comes (part one). For more information on effective online teaching, see Creating an
Effective Online Instructor Presence (part three).
What the Research Tells Us Throughout this practitioner
packet, an “online” course
refers to a course held
entirely online, as opposed
Why Do Students Take Online Courses? to a “hybrid” course, which
Although nearly half of community college students take at least one online course, few students consists of both online and
face-to-face instruction.
take all of their courses online. Most students enroll in a mix of online and face-to-face courses
throughout their college experience. 5
Investigating the rationale for this mix-and-match strategy can tell us much about the online ex-
perience for students. For example, do students make a conscious choice to take only some of their
courses online? If so, how do they decide which courses to take online, and what does this decision
process suggest about the strengths and weaknesses of online learning?
In the interviews we conducted, almost all students explained that the flexibility of online learn-
ing helped them to manage their busy schedules. A handful of students also reported that they
could use their time more efficiently with online courses and that online learning suited their
personal learning style. Most students, however, indicated that they would not like to take all of
their courses online.6
Why Do Students Prefer To Take Some Courses Face-To-Face?7
Students indicated that in face-to-face Some students valued interacting with their
courses they felt their relationship with in- peers in face-to-face courses but felt that
structors was more “personal,” “immediate,” online peer-to-peer interaction was a waste
“detailed,” and “solid.” In an online setting, of time. Students also valued the resources
students found teachers to be less accessible; available on the college campus; one student
as one student said, “It just seems…when you said, “I have somewhere to come in person to
do it online, if you need help, your teacher is ask questions.”
basically not there.”
How Do Students Choose Which Courses
To Take Online?
The reasons students cited for deciding to take a course online or face-to-face generally fell into Many students’ decisions
three broad categories: whether the subject was well suited to the online context; whether the about whether to take
course was “easy” or “difficult”; and whether the course was “interesting” or “important.”8 It is a course online or face-
evident from our interviews that many students’ decisions about whether to take a course online or to-face were driven by a
face-to-face were driven by a perception that it is harder to learn course material online. perception that it is harder
to learn online.
What Factors Determine Whether Students Choose To Take Courses
Online Or Face-To-Face?9
Students felt that some Students indicated a prefer- Students preferred to take
subjects—such as languages, ence for taking classes they “important” and “interesting”
public speaking, and laborato- excepted to be difficult in a courses (including those in
ry science—were unsuited for face-to-face setting. Accord- their major) face-to-face. One
the online context. One stu- ing to one student, “If you’re student told us: “I actually
dent said of online German: not comfortable learning the enjoyed the class, so I didn’t
“When all you do is write material on your own and want to just take it online. I
your German and type in little teaching yourself, then you wanted to sit in the classroom
prompts, you’re not really should be in (a face-to-face) and actually learn about it.” 11
learning how to speak it.” class.” 10
What Are Student and Faculty Expectations for
Online Courses?
Students and faculty in the online environment had specific but mismatched expectations for
Student and faculty
their courses and for each other. Both students and faculty indicated in interviews that online
expectations tended to
courses were more difficult and time-consuming than they expected. Beyond their shared
differ widely, leading
misperception that online courses would offer an “easy way out,” the two groups’ expectations
to frustration on both
tended to differ widely, leading to frustration on both sides and potentially contributing to
sides and potentially
higher attrition rates for online courses.12 contributing to higher
Students and instructors differed most in their expectations for their responsibilities in online attrition rates for online
courses. Instructors expected online students to be independent learners who are self-motivated courses.
with strong time management skills. Although students agreed that these traits and skills are
necessary, they expected their instructors to help them with time management and to motivate and
inspire them through active engagement in the teaching and learning process.
By examining student and teacher expectations and understanding how they differ, col-
leges can gain insight into what might make online courses more effective and satisfying for
students and instructors. With the benefit of these insights, they can implement readiness
activities and training that equips both groups with the knowledge and skills they need to meet
expectations in the online environment.
Expectations For Online Courses13
Teachers will guide and motivate students to Students will be independent learners who are
learn through engaging activities and varied self-motivated and actively seek out help if they
pedagogical approaches. need it.
Instructor Presence and Course Materials
Varied course materials will be used to deliver Course content will be delivered mostly through
content. text-based materials and asynchronous
discussion boards.
Instructors will have an active presence in
the online environment and express “caring” Instructors will play the role of “content
through accessibility and time invested in the manager” and “guide on the side.”
Communication, Feedback, and Guidelines
Instructors will provide quick feedback via Instructors will not be “on call,” particularly
discussion board or email, including over the over the weekend.
If students want more help, information, or
Instructors will provide explicit information feedback on assignments, they will seek it out.
about assignments and exams, clear grading
rubrics, and detailed feedback on graded
Are Negative Outcomes Associated With Online
Courses the Same in All Subject Areas?
Findings from one CCRC study indicate that although students in all academic subject areas per-
formed more poorly in online courses than in face-to-face courses, the effects tended to be weaker
in subject areas—such as the physical sciences and computer science—that generally attract better
prepared students. In contrast, in subjects that attract a wide variety of students (such as English
and the social sciences), the difference in student performance was more pronounced. Interestingly,
even students who typically adapted well to online coursework tended to perform more poorly
online in these subject areas, possibly indicating negative peer effects.14 Two academic subject areas
appeared intrinsically more difficult for all students in the online environment: the social sciences
(which include anthropology, philosophy, and psychology) and the applied professions (which
include business, law, and nursing).15
To maximize the effectiveness of online courses, colleges should consider improving several areas
that may contribute to poor retention and performance: student preparation and support, course
quality and design, and faculty professional development.
Student Preparation and Support
Readiness Activities
Success in online courses requires a range of technical and non-academic skills that our research
suggests may be lacking in a significant portion of community college students. To address this Readiness activities
deficiency, colleges should consider making readiness activities a requirement prior to or during should not only cover the
registration periods for online courses, so students can determine if the online course format is ap-
technological requirements
and competencies
propriate for them. Readiness activities should not only cover the technological requirements and
necessary to succeed in
competencies necessary to succeed in online courses but also outline the behaviors and responsi-
online courses but also
bilities expected of students.
outline the behaviors and
Colleges should also consider integrating scaffolded instruction of online learning skills—such as responsibilities expected of
time management, organization, and reading strategies—particularly into online courses that serve students.
larger proportions of students who tend to perform more poorly in the online context.16 Many
online courses already include course-specific orientations for students. These orientations could
be used to delineate the skills necessary for success in the course and to introduce materials and as-
signments that will give students opportunities for sustained practice of online learning skills.
Even the most comprehensive readiness activities may be insufficient to impart critical skills to
some students, so colleges might want to take the additional step of treating online learning as a
privilege rather than a right. For instance, because research indicates that students with lower GPAs
are more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses, colleges might consider requiring a mini-
mum GPA to enroll in an online course.
Colleges could also consider limiting or eliminating online sections of courses in which a consider-
able proportion of students have historically performed poorly. Many colleges have already fol-
lowed this approach by offering very few online courses in developmental education.
Early Warning Systems
To ensure that online students get the support they need, colleges might want to implement early
warning systems that identify and intervene with students who are having difficulty in online
courses. For example, if a student fails to sign in to the online system, or fails to turn in an assign-
ment, the system could generate a warning for the instructor, who could in turn call the student to
see if he or she is experiencing problems and discuss potential solutions.
Technical Support and Tutoring
Students often choose to enroll in online courses because they are juggling multiple life demands
and complicated schedules.17 Colleges should make sure that they offer support services that are
both accessible during non-traditional hours and available online.
Online tutoring, advising, and technical support should be available before and after tradi-
tional business hours, as well as over the weekend, and hours of availability should be commu-
nicated clearly to online students both on their individual class web portal and on college-wide
portals. Although 24-hour services may not be financially viable for individual colleges, it may
be possible to offer around-the-clock services through partnerships with for-profit entities or a
consortium of colleges.
Course Quality and Design
At many colleges, courses are put online in a relatively haphazard fashion, driven by instructor in-
terest rather than a department- or college-based decision-making process. For this reason, it is of- Courses are put online
in a relatively haphazard
ten difficult for colleges to monitor their online course offerings and ensure they are of consistently
fashion, driven by
high quality. To achieve greater oversight of their online course offerings, colleges might consider
instructor interest rather
implementing a more centralized system of quality control.
than a department- or
Some colleges have created a system that allows for greater oversight by building a “virtual cam- college-based decision-
pus,” a centralized portal where all online courses and programs are listed. In order to have their making process.
courses listed on the portal, faculty must go through a “refresh” process with a dedicated course de-
signer. The designer works with instructors to ensure that their courses adhere to an online course
template (developed by the designer with input from online faculty) and helps them incorporate in-
structional tools and strategies that increase student engagement and faculty–student interaction.
Faculty Professional Development
Effective online teaching requires an understanding of pedagogies and technologies that en-
courage student engagement and instructor–student connections.18 To maximize the effec-
tiveness of their online courses, colleges must ensure that online instructors receive sufficient
training and support.
Colleges might want to require online instructors to complete two courses in online instruc-
tion before receiving certification to teach online—one on course design and instructional
technologies and one on online pedagogy, with a focus on increasing instructor presence and
student engagement. Colleges should also ensure that online faculty members receive ongoing
training and support beyond the initial courses required for certification. Finally, to develop Colleges should ensure that
training courses and oversee certification and incentive programs, colleges may need to hire a online faculty members
receive ongoing training
director of online faculty development.
and support beyond the
initial courses required for
Online education holds great promise for community college students, but there remains work to be
done before it offers an optimal alternative to the face-to-face experience. Through comprehensive
improvement efforts, administrators can create an environment in which online faculty and students
have the supports that will help them succeed.
Part three of this practitioner packet, Creating an Effective Online Instructor Presence, is aimed at
online instructors who are seeking ways to better engage their students and improve retention and
performance in their courses. We review our findings on the importance of instructor presence, pres-
ent a case study, and list considerations for online instructors as they design and teach their courses.
1. Bork & Rucks-Ahidiana (2013)
2. Edgecombe, Barragan, & Rucks-Ahidiana (2013)
3. See What We Know About Online Course Outcomes, part one of this practitioner packet.
4. Edgecombe, Barragan, & Rucks-Ahidiana (2013); Jaggars & Xu (2013)
5. Jaggars & Xu (2010); Xu & Jaggars (2011)
6. Jaggars (2013)
7. Jaggars (2013)
8. Jaggars (2013)
9. Jaggars (2013)
10. Emphasis added.
11. Emphasis added.
12. Bork & Rucks-Ahidiana (2013)
13. Bork & Rucks-Ahidiana (2013)
14. Xu & Jaggars (2013)
15. Xu & Jaggars (2013). See part one of this packet, What We Know About Online Course
Outcomes, for more detail on student outcomes in online courses.
16. See What We Know About Online Course Outcomes for information about how different
subgroups perform in online courses.
17. Jaggars (2013)
18. See part three of this packet, Creating an Effective Online Instructor Presence.
8. Bork, R. H., & Rucks-Ahidiana, Z. (2013). Virtual courses and tangible expectations: An analysis of
students’ and instructors’ opinions of online courses. Manuscript in preparation.
Edgecombe, N., Barragan, M., & Rucks-Ahidiana, Z. (2013). Enhancing the online experience
through interactive technologies: An empirical analysis of technology usage in community college.
Manuscript in preparation.
Jaggars, S. S. (2013). Beyond flexibility: Why students choose online courses in community colleges.
Manuscript in preparation.
Jaggars, S. S., & Xu, D. (2010). Online learning in the Virginia Community College System. New
York, NY: Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center.
Jaggars, S. S., & Xu, D. (2013). Predicting online outcomes from a measure of course quality. Manu-
script in preparation.
Xu, D., & Jaggars, S. S. (2011). Online and hybrid course enrollment and performance in Washington
State community and technical colleges (CCRC Working Paper No. 31). New York, NY: Columbia
University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center.
Xu, D., & Jaggars, S. S. (2013). Adaptability to online learning: Differences across types of students
and academic subject areas (CCRC Working Paper No. 54). New York, NY: Columbia University,
Teachers College, Community College Research Center.
This guide was prepared by Shanna Smith Jaggars, Nikki Edgecombe, and Georgia West Stacey, Community
College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.
Funding was provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Community College Research Center
Teachers College, Columbia University
525 West 120th Street, Box 174
New York, New York 10027
Tel: 212.678.3091 Fax: 212.678.3699