Specific Type of Student Thrives in the Online Learning Environment [Report]

Young woman sitting on couch studying with a laptop

In the latest report from the Babson Research Group, Grade Level, the growth of online learning programs has slowed; however, the existing programs universities have developed are burgeoning. In this report, researches have identified a specific group of students who flourish in the online environment. These students exhibit greater self-discipline, have a strong sense of motivation, and are mature. One university that has developed an online learning program is the University of Southern California. Dr. Rebecca Weintraub, director of the Master’s of Communication Management degree program has helped create and manage both the onground and online courses. She has a unique perspective of what it takes for an online program to work and the differences between what they do in the traditional classroom versus the online environment. I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Weintraub about the difference in students as well as the issue of student retention, which was also a topic mentioned in the Babson Report, and identified as a key barrier to creating a successful online program. We covered many topics around student success, developing an online program, what type of systems they put into place to help online students stay motivated, and how they work to keep retention rates high in the online environment.

Q. Let’s start with giving some context around the Master’s of Communication Management students, both the on-campus and online students. How long has the on-campus program been functioning and how long has the online program been operating?

Rebecca: The oncampus program began in the early 1970s and has been offered continuously since. The first online students entered in September 2011 and graduated in 2013.

Q. What type of students do you see enrolling in each of these environments?

Rebecca: The online program was designed for working professionals with more than five years of work experience who could not take off from work for 18 months to go to graduate school. We do have some new professionals who are locked into their locales and are also taking the online program. The on-campus program tends to be younger with people within three years of their undergraduate degree completion.

Q. What were some of the key components you saw that were needed in building an online environment in which to host your online masters program?

Rebecca: We needed a customizable platform that could be designed to meet our needs. It needed to be easy to navigate for the students and the faculty. We wanted it to be as strong a socializing tool as it was an academic one.

Q. In the Babson Report, Grade Level, the researchers identified some characteristics that online students possess that are a bit different than the on-campus students. These are mainly self-discipline, motivation, and maturity. Can you please share with us your perspective?

Rebecca: I think Babson got it right. While self-discipline and motivation are an on-campus requirement, too, they become even more critical in the online environment. Online students have a host of support mechanisms in the program but when you come right down to it, they are doing their work – including the online course materials – on their own.

Q. What have you implemented that keeps students motivated and engaged in an online environment?

Rebecca: From the very beginning we focused on the cohort members to support each other. Our LMS has a community page where they can and do engage with each other. The program has a lot of group work and that generates a great deal of engagement. Faculty stay in close contact with their classes, including live sessions that are used for presentations, lecturettes, and discussions. I post messages to our LMS home page which are also emailed to students. These are pep talks that encourage, share my thoughts, and challenge them. I get a lot of notes back that tell me they appreciate them. We know how important all of these elements are because when the students come to campus for Homecoming and Commencement they tell us over and over again.

Q. Retention has also been identified as a barrier to building a successful online learning program. What have you and your team done to help mitigate this problem?

Rebecca: Retention has never been an issue in the on-campus program but it is something every online program has to focus upon. We monitor students closely – including their log-in history, their assignment completion rate, and their group engagement. We encourage them to let us know if they are falling behind. This rarely happens because of the difficulty of the course work – we knew they were capable of this level when we admitted them. But they are people with jobs, families, and other responsibilities. When life gets in the way, often the one element they can let go of is graduate school. We help them to navigate whatever situation they find themselves in. Sometimes they just need an extra week or two to complete an assignment. Sometimes they need to drop to one class. Occasionally, they need a leave of absence. We are a communication program and school – so perhaps we over-communicate. But it seems to work.   Editor’s note: In the following video several students who have benefitted from online learning programs share their experiences. They are great examples of the type of student who is profiled above.