Braving the new world of online learning: What students need to succeed
“I am so frustrated. This is due in six hours and I have no clue where to begin. I need to go to work in the morning and I’m failing this course.”
It is 1 a.m., and a student has just entered my online drop-in tutoring session. As a text-based session, we have only the whiteboard on which to communicate, but within minutes, a seemingly innocuous question about organizing an argument paper turns into a discussion about the struggles of online learning. The above quote is one I see all too often late at night.
My student wants to open up about her struggles, and as I guide the discussion back to the writing project, walking her through some steps to better manage her time and organize her thoughts, her text responses reflect a growing calm, even as we had completed no productive work on the assignment itself. Upon closing, she types:
“THANK YOU! It was so nice to have someone to talk to about this.”
My work as an online writing tutor over the past 10 years, has helped me relate to the feelings of isolation that many students I encounter are experiencing. I frequently hear students explain how they don’t understand their assignments, what their instructor is looking for, and they rarely receive responses to their emails for help. They feel lost and are grateful for having found me, someone with whom to connect.
In addition, many students are assigned research papers who have never visited and are not aware of their school’s library, whether online or in a building. I have asked students to check with their classmates if they have questions and the instructor is not responding. This seems like a revelation to most of them, as it had not occurred to them to reach out to others in the class aside from the classmate postings they are required to respond to.
The digital age is here to stay, and it is incumbent on all of us to create community and foster the personalized learning opportunities now afforded to us and our students. Human connection, communication, and access to resources are now more readily available than ever. The problem is in knowing what is there to access and how to do so. Here are the most important points I’ve gleaned from working with my late-night students:
- Human Connection – Many times, thinking about my late night tutoring sessions brings me back to my undergraduate days at Barnard College. Despite living on campus, the writing center in my building had set hours, and when I was finishing a paper at midnight, there were no professionals available to turn to for help and guidance. Many online learners have access to tutoring services like Smarthinking, where they can text or even talk or video chat with a trained professional in their field of study at a convenient time for them. We need to guide students toward these services where they can personalize their learning and find the support of a real person as they embark on what can seem an isolated educational journey.
- Communication – Without the regular interaction in a classroom, it is key for students to learn early on how best to contact instructors, advisors, and classmates, and when they should be connecting. I refuse to believe that instructors never email back, and prefer to consider that students may have unrealistic expectations for instructor communication. I guide my students to checking their course materials and with classmates to learn more about how and when to communicate with instructors. Students should also know how to communicate with administrators at their schools early on, so as questions arise, they will know how and when to reach out.
- Access to Resources – We can better serve our online students, and they can become more successful, through understanding the resources available to them both through the school and in the larger world of the internet. Rather than starting with a google search, students can save time by heading straight to their school’s online library page, and using the help function that many provide to even get in contact with a librarian in their field of study. A connection with a research professional could be all it takes to give a student the tools he or she needs to navigate the endless world of sources.
While these important components to a successful educational career are not new, the means to accessing them have changed dramatically. It is not enough to have a computer and internet connection for successful online learning. Students, instructors, and administrators need to adjust expectations and take personal ownership over making the online campus, welcoming, inviting, easy to navigate, and manageable.
About the Author
Ronit Berger holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Rice University and currently works as a Senior Lead Tutor at Smarthinking. Throughout her academic career, she has fostered her passion for writing and for teaching writing by working as an undergraduate peer writing fellow, a graduate student instructor of undergraduate composition courses, coordinator of the Rice University Writing Center as well as serving as a pedagogy specialist for the University of Houston Writing Center. She’s tutored with Smarthinking since 2006, working with students in the online environment as well as training tutors and developing pedagogy and resource materials for Smarthinking’s expanding online tutoring modalities. She lives with her husband and three children in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.