By Lillian Williams
Ever wonder what motivates a college student to take an online course rather than a traditional, face-to-face course?
You might be tempted to answer: flexibility and convenience. But not so fast. Those aren’t the only reasons.
Thanks to a study by researcher Shanna Smith Jaggers and her team at the Teachers College of Columbia University, we’re beginning to get a better understanding of this matter. The study, targeting community college students, was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Turns out that students consider other factors, ranging from the importance of a course in the curriculum to perceived difficulty of a course.
Another key finding: Students in this study yearned for better interaction with teachers in their online courses.
Students who take online courses still value face-to-face connections with teachers and classmates in traditional settings. They are reluctant to take all classes online. They cite clear reasons for selecting online courses over traditional course formats.
Data for this study was collected at two Virginia community colleges. The research included interviews with faculty, students and administrative staff.
Most students in the study were enrolled in school full-time, but also worked. Most had taken an online course in the previous semester, and expected to pass their current online course. This study centered on introductory courses such as math, sociology and English.
One student characterized the problem with online learning this way: “I think that communication barrier is the hardest one. I think that the difference is, once again, being able to ask questions on the spot. Depending, of course, on the level of the class and what type of learning you are doing in there. If it’s a class where you can pretty much go off the book and you’re not going to ask a lot of questions, that’s fine, online doesn’t affect you.”
Here’s a take-away for administrators: As recommended by lead researcher Shanna Smith Jaggers, colleges should work to improve student-teacher interactions in online courses. They should survey students about their online learning experiences. They might consider funding instructional technologists to assist with course design and improvement.
“Such improvement processes might initially focus on online courses, but they should not dissipate once a college has successfully closed any observed gaps between online and face-to-face sections,” Jaggers wrote. “ While most students in our study preferred to enroll in face-to-face sections for certain courses, that does not necessarily imply that they were always pleased with the quality of learning in their face-to-face courses. Many face-to-face community college courses still revolve around lectures and other instructor-centered approaches and could certainly benefit from pedagogical improvement.”
Read more about this study here.
It’s your turn. If you take, or teach, an online course at a community college, we’d like to hear your perceptions about the challenges of online teaching and learning.