The Occasional Online Student

Photo by Burst

Since the COVID-19 pandemic upended our world, many of us have found ourselves teaching online—some dragged into it kicking and screaming, and others more enthusiastically so. But instructors are not the only ones forced to adapt: many of our students are in a similar situation. If you work at a traditional college, like I do, chances are that the majority of your students did not choose to enroll into online classes. They are being forced to adapt to a new context they do not necessarily view as an equal replacement. As newly minted online instructors, we need to provide an environment that facilitates this transition. It’s up to us whether these students will succeed and thrive in the new environment and come to value their online learning experience to the point that they’ll choose to continue studying in this format rather than taking a gap year or a semester off. This is particularly crucial if, as many colleges are now suggesting, Fall semesters might be partially or completely online.

Who are our new online learners, and how do they differ from typical online students? Let’s meet two different learners, Amy and Emma.

Amy is 42, has a full-time job and two kids. A late 1990s’ college graduate with an established career, she recently realized that an additional credential would help her get a promotion with a significant salary raise. After comparing prices and considering her options, she has decided to enroll in an online program that allows her to study on weekends and evenings. Initially, she was intimidated at the idea of going back to school almost a 20-year-long hiatus, but she rapidly found out that most of her new classmates were in a similar spot. Getting back into a studying rhythm has been a challenge at times. However, she also came to realize that her two decades of work experience have equipped her with a lot of practical knowledge that often comes in handy during online discussions and in group projects.

Emma is a 20-old junior whose last semester was cut short after spring break. She is currently finishing her classes online from her childhood bedroom. As she prepares to graduate with a mountain of student debt, she sees internships and job opportunities evaporating before her eyes. A high achiever, Emma went straight from a traditional high school into a very selective college. She has juggled many commitments since her early adolescence, and she knows that competition for good jobs will be even fiercer given the economic impact of COVID-19. What did she value the most in her college experience? The experience itself: her new friendships, the all-nighters in the library, and the general challenge of learning how to “adult” while being away from home for the first time. She is now mourning the loss of that autonomy, while facing an uncertain future and getting used to have her class discussions and office hours on Zoom.

Amy fits the profile of what I like to call the “intentional online student”: someone who chose to pursue a degree or classes online because this format was the most convenient and practical. Emma, on the other hand, is the “occasional online student”, who had chosen a traditional path but is now forced to continue her studies online. Both Amy and Emma can succeed in an online classroom environment; as an instructor, you might want to learn to know your target audience, and build on their strengths.

What lessons can we learn from the Amy’s in our classes, and how can we transfer them to the Emma’s of our newly minted online classes?

Know your learners

Let’s now have a close looks at these two different type of students. There are many differences in age, motivation, values and general goals.

©Valentina Fulginiti

What does this mean for the instructor who is suddenly reinventing her/his pedagogy online? While these two groups differ in many respect, there are many valuable lessons that can be transferred from the world of online education into this new emergency online pedagogy. Here are my main takeaways.

#1. Embrace Different Experiences

Intentional online learners are, as a whole, a more variegated demographic. With an average age of 34 (source: Online Universities), they are older than traditional college students (whose average age is 21). Additionally, they bring a mix of different experiences into the (virtual) classroom, given than only 5% are first-time college students and many have at least some college credit under their belt. In my personal experience as an online teacher and student, this mix of generations and life experiences makes for very enriching and lively discussions. As you adapt your traditional college classroom for an online format, keep in mind that different perspectives are an asset, and don’t discount knowledge and skills gained through informal learning.

#2. Flexibility is Key

Flexibility is one of the main appeals of online learning, as this format allows many to balance their studies with jobs, families, and other responsibilities. However, switching from traditional F2F to online instruction can help even the college instructor rethink our monolithic view of university students. After all, 43% of full-time students enrolled in 2- and 4-year institutions work part- or full-time jobs. Even when not gainfully employed, students today must juggle competing demands coming from athletics, volunteering, internships and other commitments—as a matter of fact, this variety of activities is likely correlated to the reported dip in paid employment since 2005 (from 51 to 43%). It’s important to keep in mind that extracurriculars are not just hobbies: students are encouraged to pursue different interests in order to stand out, first in the college admission race and then in the cut-throat competition for jobs. And it’s safe to assume that things have become only more hectic due to the economic impact of the current pandemic. Some of our students might be looking after younger siblings or older relatives who are out of their usual care arrangements; others might be picking up extra shifts to help keep afloat families affected by layoffs and furloughs. Now it’s not the time to replace lost contact hours with a plethora of individual assignments and a million Zoom sessions. Rather, this is the time to embrace the flexibility typical of online learning and strike a balance of synchronous/asynchronous activities to ensure equal access to learning.

#3. Keep the Context in Mind

Perhaps the biggest difference between intentional and occasional online learners is their overall approach to education. After all, most online students have decided to forgo the typical college experience that is still highly valued by traditional college students. Think not only of tailgating, Greek parties and lazy rivers, but also all-nighters at the library, fascinating talks by an invited speaker, and study abroad opportunities. But the difference runs deeper than these superficial aspects of the college life, and engages with a complex set of values and goals. While they might be older anagraphically, intentional online learners embody the future of education: whether or not they are on a degree track, online students are more open to those non-traditional, stackable credentials that are the backbone of lifelong learning. On the other end, your traditional-students-turned-online-learners still value typical credentials, and see your college reputation and brand as the starting point for their professional journey. As you redesign your classes online, don’t lose sight of your students’ journey. Strive to maintain some of the characters of traditional education, in which your occasional online learner had invested time, money, and passion. Keep in mind that your class still needs to be plugged in a series of pre-requisites, leading to a certain body of knowledge; the pandemic will (hopefully) end, but your student’s degree will need to be valid beyond the next season.

#4. Create a Community

Precisely because many of our occasional online students didn’t sign up for this, it’s imperative that we find ways to continue engage our community of learners. While this has been a challenge in moving abruptly classes and seminars online mid-semester, it’s going to be even more vital to do so if (as I certainly hope) we will start teaching a fresh cohort online in the Summer and Fall. In this respect, the newly minted online college instructor can learn many valid lessons from online instructors, who have many ways to promote engagement and social learning among peers who often never interact face to face.

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