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Online learning success depends on student effort


Having spent the last 16 years implementing and leading online learning, I read with great interest the editorial opinion in the Oct. 20 issue about online courses. It was wonderful to read the dedication to learning rather than grades, and the thoughtfulness of the critique and consideration of what is needed for a great learning experience.

Online learning is not for everyone - not for all students nor all faculty. It takes the ability to motivate oneself and the expectation of doing work on your own. Some researchers have identified a trait they call "learning presence," which is a combination of self-efficacy and self-regulation, and found that it is needed for students to succeed in online classes.

Students need to begin an online class with the expectation of doing at least the same amount of work as they would in a face-to-face course. The standard is that students should spend two to three hours per week outside class for every hour in a class. So for a three-credit hour course, students should be spending nine to 12 hours per week in total. The same standard is used for online classes; even though there typically is no "class time," students should expect to spend approximately 10 hours each week on the class in a regular term.

Does this always happen? Of course it often does not, for both face-to-face courses and online courses. But it should. If students aren't prepared to spend that kind of time, they absolutely should not take the course -- whether online or traditional.

Miami now has a winter term, and many students make use of it to do online courses. Any course that takes place in winter term (three weeks), or in a sprint format (six weeks), needs to cover the same material in the same depth as a course offered over 14 weeks in order to deliver the same credit hours. To achieve that, classes in Miami are designed around "Learning Objectives" - a list of things that students will be able to do, demonstrate or know when they leave. This keeps classes to the same level, regardless of time frame.

The Oct. 20 editorial said students wouldn't learn as much from watching videotaped lectures. This is a very good point, but good online classes aren't mostly watching videotapes. Students are expected to do work outside of a traditional class - if you are listening to lectures in class, you should be applying them outside (as well as reading.) If you are watching recorded lectures outside, in a flipped classroom, then you should be doing activities to apply learning in the class meeting time.

In Miami online classes, students do everything from create three-dimensional models of the spinal cord using clay and upload the pictures into the course, to analyzing and creating case studies that require integration and practical application of medical terminology, to role-playing the Salem Witch Trials. Online courses have debates, role-plays, case analyses and a host of other activities well beyond listening and memorizing.

Last but not least, the medium. In online courses, all learning is mediated by technology. Activities, discussions and collaboration are often done at different times, although some classes include "real time" web-meetings, chats or presentations.

Online learning can be even more applied than traditional classes. There is no one fixed classroom space, so the wall between the class and real life is easier to breach.

Assignments can involve investigating places or trying activities in the "real world" and then sharing and analyzing them, which support the application of knowledge outside the college environment.

In short, online classes can provide an extremely powerful learning experience- - or not.

Just like face-to-face classes, it all depends on how the courses are designed and implemented, and how the students approach them. Yet the high expectations for learning from both faculty and students provide a natural laboratory for developing some truly exceptional online courses.

Beth Rubin