Wednesday, November 3, 2010

5 Elements to Include in Online Learning to Retain Students

Part 1

No one can deny that interest in offering online learning is increasing as schools figure out ways to increase enrollment and decrease costs. Bill Gates is predicting that “in the near future the web will be the place to learn”. His foundation even launched the Next-Generation Learning Challenges campaign that is offering grant money to schools that use technology to improve education. In addition, there was research released by the Department of Education Meta-Analysis that stated “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction”. 

This is exciting! Finally, online learning receives kudos! I believe that online learning can contain the same rigor and in-depth learning as any face-to-face program. My opinion stems from experiencing an online program as a graduate student and I believe online learning provides an equal to, if not more enhanced learning environment. But there is another side. There is evidence that there is a larger dropout rate with online programs and there is no specific research showing evidence of why this is occurring. This creates some ambivalent feelings with instructors when asked about their interest in teaching online and is a huge barrier to the future and credibility of online learning because schools depend on students finishing their degrees and moving successfully into the workforce.   Following are 5 elements I believe are critical to the success of increasing student retention in the online environment and then will further discuss them in Part 2.

  1.  All programs should be developed with best practices for online learning and provide all of the rigor of a face-to-face program. Some instructors simply transfer their in-class pedagogy to an online format and limit interactions.
  2.  Every school offering online programs should develop a student readiness assessment tool. This assists the school in identifying students who are at-risk of not doing well in online courses due to computer skill level, ability to be organized and self-motivated and knowledge of online environment.
  3.  Each online program should provide students with an orientation that covers expectations and introduction to the online environment. This could cover Netiquette and communicating in the online classroom, navigating the CMS/LMS, where to go if they have questions, computer skills needed, syllabus etc...
  4. Every school should provide 24/7 access to technology support. Many students will be new to the online environment and may have issues with downloads or accessing the multimedia elements. 
  5. Every student should have an opportunity to interact with classmates and participate in a community.
By including these elements, the online program can create a successful start for the students and:
  •    increase retention
  •   decrease frustration
  •   increase ease of access
  •   connect classmates and decrease isolation
  •   match expectations

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Critical Blog Strategy

The reality of blogging is that only a small percentage of bloggers are writing quality content. My definition of quality content is short, easy to read, fresh and informative. If your blog is consistently talking about how great your products or services are visitors will not have a reason to come back. They will recognize that you are using your blog to self-promote.  

I ran across some great recommendations in this blog , and see that many of them are the same ones I utilize for writing content for online learning programs .  Debra Murphy notes that people scan the content instead of reading the copy from beginning to end and she gives some helpful pointers on what this should look like on the page. The newspaper industry has been demonstrating many of these techniques since they changed their layouts to reflect large catchy titles with main content positioned  in the first paragraph. This strategy must work because I can’t even remember the last time I read a newspaper front to back. 

I would like to add a critical blog strategy to her list.

To write an effective blog, the content not only has to be relevant but also needs to be INFORMATIVE. 

Every blog post cannot be a marketing “shout-out”. Posts need to be compelling, educational or newsworthy to engage users and keep them coming back. The content of a post is an essential strategy because it represents the heart of your organization. This is where you have control over the message and social networking tools such as Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn can be used to get the word out. Content could focus on the latest news, issues and strategies in your industry or in analyzing pros and cons of products and services. Who knows, if you represent both sides of an issue, you may hear feedback from customers giving you their opinion and this engagement will attract followers.  You could also interview an expert or ask them to be a guest blogger. Keeping the content fresh and informative will get your organization more followers. An article about blog strategies states “educating and building trust” are the strategies to consider when writing your blog. I think this is critical to keep in mind when writing your next blog post.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Tips on Social Media and Time Management

Social media can feel daunting and people often hesitate taking the first step in committing to social media. One reason is the amount of time people perceive it to take with all of the real-time Tweets and sharing, they assume it could be a huge distraction. I would be remiss not to acknowledge that yes, social media does pose a hurdle to time-management, but I have discovered, in my own professional journey, that with proper planning, the benefits far outweigh the effort.

 I believe to be effective; one needs to manage social media like any other element in your professional tool kit. The first step is to really decide why you are joining the millions in the social media network. Is it to promote a product or service? Is it to network in your industry? Is it to market special events? Answering these questions will direct you to the social media tools that will best represent you and meet your goals.  For me, it is to share information and resources with other professionals in the online learning and social media industry and to keep myself abreast of the latest trends.

 The next step is to find a few sites, like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and blogs that you will focus your energies on. Targeting 2-4 is probably sufficient.  Spreading yourself too thin will not help your social media strategy. Quality content and quality relationships are where it’s at.

 The third step is to write down your specific tasks, breaking them into smaller chunks, maybe weekly to start. This will help keep you on the right track and allow you the flexibility to adjust and change strategies along the way. Stay focused on task and don’t forget to check in with the conversations to keep them going. In no time, you will see your network community flourish.

 Finally, to touch on the biggest question of them all, “How much time does it take?” well that will be different for each person depending on purpose, goals and effort.  I did come across an article that included a fabulous chart which gives a base for beginners to start with. Have bigger aspirations? A study by Burson-Martseller of Fortune 100 global companies and their social media use showed:
  •   82% posted to Twitter 27 times per week
  •  59% posted to Facebook 3.6 times per week
  •  68% posted to YouTube 10 posts per month
  •  36% posted to a blog 7 times per month
I am not suggesting that you commit to doing all of these tasks but it shows the commitment it takes some of these companies to build thousands of followers.What are your insights and tips? Please share!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Social Connectedness and Ambient Awareness in Online Learning

Networking in the field of online learning, I’ve come across people and organizations who embrace the idea of online teaching, but only for certain “kinds” of learning, believing online learning takes a back seat to face-to-face teaching. I disagree, having experienced an online graduate program that included a Course Management System (CMS), discussion forums, group projects, multimedia elements and meaningful learning experiences. I believe that I have a solid grasp on the critical components needed to be in place for an effective teaching environment as well as any successful online program. Quite simply, individuals can utilize critical thinking skills and have an enriching learning experience completely online. Success refers to the engagement, interactive environment and community building that occurs with students and professors in the virtual environment and how this successfully contributes to effective teaching and learning.

No matter what kind of online implementation, there are three critical elements that every program should incorporate and the first element I’d like to cover is social connectedness or “ambient awareness”. Ambient awareness, a phrase that was coined by Clive Thompson in a NY Times article, described online technologies as allowing users to quickly and easily give or get information and providing the ability to share it with other people. He believes that use of these technologies can create a feeling of intimacy and community. In a Learning Management System (LMS) or CMS, these tools are embedded in the program and occur frequently through discussion forums, posts, emails, group projects, peer reviews and in social “CafĂ©” meeting areas. These ambient tools help users to make connections on a variety of levels and assist in creating the feeling of connectedness, as my personal experience was very enriching and interactive. I felt a deeper connection to my fellow classmates than I would have had in a traditional face-to-face classroom environment and it even continues in an alumni online community! My learning in the program was a result of an interactive experience both with the content and classmates as well as established communication network between classmates and professors. This network gave us the ability to reflect, synthesize, integrate and apply our knowledge in a much more productive way than where the professor is just transmitting material in a top down approach.

On the flip side, some educators are reluctant to embrace the online environment because they feel it cannot possibly provide meaningful relationships and feel that online learners may become isolated. This doesn’t make sense when you take into account that in today’s world, most college students are already proficient in using social networking tools and forming relationships online using Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and Second Life. In a report released by the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), it showed that 95% of students ages 18-24 and 68% of older students use social networking tools. The survey found increased student levels of engagement with academic content by those using social media multiple times a day. By mirroring what students are doing in their real life social networks and incorporating ambient tools or the framework of these tools into online learning, it will help to create meaningful experiences that will enhance the program and assist in creating social connectedness and an online community.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Inclusiveness in Educational Technology

One aspect of online learning that is not often discussed but I feel is important to consider is technology and gender inclusiveness. Gender inclusiveness refers to the practice of presenting material in a way that does not exclude one gender over another and matches ability levels and learning approaches of both genders. There are indications that the use of technology in education affects girls and boys differently. A great example of this is in a BBC article about using technology in a school science project. The teacher noted that the girls and boys responded differently to the project. Boy teams focused on the programming and were more dominant whereas the girls were more democratic and were more social, focusing on writing the script and building before programming. As a designer, choosing the tool and approach that matches both styles is critical for a successful learning environment.

Why is this important to consider? Nationwide trends show that there is a gap in the use of computers and technology between boys and girls. Boys think computers are cool for “design, games and video” and girls refer to them as “boring and hard” (O’Brien, C, 2009). Improving positive attitudes about technology and computers start with including and engaging both genders in design. Designers need to look at the content, interface and instructional structure of the tech tool and ensure inclusiveness that allows both groups to be comfortable with the tool.

What are some of the issues that need to be considered in the design? Since girls report having fewer technology skills than boys, basing the tool on prior knowledge of both the tool and content would be important. Boys like to “do” things and enjoy having choices whereas girls like to have things explained to them before they get started so providing a multimodal approach would beneficial. Girls tend to enjoy collaborating and working together were boys having a more competitive nature. Design the educational tool to include all approaches would make it more appealing. Since girls have reported less tech skills than boys, having an opportunity to receive help and immediate feedback might increase positive feeling toward the tool. A final inclusive approach to consider would be to allow participant to have their own input and be allowed to take responsibility which might increase ownership of learning.

Try and do your own research on this subject and you will find it difficult to discover quantified studies. More research and sharing of experiences like the Lego class needs to be done because technology is being integrated into school curriculum at a fast pace.

BBC News (2002). Lego Robot Challenge Aids Learning. Retrieved August 13, 2010 from:

Black, L. & Scogan, L (2000). The Technology Gap. Retrieved August 13, 2010 from:

Heemskerk, I., ten Dam, G., Volman, M. & Admiraal, W. (2009). Gender inclusiveness in educational technology and learning experiences of girls and boys. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 41(3), 253-276.

Obrien, C. (2009). Gap Between Boys and Girls Persist in Tech. Retrieved August 13, 2010 from: