Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Care and Feeding of Online Students

A few weeks ago I attended a conference for Higher Education administrators from Community Colleges with a focus on Big Data. Big Data, we heard, is Huge. Massive. A Big Deal: We can now look at user behavior by counting  mouse clicks as people navigate a website, see how many page views and what time of the day a student is doing homework, and break that down even further; maybe we can even start to tell students what time of day they study best, by looking at their results.  We can see where online students get stuck, giving educators an idea of how to better explain things.  With Big Data, we don't ask questions and look for the answer; the "data-first philosophy" mashes together the information from social networks and everywhere else on the web and we gain insights from what it tells us.  And the cost is low; we can experiment often, looking for correlation rather than causation. It has turned analysis on its head, and everyone is bubbling with its potential.

The burning question among educators, as we shift our courses to various new models of blended and online learning, is: How can we make our students (especially those online students) more successful? (In other words, retention, retention, retention.) Obviously the online class has incredible potential; besides the time and money in transportation alone it frees up for the very busy community college student -  many of whom are studying in a second language, are single parents and working at least part time - the online environment offers pathways to information and tools that can enhance, supplement and support learning at every level.  The answer to that, from what I could gather from the Big Data experts, is to use the now-incredible power of data to analyze performance, use course analytics and hire very specialized experts in Big Data to glean how students are performing and how to make them perform better.   (The "low cost" part breaks down a bit here.)

I am happy for Big Data; what a wonderfully useful tool to come out of our computer lives!  But the whole time I listened to the presentations (many of which were coming from people involved with companies standing to benefit from Big Data users) I felt a nagging concern.

No one was talking about caring.  The way to make any student stay involved is to make a personal connection and recognize that student as an individual.  Even in my MOOC, even more than I expected, I was able to connect with my students by being a part of the discussions, responding as much as possible to as many as possible. ( I facilitated it along with doing my regular job, spending an hour in the morning and a few hours in the evenings checking in and answering questions.) I also structured the course so that the students had a chance to learn about themselves and each other as an integral part of the learning experience.  We had a Facebook page, used twitter (#CnHyBest) and I made frequent announcements and updates, sometimes incorporating student responses.   One of my early tweets was, "This MOOC classroom is so vibrant and international...can feel the energy pulsing from the computer!" Over a third of the active participants completed the final project for a certificate of completion...a very high rate for a MOOC course.

Caring doesn't sound very academic and it certainly isn't as new as Big Data. But I think any course that has a strong element of caring will retain more students than a course with low teacher-student interaction.  The key is having an involved teacher who is trained not just in the subject matter but also to listen, watch for falters, be ready to gently cajole,  try new things, and convey a sense of enthusiasm.  Online teaching allows us so much more than more data; it allows us to have personal conversations with many people, and for them to have conversations with each other.  We should be looking at it as a chance to get personally involved with our student success. MOOCs aside,  the online teacher can reach each and every student in a way that empowers and motivates them.  Each teacher needs to embrace the idea that we can have an effect on student lives beyond the subject matter. This is a skill that needs to be understood and talked about as much as anything else when it comes to student success.

This was on my mind when I saw a quote by the Dalai Lama on a friend's facebook page : "Open your arms to change, but never let go of your loving kindness."  I created the infographic below thinking that I want to get more of a conversation going about this aspect of online teaching among educators.   For increased student success, the answer is so clear.

(By the way I will be teaching the course again starting Oct. 21st; you can find it at The Canvas Network - Hybrid Courses: Best of Both Worlds.)

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