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One-third of all college students take at least one online course. Adult learners in particular gravitate to online learning, as they balance jobs and families alongside their studies. Communications tools are vitally important to students and faculty. They enable students to express needs and faculty to meet them in a timely way. Many online classes are fast paced--at my institution they are typically five or six weeks in length. Students don't have time for delayed faculty responses to their questions. Ensuring technology supports online learners and their faculty is vital for colleges and universities.
What technology do students need?
Students need a reliable, always-on system. Learning systems should be available 24/7 without downtime, because many online students are fitting classes around busy schedules of work and family commitments. The online learning systems should be "snappy," with items loading quickly after a click. While there will be peak usage times, students across multiple time zones are working around myriad schedules and preferences so always-on systems are a must.
Students need systems to integrate seamlessly. Effective single sign on protocols enable students to access all embedded course links without logging in anywhere else. The LMS and university student portal serve as hubs to access information from a wide range of sources. Clicking links from the learning management system (LMS) or student portal should be seamless experiences.
Students need to learn on the go. This means mobile and tablet-ready learning materials with enough information to help students select the material that will fit best in their circumstances. For example, a student who is also a parent wants to watch a brief learning video on the phone while in the pick-up line at their child's school. They want to see (before clicking) the lengths of videos in time, length of readings in number of pages, and the format of materials. For all students to share in learning opportunities, the materials, websites and systems must be accessible. Adherence to WCAG 2.0 AA standards improves accessibility for all learners.
Students need notifications of classroom activity. They should be notified when faculty send messages, when classmates post in a group project, when grades are posted, or when a deadline is near. Students also need learning-related nudges to persist through their class. Nudges could alert students who aren’t contributing to a required discussion or haven't started an assignment.
What technology do faculty need?
Faculty need to engage students in learning. For this, they require technology-enabled learning materials: accessible video, audio, multimedia, and live sessions. Discussion boards engage students to contribute quality work, with spell check, word count, and basic rich text formatting. Within discussion boards, faculty must have the ability to add accessible formulas, images, and tables to their posts to support discipline-specific teaching.
"Ensuring technology supports online learners and their faculty is vital for colleges and universities"
Faculty need notifications. This includes alerts for student questions and new items to grade. Mobile phone notifications help faculty ensure timely answers to student questions. Within the LMS user interface, indicators that show new posts or submissions enhance the faculty's ability to respond to students in a timely way.
Faculty should share supplemental materials with students. This requires technology support for a range of file types to share presentations, simulations, interactive computer-based training, and integration with other educational providers (through LTI and APIs). The interface for adding materials, naming them, and enticing students to click on them must be easy to use and intuitive so that faculty can spend their time selecting and providing the right materials to support students in learning. Faculty do not want to spend their time figuring out how to use the system.
Faculty must assess student learning. Importing tests from test banks and using item pools to generate unique tests per student are important ways for faculty to measure what students learn. When faculty use those tools for formative assessment, they can do knowledge and skill checks in order to shape and enhance the instruction or remediate topics or skills that need more work. When faculty use those tools for summative assessment, faculty and the institution get data that can be aggregated and analyzed to determine how well students have mastered the outcomes for the course and program.
Faculty must provide timely and meaningful grades and feedback. Tools such as inline grading, rubrics, and comment fields enable timely and meaningful feedback on students’ submissions. For assignments and graded activities, faculty must have the ability to set deadlines and identify when submissions are on time versus late.
Online learning constitutes an increasing share of higher education, particularly for adult learners. Reliable, mobile, always-on technology improves student access to education. Nudges, reminders, and notifications engage students to fuel their persistence through their programs of study. Institutions who get these technologies right will have the best chance of supporting their students through to degree completion and attainment of educational goals.