Tuesday, June 03, 2014


Quick! Describe an Online Student

What does an online student look like?

The question may seem silly or trivial, but a lot rides on it.  Colleges make choices about how to organize classes, which registration protocols to follow, how to structure semesters, and how to deliver advising -- among other things -- based on what they think the online student wants.  

In the community college world, it’s easy to guess a few characteristics.  The online student is usually female.  That isn’t surprising; the typical community college student is female.  (For that matter, the typical American undergraduate student is female.  But that’s another post.)  She’s usually over 25, and often a parent.  Again, that’s not terribly different from the typical community college student.

If you believe that the typical online student is very much like the traditional campus student, then you’d make certain choices.  You’d probably keep the semester schedule, just because you’ve already built your various systems around it.  You’d move toward relatively structured pathways to graduation, restricting student choice in order to prevent poor choices, wasted credits, and unnecessary debt.  

If you believe that the typical online student is more purely a creature of the web and its culture, though, you’d make very different choices.  You’d want short courses, multiple points of entry, maximum choice, and minimal structure.  You would accept student “swirl” as a fact of life, and pride yourself on accommodating it.  If students today want to take online classes from multiple providers and assemble them later into a degree -- or not -- then your job is to give them that.  To paraphrase Mencken, give the customers what they want, and give it to them good and hard.

Both models are internally consistent.  Each makes sense on its own terms.  Each relies on its own distinct vision of what “the online student” is, and how she behaves.

And they’re both sort of wrong.

At a basic level, the typical online student at a community college isn’t only an online student.  She’s also taking classes on campus at the same time.  Most “online” students are, in fact, hybrid students.  They might take classes two or three days a week, and use online classes to fill out their schedules while leaving room for work and family obligations.  

That’s counterintuitive in some ways.  Part of the point of online teaching is breaking the link to geography.  But community colleges are intensely local institutions.  Their reputations are usually strong within, say, an hour’s drive of campus; most are relatively unknown beyond that.  In states in which community colleges are defined by “districts” or counties, with differential tuition reflecting the presence of local government funding, the place-less nature of online teaching raises some difficult theoretical questions.  At this point, though, they’re still mostly theoretical; even the purely online students usually pick a college within an hour of where they live.  

That fact, by iself, would seem to argue for the “like the traditional campus student” model.  Certainly it suggests that running different semesters (or quarters, or whatever) alongside each other in parallel would be likely to lead to confusion and vastly increased errors on the back-office operational side.  

But it’s also true that people have different expectations online.  Part of the appeal of online classes for students is precisely that they’re different.  And to the extent that a given college’s online offerings include both the hybrid and the “purely” online student, tying down online options to mimicry of what happens on campus seems unnecessarily crimped.  

Institutions with outsize resources can solve the dilemma by simply doing both.  Southern New Hampshire runs campus-based classes, but also has a separate online division with its own staff.  Students can mix and match, but each area only does one thing.  That’s a nifty model if you can afford to pay for parallel staffs.  If you can’t -- and most community colleges can’t -- then buying your way out of the dilemma isn’t an option.

In my perfect world, we’d take the presence of the hybrid student as a cue to develop a hybrid model.  I’ve heard students wax rhapsodic about great classroom courses they’ve taken, but I’ve never heard them enthuse about waiting in line at the Bursar’s office.  To the extent that functions like those can move online, every kind of student stands to benefit.   

Pedagogically, hybrid or blended courses have shown the best results, but students tend not to take them if they have any other options.  If we cleave online from onsite, that will remain true.  

I’m thinking that the future belongs not to either model alone, but to the folks who best figure out how to harness the best of each.  Students are already doing that.  Maybe we should, too.

"we’d take the presence of the hybrid student as a cue to develop a hybrid model."

Oh, God, no. PLEASE, no, no, no.

You are making a mistake if you think hybrid students are hybrid by choice. Most want all one or the other. Take another look at your data. How many of those hybrid students have the opportunity to complete their degrees entirely online?

I'm one of those hybrid students you're talking about. I'm a 45-year-old single mom. I have one part-time job outside of the house 20 hours a week, do another 20 hours a week of online transcription at home, AND take at least 12 credit hours of coursework each semester, 6-9 credits on campus, the rest online.

I want to take ALL of my courses online, but there isn't a single degree at my campus offered that way. (And it probably IS impossible without parallel staffs, because there will be those students who don't want online courses.) But driving to campus and sitting through a lecture that's basically a rehash of the text is a complete waste of my time. Not only are online courses more convenient, I learn more/better that way.

So don't go creating hybrid programs just because hybrid students are there. They wouldn't be there if you gave them better options.
I don't understand your reference to a "hybrid model" for campus services, but I guess that is because all things are local. We have been "hybrid" there for quite a few years, and I think that includes on-line orientation. None of our students have to come to campus to register for classes or pay fees or "talk" to an advisor, although it is true that it is helpful to be there f2f to deal with typical snafus with transcripts or financial aid. But in a day when mom can e-mail a photo of an unofficial transcript of SAT scores so someone can look at it on your phone, there isn't much difference between being there in person or e-mailing that photo yourself to whomever you are dealing with on campus.

We also run a quartet of semesters in parallel, all of which are available for web classes if students are thought to be likely to succeed in that time frame for a particular course. Those are all built into our back end, and have been since last century.

What we do not do is run a semester that overlaps with traditional ones, such as from November to March or March to July. I don't think anything we have (but especially financial aid policies) can deal with that. Some independent study and self-paced and credit-by-exam classes run with essentially arbitrary start dates, but each is tied to a specific traditional semester and those are handled by a specialist on a case-by-case basis at present.
On a related note, are you seeing some confusion about the difference between "online" and "independent study" among the students? I ask because I teach at the high school level, and all of the "online" courses I've seen for high school students are basically self-paced modules bought from various vendors.

Basically, there are vendors out there that sell pre-packaged "courses" and some sort of online environment to take them in, and schools tend to buy some sort of package and use it as credit recovery with students having a period where they sit in a computer lab and click through it on their own. Generally, these consist of some videos of people talking about the topic, some vaguely interactive slides, and some multiple choice or type-in-the-answer tests that I'd be embarrassed to give in an actual class because they test the kinds of low-level memorization things easily looked up rather than any comprehension of the topic (I've mostly seen the ones for science and math, maybe they are better in other areas, but I'm not holding my breath). I've been the lab babysitter "teacher" for these excrescences in two different districts (who used different vendors) now, and I have not developed very kind opinions to the level of learning involved.

I'm wondering how students used to these modules deal with "real" online classes with an actual human on the other end, discussion boards/interaction with classmates of some kind, and predetermined due dates for things, which is kind of what I assume from your posts colleges tend to do. Have you seen any issues there?
For whatever it's worth, the pattern of most online students also being in-person students also obtains, as far as I can tell from my perspective (teaching a required junior-level writing course), at my regional comprehensive. Maybe that would be different if we offered more online-only degrees, but, at the moment, that's how things work.

I, too, think that hybrid (both classes and programs) is the true wave of the future, but I've also observed from teaching hybrid classes that they are vulnerable to many of the same problems as fully-online ones: students are often in denial about how much time, and how much self-discipline, the class will actually take. Highly-disciplined 45-year-old students such as your first commenter may be professors' dream online student (they're certainly mine), but, in my experience, they're by far the minority of students who actually sign up for online (or hybrid) classes.
Anonymous@3:50, there are high quality materials for high school students, but most of them are for gifted/motivated students and would not be a good fit for regular or remedial students.
Meanwhile, I am the opposite of the first commenter. I am taking a class in my MA program online, not by choice, but because the only f2f section filled up really quickly, before I could register. If the program I am in is any guide, most of the students in my cohort would far rather take traditionally formatted classes, but they are simply too scarce. We are forced into hybrid mode.
I teach in an entirely online setting... I REALLY want to teach live students, we list live sections every term, but, they never get more than 1 or 2 people in them--and we then bump them over to the online section. Most of the students in my courses aren't local to campus (I've had some on entirely different continents)...

To Anon @3:50, yes, many college online classes are discussion boards, blogs, interaction with faculty and students.

But, in terms of high school, the issues around remediation include (a) scale--how many people would be needed to work with students? A LOT, and (b) something about figuring out how to make specific modules work...

But, you could enroll students in individual courses here:
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