Monday, May 11, 2015

When Your Online Students are Campus-Based

As online courses proliferate, one of the more interesting developments is the emergence of the category of campus-based online student.  These are students who are taking most of their courses in the traditional, classroom based format but, for a range of reasons, are also taking online courses.  Some of these online course might be offered by distant institutions; but, increasingly, they may be offered through the student's home university, as the web-based version of a course that is also offered in a face-to-face format.

UT Austin's College of Liberal Arts began to experiment with different forms of online instruction several years ago when they offered Intro to Psychology as a SMOC (Synchronous Massive Online Course).  The SMOC format involved the live streaming of lectures that were recorded in a campus studio.  Students were required to log-in to the class session, at least for the first ten minutes, to take a short MC quiz.  The course design also included opportunities for students to discuss questions in small groups--something that would have been more successful if more students had remained logged into the course after the first ten minutes.

As we went live with Online Rome, to test and revise the design as well as to determine staffing needs, our primary audience was UT Austin students.  The course was offered through the Classics Department, side by side with the face to face version of the course.  For UT Austin students paying flat-rate tuition, the course was fully covered.  The demand for the course was extremely high--somewhat to my surprise given that it was brand new and still in development.  In Spring 2015, we had to cap the course at 100 just to be able to have enough time to finish the development. 

The majority of the students preferred the online class to the classroom course for reasons of flexibility.  Many of the enrolled students were STEM majors who had very complicated schedules and long days on campus.  The much preferred to take a core requirement course online, where they had much more flexibility in completing the work.  The course still had plenty of structure and deadlines to keep everyone on track, but we saw that many students would spend several hours working through a module as soon as it was released.  In fact, in future iterations that we control, we will release the modules well in advance to provide as much flexibility to students as possible. 

One of the unexpected elements of teaching campus-based students was that, for about 20% of the class, they desired face to face interaction with the instructor.  Typically, such interactions are not possible in on online class.  But, when the students are campus-based, it is possible to hold office hours, exam review sessions, and even weekly review sessions.  Based on feedback from the fall semester, we added a weekly review session to the Spring 2015 class.  The vast majority of students did not need or want this extra interaction with the instructor.  But for the 20% who did want it, it made a tremendous difference in their ability to stay on track and feel engaged with the course.  We also live-streamed the review sessions, so that everyone had access to them.

In the end, the instruction of an online course to campus-based students seems to push towards the hybrid. This makes a lot of sense to me.  The hybrid model produces the highest learning gains.  It combines the best of all worlds--the advantages of face to face instruction while leveraging all the affordances of the digital.  It is also something that online instructors are not always prepared for.  They often assume that, since they are teaching online, they don't really need to interact with students face to face.  This isn't really true in any context.  Even in distance online courses, there needs to be significant attention to connecting with students and building a learning community. 

When students are campus-based, they expect that instructors will be available for scheduled office hours, appointments, and structured reviews.  It was interesting to watch as a significant number of students intuitively grasped that, for them, this kind of hybridized model was going to best support their learning.  Of course, many students were fine to work through the modules, submit assignments, and use the provided study guides to prepare for exams--those are the 30% of our students who would be A students regardless of what we did.  But for the students in the middle, the B students who can become A students, the C students who can become B students, they recognized and asked for more direct contact with the instructor.  An advantage of offering the course to campus based students is that, in essence, we can retain the asynchronous online class for those that want it while also providing the hybrid course for those who prefer that model.

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