A Northern Kentucky University administrator said two factors, preparedness and motivation, often determine how well students succeed, or fail, in online courses at the university.
“With new students and particularly with freshmen, it’s important to talk to them about their ability to self-direct,” said Vicki Berling, interim director of the Norse Advising Center.
“The biggest thing is they often don’t have the discipline to self-direct their time,” Berling said.
Berling said advisers are encouraged to have conversations with students interested in taking online courses for the first time. Advisers are asked to discuss online classes with students to see if they have realistic expectations of an online course and the time commitment that goes into that coursework.
“Motivation really is a huge thing,” Berling said. “Adults tend to do well because they are motivated. They need their degree and it’s not going to happen any other way.”
Berling said younger students aren’t always as focused.
“Does a freshman adequately have that same level of motivation, probably some of them don’t, and they may be better suited to work up to online. But we don’t prevent them from doing it.”
Many of the drops in the first weeks of a semester are because students don’t realize they have signed up for an online course, Berling said.
She also pointed to unrealistic expectations among students at the beginning of courses. She gave the example of students signing up for the speech communication class online who assume they won’t be required to give speeches. Those students often drop the course when they realize they are still required to give the same number of speeches and must record them to post online.
“They think it’s going to be easier, but it’s usually harder,” Berling said.
Berling said once students get through the initial withdrawal period, students in online classes at NKU stick with them at the same frequency as traditional classes.
“Once students have selected an online class we are not seeing them dropping at higher rates than in other courses,” she said.
Berling said educators assume students have the technological tools needed to succeed when they arrive at college, but many lack the basic software training needed to complete assignments.
“We assume that these people talk with their fingers and are good with technology and that they have good computer skills, but those things may not be the case.”
Steven Wilkinson, chair of NKU’s department of mathematics, said his department uses prerequisites to determine who should be allowed in online courses and said online math courses at the university are limited because some courses don’t lend themselves to independent learning.
Gail Wells, NKU provost, said students benefit long after leaving a university when they are taught to collaborate.
“In today’s world, most students, when they get out of school, will be in a profession that will require continued learning and most of it will be online,” Wells said. “So they need to learn how to be online learners.”
Wells also pointed to the professional collaboration that is required, often across continents, by mobile employees.
“They will be collaborating with people in China and other places across the world, so being familiar with these tools is an important part of college education,” Wells said.
Wells said student demand for online courses is evident.
“Students speak to these issues with the classes that they choose,” Wells said. “The online classes are always filled. Rarely are they canceled for low enrollment or non-enrollment.”
Wells said even for students who aren’t in online courses, many of those tools will become part of in-person classes at some future point.
“Face-to-face courses are probably going to have an online component,” Wells said.