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Flexibility: A Key Strategy for Ensuring Success of the Online Learner

 

by Danielle Philipson

Over the course of the last decade, the popularity of online learning has continued to grow. In fact, according to an article published in Future of Children, 31 percent of United States college students took one or more online courses in the fall term of 2010 (Bell & Federman, 2013). The article cited the growth in these courses stemming from a variety of reasons, including “the desire of those institutions to generate new revenue streams, improve access, and offer students greater scheduling flexibility” (165). This strategy is in alignment with what we know about students who take online courses. An increasingly nontraditional student body means many students are balancing school with family obligations and, more often, work. “Based on the Current Population Survey (CPS), about 41 percent of full-time college students and 72 percent of part-time college students 16 to 24 years old were employed in October 2012. About 7 percent of the full-time students worked 35 or more hours per week, 18 percent worked 20 to 34 hours per week, and 15 percent worked less than 20 hours per week. In comparison, 32 percent of the part-time students worked 35 or more hours per week, 29 percent worked 20 to 34 hours per week, and 9 percent worked less than 20 hours per week” (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014, para. 9).

Given the high number of students who are employed, it is clear that there is both a need and a demand for flexibility. This demand transcends the option of simply offering online courses and requires that flexibility be incorporated into the actual delivery of such courses in order to meet student needs and ensure the success of online learners.

Flexibility in the context of course delivery should not be mistaken for leniency. A high point of contention in the discussion about flexibility is the perspective that being flexible means students are not held accountable or that some students are given allowances that would not be offered to on-site students. To be sure, flexibility in the delivery of an online course does often look different than it would in an on-site course, but as educators, we are called upon to use flexibility as a tool that allows us to reach learners, particularly those who face constraints that prevent them from enrolling in a more traditional classroom setting. Flexibility can be applied in many ways, but there are five primary areas where a flexible approach can promote increased student success.

Late Work

The first area where flexibility can be applied pertains to the submission of late assignments. In my experience, this is often the most widely debated aspect of flexibility, as being flexible can sometimes not only appear unfair but can also result in an increased workload for the instructor. Some educators express concern that not holding firm deadlines can give some students an advantage over other students since students who turn in their work late will have more time to work on the assignment. While these concerns do have some merit, instructors must consider the fact that the most common reason students cite for not successfully completing an online course is falling behind and not being able to catch up (Fetzner, 2013). To help mitigate this issue, instructors should be prepared to consider a late policy that will support students who are at high risk for falling behind, such as those who are enrolled late in the course. As a way to be flexible, an instructor might establish a policy that waives any points that are deducted for late submission and work with each of those students to establish a new deadline for the first week or module of a course. Another group to carefully consider is students who encounter unexpected life events, such as sudden additional work pressures, sick children, illness, or loss of a family member. One strategy I have found to be particularly effective is to have a late policy that grants every student in the course one late assignment, regardless of reason, that can be submitted within 48 hours of the deadline. This approach helps students to understand that the educator views them not just as a name on a roster, but as a real person who is trying to further their education despite other competing priorities. The other benefit of this strategy is that it removes judgment of reasons for the late submission request, which often seems fairer to the students and can keep an instructor from spending unnecessary time debating the merits of a particular situation.

Availability

A second area where instructors can foster flexibility is in their own availability. Traditionally, educators have fixed times for class and choose office hours that best meet their individual needs. In this era of online learning, particularly when asynchronous classes are considered, students have a new set of expectations and define instructor availability differently than in the past. Since office hours may now be “virtual office hours,” where the instructor simply commits to being available to immediately respond to email during specified blocks of time, it is important to consider establishing office hours that will meet the needs of the majority of students as well as one’s personal/professional schedule. The hours and days used will likely vary from term to term as the students in a course change, and it may be that the best hours fall very early in the morning or late in the evening since many students taking online courses also hold employment during regular business hours. There will always be some students who cannot participate in scheduled office hours, and this is especially true in the online educational environment where the asynchronous participation is often the norm. Moreover, students may find that sending questions via email is not sufficient and they need a different level of interaction in order to understand a concept or assignment. To accommodate this, students should also have a way to engage the instructor outside of virtual office hours. There are numerous ways to do this, including telephone calls, Skype, and Google+ Hangouts. Regardless of the format used, the instructor can share these options with students at the start of class and should be ready to use them upon student request.

Traditionally, educators have fixed times for class and choose office hours that best meet their individual needs. In this era of online learning, particularly when asynchronous classes are considered, students have a new set of expectations and define instructor availability differently than in the past.

Accommodations

Flexibility is an important attribute of interactions with our students who have unique needs. As an example, it is required by law that we accommodate students with disabilities. While doing this in the online environment is sometimes different than in the traditional classroom setting, there are many similarities, such as offering extended due dates or allowing additional time for timed exams, both easily accomplished in most online learning platforms. Unique ways to do this in the online setting are to use fonts compatible with screen readers for written material or to incorporate voice recordings for classroom announcements so that students who are visually impaired may still be able to take full advantage of online courses. Another group of students with unique needs are those who demonstrate exceptional intelligence or understanding of a particular topic. The online learning environment encourages faculty to interact with students as individuals rather than as a unit. We can, for instance, engage students at various levels by asking clarifying or probing questions in discussion forums. But we can also consider modified assignments that offer alternative ways for students to demonstrate the learning outcome for the assignment. This type of flexibility signals to students that we are there not just to share a set of content, but rather to support their growth, learning, and development to the extent possible as it relates to the course topic.

Attending to the Generation Gap

A fourth area where flexibility has gained relevance as a strategy is in managing the style clash that is often observed when there are learners from various generations in one particular class. Online classes often attract a mix of both traditional and nontraditional students. One of the ways this diversity is most evident is in the skill sets that the learners possess at the start of the course, particularly with respect to the use of technology. While younger learners have frequently grown up with computers as a ubiquitous part of the way information is obtained, older learners are often just getting acquainted with the terminology and practices that online educators typically consider standard, such as downloading a PowerPoint or uploading a jpeg file. Providing clear instructions and offering links to relevant help documents, expressing empathy for those struggling with technology, and building in adequate time for students to learn the technology used can help level the playing field for less tech-savvy students. There is also evidence that learners across generations tend to have different preferences. In a study described in a recent article from Journal of Educators Online, it was noted that “[o]lder students in the study indicated a much stronger preference for videos of the professor lecturing, while younger students tended to prefer more interactive learning strategies” (Simonds & Brock, 2014, p. 11). For this reason, it is important that as educators develop the content of any online course, a variety of content delivery methods are incorporated.

Assignments

A final area that requires flexibility is the development of the assignments for the course. As educators, we always strive to create assignments that are not only interesting but serve as evidence of the student’s mastery of course-learning outcomes. Unfortunately, even the best intentions do not always translate into assignments that serve their intended purpose or are understood by the learners. While it may be tempting to simply recycle the same assignments term after term, it is imperative that each term we consider not only the structure of the assignment but the instructions for the assignment and determine if any adjustments are needed. Required adjustments may mean that the instructor has to exhibit flexibility in terms of his or her preferred style of teaching in favor of the online learner’s style of learning.

In conclusion, flexibility must become a core element of online course delivery. Without it, instructors of online courses stand to miss the opportunity to reach and teach students who may otherwise be quite successful in the academic world. Sometimes, this means stepping out of the proverbial comfort zone by using new technology when communicating with students, changing assignments that seemed outstanding when originally designed, or changing when we are available to our students. While each class and group of students differ, we owe it to our students to do the best we can to personalize their learning experience and to model for them the idea that being flexible and continuously improving is a pathway to success rather than an admission of failure.

Danielle M. Philipson is a health-care consultant and has served as a teaching lecturer at Plymouth State University since 2006.

References

Bell, B. S., & Federman, J. E. (2013). E-learning in postsecondary education. Future of Children, 23(1), 165–185.

Fetzner, M. (2013). What do unsuccessful online students want us to know? Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 17(1), 13–27.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2014). Characteristics of postsecondary students. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_csb.asp

Simonds, T. A., & Brock, B. L. (2014). Relationship between age, experience, and student preference for types of learning activities in online courses. Journal of Educators Online, 11(1). Retrieved from http://www.thejeo.com/Archives/Volume11Number1/SimondsBrock.pdf