Managing Expectations

A Storm Trooper prepares for an invasive diagnostic procedure. This might hurt a bit.

Enthusiasm for Online Learning

Looking at the development of online education literature helps provide context. In the 1990s, researchers wrote about the benefits of text-based, message- or post-driven student interactions in distance education. Courses built around listservs were dubbed “distributed courses”, and the conversation centered around the potential and promise of technology. By the early 2000s, conversation shifted to fully online courses, where the LMS provides the content, structure, messaging systems, and interface for an entire course, often requiring no in-person interactions. Most of the attention went to discussion boards, as student activity centers on that area of the course. (The rest of a student’s work is done off the system, either as homework or as thinking.) Discussion boards earned a contentious following, with countless articles developing guidelines for effective prompt formation, moderation, or assessment of discussions.

As we moved toward the latter part of the decade, frustrations with student interaction gave way to conversations about hybrid courses. By providing real, in-person interactions in addition to the open flexibility of online systems, numerous reviews called hybrid course design “the best of both worlds”, offering an effective blend of the most beneficial elements of both delivery modes.

But the fervor about online learning hadn’t died out. Despite researchers proclaiming the benefits of hybrid courses, legislators acted on older information (and strong corporate lobbies). In Florida, we have a law requiring all students to take at least one fully online course before high-school graduation. Florida Virtual School, our state’s de facto standard for distance learning, is mentioned by name three times in the law, practically ensuring a steady stream of enrollments—and finances—for their programs. These programs require roughly one phone call per month between student and teacher, and those calls often last about fifteen minutes. Despite the achievement and learning benefits of hybrid courses, where teachers and students have frequent and routine in-person interactions, fully online classes took hold of the governing influences over our schools.

The most recent development in the history of distance learning takes online classes to a new extreme. The MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course, grew as a monstrous force, enrolling literally hundreds of thousands of students in a single course…and getting roughly thirty percent of those students to finish. These courses require teachers and institutions to completely re-think their expectations for procedures, assessment, and outcomes. Current conversation about online learning centers on MOOCs and changes rapidly. Indeed, earlier this week, news broke of a MOOC offered by the for-profit Coursera that went so wrong and became so jumbled that the company and instructor shut down the course before it had a chance to complete.

Enrollment Problems

With these three course types—online, hybrid, and MOOC—in my research and in the public eye, I was surprised to find much different levels of awareness from students and teachers at my university who worked with our mixed-mode courses. Last semester, I conducted interviews with two full-time instructors who each taught both face-to-face and mixed-mode versions of our first-semester writing-about-writing course. Our teachers knew what mixed-mode classes were, of course, but they weren’t familiar with MOOCs. Their students, however, were even less aware: many of them didn’t know what a mixed-mode course was when they enrolled. A quick look at our enrollment system might show why this is.

When choosing courses at UCF, our students look up the class name they want to enroll in. They look through a series of results that provide a good deal of information. Many students told me their attention focused strictly on two main pieces of information: The class meeting time and the instructor name. Using tools like Rate My Professors, students made what they believed were educated decisions about their schedules. Many times, meeting days drive the decision to take one section over another, and courses that meet only Tuesday (rather than Tuesday/Thursday) or only Monday/Wednesday (rather than Monday/Wednesday/Friday) hold particular appeal. The reason for that appeal can catch students off-guard: one of the two instructors I interviewed said that forty-eight of his fifty students enrolled in his mixed-mode course didn’t know it had an online component until the first day of class when he announced that it had an online day on Fridays.

The vital information on our scheduling system presents these courses as “Mixed-Mode/Reduced Seat Time”. Students have no opportunity to take mixed-mode courses before college, and reduced seat time is exactly what they are looking for in their schedule. Students have little reason to investigate further. I asked our IT staff about providing additional guidance, and they didn’t understand why more was needed. To them, the M was all students needed.

The Disparity

Having students enroll in a course without understanding the nature of that course’s delivery mode creates an unfortunate disparity between teacher and student expectations. This disparity sets up instructors for frustration and students for failure, even when both are working as best they can. The differences in expectations that I heard in my interviews focused on three issues: flexibility, guidance, and preparedness.

The teachers I spoke with (admittedly a very small sample) took an approach to their mediated courses that substituted virtual class meetings for the missing days, with one teacher even imagining an online meeting at the same time of day that his in-person class sessions met. This served as a deadline for his materials preparations and a touchpoint for students to structure their schedules around. Teacher preparations tended to be a converted form of the instruction they gave in their face-to-face classes, sometimes aiming for exact duplication. And these teachers frequently referred to student preparation for online learning on the basis of learning styles, saying that students should be independent learners.

By contrast, students in mixed-mode classes indicated that they wanted flexibility in when they did their work, but they wanted regular reminders of when that work was due. Students in face-to-face classes found great value in routine class meetings and the expectations of attendance to help keep them focused on their work and upcoming deadlines. Students in mixed-mode courses wanted accountability mixed in with their flexibility; virtual class meetings did not reflect their scheduling expectations. Students also had different expectations for instruction. Rather than wanting an converted online representation of in-class activities, students expressed a desire for help from their teachers in a consistent format. They were more interested in assistance completing their assignments than a step-by-step instruction set.

Most surprisingly, students I interviewed in both face-to-face and mixed-mode courses consistently cited course content, more than learning style, as directly related to their preparedness for success in an online course. Some students preferred online humanities class, citing more time to think about their ideas before creating their essays, but others specifically wanted in-person humanities courses to benefit from the conversation to draw out more complex thinking. For math and science courses, some students pointed to the objective nature of assessments as a strength of these courses online, while difficulty in explaining the steps in solving these problems kept them wanting in-person instruction if they struggled with the field. In short, students wanted online courses for fields where they excelled and in-person instruction in cases where they struggle.

Student Needs

Overall, I find that students have very specific needs when enrolling for courses. First, they need more than an M. The distinction between in-person and mixed-mode courses is often foreign to first-year students, and it must be emphasized and explained before registration time. Second, students need guidance on the variations in types of courses offered by the school. They understand the difference in scheduling, by definition, but they may not understand the reasons for those differences—we must ensure students know what a mixed-mode course is and why we reduce their seat time. Because students recognize the differences between science and humanities courses, we may want to remind them of those differences or specify the nature of work done in each class (in terms of problems versus essays or objective/subjective assessment).

By teaching students about the different types of course delivery, emphasizing the differences between work in the humanities and the sciences, and finally presenting the balance between scheduling and independence as being a result of other issues, students could make informed decisions for their scheduling that would set them up for success in courses of any delivery mode.