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Your Audience for an Online Class

There’s a powerful connection between a teacher and a student.

Teachers will know the feeling: when you finally help a student understand a topic for the first time, or you’ve changed their viewpoint entirely through a personal conversation.

The way educators are able to make these breakthroughs is by translating the content into something to which a student can relate. To make these opportunities happen, however, you have to be able to connect to the student.

Relating to the students in our classrooms is such a critical aspect of a successful course, no matter how the course content is delivered.

In a perfect world we would know every student’s name in our classes. We would get to know learning preferences and interests on a personal level so we could customize the course to suit their needs. Many instructors teach 20-40 students during a single course, which is a manageable number to get to know your students.

But sometimes we are asked to teach hundreds of students at a time and we are potentially never meeting any of them face-to-face when we teach them online. So the idea of getting to know your students feels a bit unreachable.

I’m here to tell you that it is absolutely possible to connect with your online students, you just have to do two simple things.

The first is …you have to want to make those connections with your students. At the very least, hold some value for the impact you will have on students when you relate the content to their daily lives.

The second is to understand your audience and how they like to learn.

Getting to know your students is one of the best ways to address retention and student engagement in the course. And although you may not have the time to get to know every single student, there are strategies you can build into your course that will address the needs of many of your students with minimal effort.

With that in mind, let’s discuss specific groups of students who are often drawn to online courses.

Distance Learners

This next statement might be shocking, so prepare yourself. There are some students who will not be forced to take a face-to-face course.

They already have full-time jobs, or maybe they lack the resources to get to campus. Whatever the reason, distance learners are here to stay, and the number of students joining this demographic is growing. Every year.

If you want to recruit students from this growing population, you must offer courses built to accommodate students who may never step foot on campus. The truth is, you may never even know that they are distance learners.

We can no longer assume students can physically attend events or meet up at the same time (synchronously). This assumption stems from those institutions who mostly have traditional, on-campus students taking their online courses. When you first jump into the online game, this is a common occurrence. But, as you grow online programs, your population of distance learners will grow. It then becomes very important to stop assuming your students are on-campus, to remain inclusive and equitable.

In order to accommodate our distance learners, every face-to-face opportunity offered in an online course, (whether required for a grade or as an extra credit opportunity) must have an equivalent online option.

In regards to meeting at the same time (synchronous), you may have someone taking your class who works 8-5. So, requiring all students to take an exam at 11 am on a Tuesday is really setting your students up for a difficult decision.

I recommend you give students a 24-hour window to complete exams. In the case that you are hosting a live webinar or something of that nature, you can record it and post it for your students to see when they can.

These are specific strategies to accommodate distance education, but you can easily accommodate these students on a regular basis by simply remembering that some distance learners don’t attend face-to-face campus courses for a reason. This could include a physical, emotional or psychological roadblock preventing them from success in a traditional course.

It’s very important to remain empathetic to the issues your students may be facing. If your course is presented as a 100% online course, it must be possible to complete the course entirely online.

New To Online

A national poll said that nearly 40 percent of undergraduate students take at least one online course during their undergraduate career. Online is a very convenient option for students and continues to grow in popularity.

But that doesn’t mean you can assume everyone taking your online course has taken one before. It definitely takes strong self-motivation to be successful in an online course. So it’s helpful to provide some resources to acclimate our students who are new to online courses.

Here are a few helpful tips:

  • Provide online etiquette (or “netiquette”) guidelines so they know what acceptable online behavior looks like. Contact us for the free Arise Education Netiquette Guide

  • Provide technical requirements, both for simple connections to the course and then any additional tech you have within the course. This includes apps or external software they must install (and how to do it).

  • Inform students of where they can go to find help. Tutoring, learning management system support, counseling services, and most importantly how to get in contact with the instructor.

  • Outline exactly how they can be successful. Give them the tools they need to succeed.

  • Explicitly state your expectations for their interaction with the course. If you want them to look at the course twice a week, then tell them that.

  • Give students a virtual tour of the online classroom, including the calendar, syllabus, how to find their grade, and how to upload assignments. Pretend it is a physical space they have to navigate.

  • Touch base with all students the first week of class, or have a meaningful assignment due the first week of class (or even the first day of class for shorter courses).

And no pressure or anything, but if your course is the first online course they take, what your course looks like and how you engage with students will set the tone for a student’s opinion on online education. If you don’t support the online structure, the students will see and feel that throughout their experience.

Working Professionals (non-traditional)

You may get a lot of students with one or two jobs, or a family to take care of, and they would not be able to continue their education if it weren’t for online programs.

I mean, this is the audience that is signing up for online degrees en masse, creating a giant spike in online enrollments across the nation.

Flexibility is the number one way to recruit and retain these very busy people. Holding in-person office hours once a week on a Thursday morning is not very flexible.

Instead, give them an option to meet virtually through video conferencing, or even a live text chat. Most of the rules for distance learners I’ve already mentioned help this group as well, but keep in mind that compassion & empathy will go a long way with these worker bees.

Once, I was told during a mandatory orientation that my full-time job was my undergraduate school. That attending class and doing homework should come before everything else. Well, that may have been true for undergrad students at one point, but this gal had to have a real job. And I was not the only one.

If you support yourself through college, even student loans aren't enough to pay the bills at times. I would not be able to attend my undergraduate J-O-B without first securing the funds to pay for said work! This is where compassion and empathy for your students comes into play. Understand that even though you have deadlines and non-negotiable exam dates, that life is not on a schedule. Exceptions to the rules are not always sign a weakness, it's a sign of being human. It's only by knowing your students that you can have the ability to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

But empathy for our working students doesn't just mean giving an extension or two. Let’s say you have a bad semester. If you’ve taught before, you know what a bad semester entails. It might be a group of students who are always asking for extensions, or they complain a lot, or they just don’t seem to be as engaged in conversation as your last group of students. When that happens, the negative attitude more easily flows over into the next semester.

In a face-to-face course, you walk in on Day One and are refreshed with a brand new set of faces and attitudes. It’s obvious that this is a new semester with an exciting new batch of eager minds. In online education, you see a list of names again. So keep in mind that you have to mentally prepare yourself and remember that this is a new group of students and they are ready and willing to learn.

Generations of Learners

Understanding the nuances between generations of learners is all about developing a better understanding of the students in your classroom.

I went to a conference recently where teaching to different generations of learners was the theme of the week. Kim Lear, a keynote speaker and generational researcher explained some interesting trends among the generations

She defined baby boomers as those born between 1946 and 1964; Generation X are those born between 1965-1979; Millennials are between 1980-1995; and Generation Z,or just Gen Z, were born between 1996-2010.

Kim described a 90% increase in continuing education spending by individuals ages 50 and older, the skeptical nature of Gen X, and how Millennials and Gen Zers alike are asking not themselves what major they want, but what life do they want to lead.

The reason this is significant is because there are some really well-researched and scientifically supported trends among each generational group, describing teaching strategies for each generational focus.

It’s important for me to state that these are broad generalizations for each group, and that it is always preferable to get to know your students on an individual basis. But when you are teaching 150-200 students at a time, sometimes starting with the generalizations can help your students tremendously to be more successful overall.

The biggest takeaway from this new group of students is that they are more likely to pursue a career in a field they believe will benefit society, as opposed to a career that just makes them money. Being successful, to these Gen Z students, is about making a difference.

This means that your course content must directly relate to their lives. They are far more likely to question why they are learning specific topics than any other generation. So be sure to tell stories, tie in national headlines, and make the content relevant to modern day issues.

Students as Individuals

I can’t overstate the importance of getting to know your students, individually if at all possible. The easiest and most effective way to get to know your students is to ask them questions, or to ask for their feedback.

Ask students what their interests and goals are, or what format they prefer the content to be in. Insert polls from polleverywhere, or surveys from your LMS (or anonymously through surveymonkey) and find out whether this group of students prefers video assignments or text-based discussions

Do they want to present the final project as an infographic or a report? Are they struggling with concepts in the course? Simply asking their opinion can go a long way with students, but actually implementing their ideas will take it to a new level.

Just by asking, you are telling the students that you value their opinions and want them to be a part of the course community. In implementing their ideas, you are establishing that they are a valuable part of their own success, which will help them own their learning.

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