How to structure online classes for adults

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic sent students to virtual classrooms across the country, a researcher from North Carolina State University surveyed 31 doctoral students about their learning experiences in a fully online program.

Suddenly the topic became relevant to universities around the world. The studywhich is now published in the journal Record of the College of Educationoffers important lessons about the challenges and benefits of online adult learning.

“For some of us who worked on this study, it was a cognitive as well as a reflective experience,” said the study’s lead author. Lam FamAssociate Professor of Educational Leadership, Policy and Human Development at NC State.

The Abstract talked to Fam about some takeaways.

Abstract: What benefits and challenges have there been for students in the online program in terms of students ’experiences with diversity?

Lam FamA: Geographical diversity has been the main, main advantage of this type of completely online programs. Several students told us that they really appreciate the opportunity to meet and interact with people from different industries from anywhere in the world. All of them could not come together in such diversity if they were in a face-to-face class.

However, in terms of racial diversity, some students said that because they did not sit in class together, they felt it acted as a gateway for some students to act as if the norms that would apply in person did not were the same norms for online. Chat was one place where one could walk away with comments that would be unacceptable in person. I want to say that there were a few students who talked about it, but there were.

I think part of that departure from social norms was that some teachers had trouble managing those problems online. For example, a teacher may not see something happening in a chat while learning. This may allow these violations to occur.

I think we need to learn about how groups shape norms regarding racial diversity and justice, and we need to train instructors so that they can promote those norms online. It is about managing a culture that is open and safe for students.

YES: What are the most important factors that have influenced students ’ability to learn?

Pham: One of the main factors that students considered important was a safe learning environment – not only physical security, but also security in terms of each student’s ability to think and speak in ways that are true to them and that will help them grow and learn. Without this security, students felt they could not fully engage in the classroom. I believe that learning about how you promote and uphold these social norms is very important, especially important for how we set norms related to diversity.

YES: How has the online format met or not met students ’need for social interaction?

Pham: In class, regular chatter occurs before, after class, or during breaks. It makes you feel like you are becoming friends. This does not happen in virtual meetings. People just turn off the camera and leave. You can do many things to get students to talk to each other, such as using session rooms, but it’s all very planned. It is difficult to create a space for true social interaction online. You have to turn on the sound or raise your hand to speak.

One important finding was about the impact of full-time experiences on campus for students. Some students, even if they did not have the opportunity to talk before or after the online class, sometimes they met outside of class at Zoom. After all, many people find that it allows them to establish a real relationship. For people who did visit campus in person, they almost always said it changed the game in terms of real relationships. Overall, the students felt they could build real relationships online, but there was still something important in the embodied experience.

We believe that the best way to meet the need for real online interactions is to encourage students to create opportunities for collaboration outside the classroom. In addition, I would highly recommend the cohort model when students are advancing in a group on a program so that students have multiple opportunities to interact with each other over a longer period of time.

YES: What challenges did students face with different learning preferences or abilities on the online platform?

Pham: Using new technology takes time to build for people who are new to it. To help people become more comfortable, students need to have experience. Encouraging students to use technology for their own purposes outside of lessons is a major way to do this.

YES: What other questions do you have about online learning for the future?

PhamA: When I studied this, completely online classes were very new. We are now moving towards hybrid and mixed models. We want to know: what will be the experience of students in mixed or hybrid programs? What will be most useful for them – is maximum flexibility? Or are some things always better in person than online?

This post was originally published in NC State News.

How to structure online classes for adults

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