Although online learning is mainstream, there are some critics who wonder if students are able to engage with classmates and professors at the same level as those who attend brick-and-mortar classes. Thanks to innovations and technologies, today’s online educators are able to bring their students together in discussions, offer real-time lectures, and share contributions and insights in a number of ways.
This is especially true for smaller online institutions like MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas or Trinity College in Connecticut, at which students form close-knit relationships despite not meeting in the same location.
Here are some of the unique ways online classes stay in touch…
Video conferencing – While much of online learning is done asynchronously (in which students log in to learn on their own), many have a synchronous component in which everyone learns together in real time. One way this happens is thanks to video conferencing in which people in different locations are able to communicate. Many companies offer discounts to students and educators in order for them to use the service without going broke. Often, companies like InterCall or GoToMeeting also offer free training guides to their software.
Streaming video – Many professors create video content that their online students can view on their own time; some even create a class YouTube channel for these videos. While watching a video clip is not exactly the same as sitting in a lecture hall, at least online students have the advantage of being able to replay important segments to help with their studies.
Skype, Google Hangout, iChat – These are just three examples of technologies that allow for groups of people to hold a virtual conversation via their webcams. Some institutions utilize Blackboard and other education software to manage the course discussions as well. More and more online educators are incorporating such tools into their courses, even bringing in guest speakers from across the globe to enhance graduate-level study. Because such tools are user-friendly, they help students stay connected whether or not they have a strong technical background. The best part is graduate students can join these virtual get-togethers from anywhere, whether at home or at the office (as long as it’s OK with the boss, of course).
Social media – Class twitter chats and Facebook pages/groups are perfect ways for students to stay in touch, study together, and continue class discussions beyond designated course times. Students can follow a topic using a designated hashtag, or poll classmates about their thoughts on the coursework.
Class message board/forum – Most online courses have a class website in which professors and/or students can contribute to discussion threads. Students can post or respond to different topics any time of the day, ask questions, and delve deeper into the curriculum, and how it relates to real world applications. Oftentimes, students are graded on their contributions to class message boards and other communications.
Webinars and conference calls – These technologies offer a modern take on an “old school” class set up that featured a professor lecturing while showing slides on an overhead projector (remember those?). With a webinar that uses audio and/or video, a professor can talk over a visual presentation, and watchers/listeners can chime in with questions and comments.
Of course, not all correspondence that takes place in an online class is intended for everyone to see. For times in which a professor wishes to have a private discussion with a student, email, a phone call, and/or a Face Time chat (if applicable) are probably the best options. Professors of online courses, just like their campus-based counterparts, most likely have designated “office hours” in which they are available to take calls or connect in some way.
Online learning has come a long way over the past decade, especially as video conferencing and online communications and social media tools have improved. Gone are the days of online students feeling disconnected from their classmates and professors. If anything, educators and their students are better connected than ever before.
About the author: Dawn Papandrea is a Staten Island, NY-based writer specializing in education, careers, parenting, and personal finance. Her work has appeared in publications including Family Circle, Parents, WomansDay.com, CreditCards.com, and more. She has a master’s degree in journalism and mass communications from New York University. Connect with her on Twitter and Google+.