What e-learning that works looks like

Making it possible to work while attending college and to study when and where one chooses, online learning appeals to nearly all prospective 21st century students. But not everyone is ready to succeed in e-learning courses or degree programs: attrition rates for digital distance learners, which can reach a staggering 90% for students of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), far outpace those for students enrolled in traditional brick-and-mortar courses. Also, effective online courses and degree programs have salient features. Those thinking about taking online courses or enrolling in online university degree programs should know what successful e-learning demands going in.

Student-centered factors:

Online learners must be competent users of common computer operating systems and office productivity software. They must quickly master netiquette and how to navigate digital classrooms. E-learners must have or quickly develop strong time management and self-study skills, and they must have enough time to study (around 2-3 hours per credit hour per week). Perhaps most importantly, students must read and write strongly enough to learn in an instructional mode that relies mainly on the written word. Even though instructors are increasingly using multi-media files, such as video tutorials and audio feedback, online students should still expect to be doing a lot of reading and writing because of the remote and asynchronous nature of e-learning.

Instructor- and course-level factors:

Instructors must do all they can to engage and support students, many of whom struggle and quickly fall behind in online classrooms. For example, instructors must reply to discussion posts in a timely manner, promoting inquiry by asking open-ended questions and inviting dialogue between students. In addition, instructors should blend in synchronous interactions, such as chat and periodic webinars (online seminars using group video, audio and chat software). Synchronous learning enables immediate feedback and the discussion of complex issues, but too much synchronous learning can create problems for busy students and be hard to schedule.

Departmental and institutional factors:

Administrators must regularly instruct and support online faculty in course design and delivery by offering frequent online professional development opportunities and maintaining digital support communities for faculty to share effective teaching methods and materials and collaborate. Institutions must also provide digital distance students with an array of 24/7 online supports, from essay reading and tutoring to around-the-clock access to librarians. Additionally, schools must make learning technology as affordable and available for all students as possible. Schools are increasingly using open-access web software, such as Google Mail and Google Drive, to teach and interact with students.

At least some e-learning is already required of most college and more and more elementary and secondary students. As traditional, brick-and-mortar institutions increasingly turn to hybrid (half online and half face-to-face) and fully online instruction, all stakeholders must do their parts to make online education work.