Success in Online Learning = Communication

Online learning is not new. Despite some administrators’ passion for triumphing online courses as the next frontier in education, it really is a format that has been around for a decade or more (I took my first online course in 1999), even if it hasn’t necessarily been common in every school for as long.

Online learning is exciting in its flexibility and ability to connect students globally, but it comes with its own unique challenges and frustrations. I’ve been involved with online learning as a student, teacher, course designer, and coordinator, and so I feel that I have a fairly sound understanding of what these challenges are. Fundamentally, I believe that online learners most often run into trouble with their online courses because:

  • They fall behind or fail to plan their time effectively
  • They lose interest in their course
  • They don’t fully understand the content and ideas being communicated through their course

Don't lose the forest for the trees

Essentially, they fail to communicate on some level, and because online learners are often isolated from others, they can easily become lost and forgotten about if they don’t themselves speak up.

Effective communication then is the primary key to success for online learners. Students need to proactively communicate with their teachers to ensure that they are able to meet deadlines. They need to engage in the conversations and discussions in their class. And they need to seek clarification and answers when they run into problems. This is of course a two-way street; students need teachers and peers that are receptive to an effective online conversation, but they must be equally willing to foster this sort of dialogue.

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20 thoughts on “Success in Online Learning = Communication

  1. I dont think these points are any different from a real school, other than the communication point. Its quite possible for students to not plan their time in contact courses as wel, and equally to lose interest or not understand the ideas. I concede the point that communication is more of an effort though.

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  2. Thanks for the comment Sanjay. You’re right, the challenges are much the same as in f2f environments, but I feel it can be difficult for online students to communicate well since they don’t ‘see’ their teacher on a regular basis.

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  3. My comment is, online learning is more challenging especially on applying tools for communication between learners and their teachers. It is important therefore to have face to face sessions for effective learning.

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  4. Hi Mary,

    Why do you feel it’s more challenging to communicate online? Personally, I often find it easier, and can be more personable than having large lectures with anonymous faces in them.

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  5. I agree with all the points raised and I want to support the fact that communicating in online learning is much work than in f2f. From my experience the learner must be willing to talk, to ask if in doubt, these two action takes courage… the learner at times may feel as a disturbance to others. To guard against this, the content must be designed to be motivating from the onset , for the student to be “glued”

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  6. I concur with Brian that communication remains central in online course. I also wish to indicate that where possible a blended approach can be adopted at a start. It is also a proven fact that when the Instructional Design is well done, this can be overcome as this takes cognizance of the learners not being “near” and tries to explicitly address most concerns that would otherwise be of disturbance to the learner.

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  7. Thanks for the comment Yonah.

    By blended approach, do you mean meeting face to face as well as online at the start of a course? This sounds like an ideal approach, but of course it is not always possible depending on the geographic spread of learners in the course.

    Even the best designed online course will probably have some failures in comprehension along the road, but this is also true of face to face environments. Learners in any environment will always have differences in their individual level of understanding, and so effective instructors need to ensure that there are multiple opportunities to learn and ask questions in a constructive way.

    Brian

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  8. Success in online learning is indeed hinged on communication. Being a ‘stand-alone’ learner could be distressing and even lead you on to abandon the e-course. Human beings are social by nature and learn through interaction and imitation. Thus communication with colleagues and an effective facilitator will ensure the success of an e-course.

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  9. Thanks for the comment Ruby.

    Do you think that this communication has to be synchronous (i.e. everyone communicating at the same time) though? One of the great benefits of online learning is the ability for people from all over the world (and hence also from time zones all over the world) to learn together.

    Brian

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  10. I want to make comment here that on-line is quiet interesting as students should feel that they are motivated and self-directed when they begin to interact with other students and share their ideas or experiences. Also the time for learning space is always available and you are working at your own pace without a teachers instructions all the time. Students can loose interest easily if they don’t really see their purpose in their education and why they should be educated in this way. Asynchronous learning is effective in this way as student post in comments and other learners come in at different time to give their views on what has been posted by the previous learner.

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  11. Thanks for the comment Adrian.

    You’re definitely right that students can easily lose interest if they don’t see the relevance of something, but the same can be said for a traditional classroom. The added challenge with online learning though is that you don’t always have someone monitoring you if you do start to get off track, and so self-motivation is critical to success.

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  12. I agree with all comments posted. I do feel that the learner must feel motivated and be willing to participate in applying tools to communicate between facilitators and other learners.

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  13. Thanks for your comment Betty. I think it’s key that courses also provide the learner with the right tools to help with this. Learning in a new environment can be overwhelming, so we need to ensure that it is as accessible and intuitive as possible.

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  14. I believe that students learning via online learning environments experience both an advantage and disadvantage. The advantage online learners have, in comparison to, face to face environments are that they have all the course content and can work at their own pace. The disadvantage is that there are some learners who may not be so savy with the use of technology and due to their lack of competence in use of technology, they get frustrated and give up.
    Communication between both students and learners can meet the demands necessary for success but addressing the two instances. lecturers and tutors need to be accommodating.

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  15. Good point Dinelle. We need to keep in mind that online learning requires a level of comfort with technology tools and effective technical support and guidance to ensure success.

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  16. The beauty of online communication is that it can be synchronous or asynchronous, allowing people from different locations and time zones an opportunity to be part of a conversation. Real time communication is great but due to different resource availability , majority are not able to do so…It may be necessary for the course tutors to find a way to have learners comment on issues as they go along, without feeling that the time for commenting has lapsed…I wonder how this may be achieved….

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  17. Hi Phyllis, and thanks for the comments. Do you think the quality of conversations is the same in an asynchronous environment?

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  18. Not really.. the quality of asynchronous conversations may differ, since there may be very long time lapses between comments (like this one of mine) , making it more difficult to keep the flow of thoughts connected. The point made may be relevant and strong, but a bit more removed since the previous commentator may have shifted their focus from that issue…

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  19. An advantage of online communication that no one seems to have mentioned yet is that many people are shy to speak up in a group, or stutter, or need time to compose a response. Online conversations allow time to consider a response and typing a response is easier to do than speaking up. In this respect I would say it is better online, although soliciting a response can sometimes be an issue. In a face to face situation not replying is rude whereas online you don’t seem to have the same social pressure.

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  20. Great point Murray! I’d agree that online learning can be far more comfortable for some, and the opportunity to think, research, and reflect before drafting a comment can be a tremendous benefit over a live classroom environment.

    On the flip side though, I do wonder if some learners, particularly those who are not native speakers of the language used in the course of instruction might be turned off by the idea of always having to write a response, as they may not feel confident in their writing abilities.

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