Many of the things that make online learning so attractive to students, such as the flexibility of anytime, anywhere access, can also make it more challenging. Without the benefit of the structure and familiarity of a face-to-face course, less organized students can quickly lose their way. And while students have spent their entire K-12 education immersed in face-to-face learning, most have no idea what it takes to succeed in the online classroom. In fact, many students enroll in an online course thinking it will be easier than a traditional course. This lack of preparation and understanding leads many online students to struggle and, at times, drop out.
To address this problem, educators and researchers at Coastal Carolina University developed eLearnReady, a free, web tool designed to analyze student preparedness for online learning and provide additional support to those who need it.
Here’s how it works: Faculty or institutions register their classes on the website and provide their students with a class-specific URL prior to the beginning of the course. Students then complete a 43-item survey aligned to nine targeted success factors in online classes. These factors include self-motivation, self-management, need for feedback, text reading ability, visual graphics reading ability, listening, technology proficiency, and learning management.
eLearnReady analyzes each student’s responses to identify strengths and areas for improvement. Students receive a report of their ratings with a score of low, medium, or high for each category. Students are then given written and video study tutorials, including scenarios acted out by other students.
After students complete the survey, faculty receive a class profile that compiles the results for students enrolled in the course. Faculty are able to use this profile to tailor their instruction to meet the needs of their students, as well as provide suggestions to the class on how to be successful in the course. For instance, one faculty member said that if students score low in motivation, he makes a point to provide more encouragement during the class.
The results of the assessment can also be used to prompt student engagement in the course itself. Cheryl Fulghum, coordinator of distance learning at Haywood Community College, uses the tool as a collaborative learning exercise to expose the myths that online coursework is easier, less time consuming, and requires less involvement. After receiving their results, students go to the discussion forum within the course to discuss one factor that was surprising to them and one that wasn’t. The resulting discussion shows students that online learning success has little to do with learning abilities or being tech savvy. It is more about self-awareness and using proactive learning strategies.
One instructor said about the tool that:
It asks the right questions in a clear, concise manner. Other instruments that I have used in the past have used technical jargon that many students would not understand and have been too lengthy. The nine dimensions hit on the main issues that I see with students struggling in online courses, particularly self-motivation, self-management, course management system, and technology. These [study] tips would definitely be helpful and reflect the types of things I mention to students when advising them regarding taking an online class.
Additionally, eLearnReady can be used by academic advisors for screening students who demonstrate the lack of skills needed for online courses and who may need additional guidance and support to be successful. We found that students who took the assessment survey before meeting with an advisor for the first time had more meaningful conversations about manageable course loads and delivery method preferences than students who did not take the assessment. We expected the tool to help support the advising process; yet we were surprised, and understandably pleased, with the empowering nature of the tool. Because they received detailed, personalized results with practical suggestions for improvements, students were more assertive and confident in their own strengths, weaknesses, and needs when having those very-important initial conversations with advisors.
More than 17,000 students have completed the eLearnReady survey across multiple states since it was first introduced in April 2017. Some higher education institutions have embedded eLearnReady into student orientation sessions, freshman seminar classes, and other online courses. Even where the tool has not been adopted across the institution, individual online instructors can use it to prepare their students for success, reduce time spent addressing student preparation issues in their courses, and better tailor their courses to meet student needs.
Corey Lee is an associate professor of instructional technology and Sherri Restauri is the director of the Coastal Office of Online Learning at Coastal Carolina University. Cheryl Fulghum is the coordinator of distance learning at Haywood Community College.