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One of the oft-asserted advantages of online education is that it can be an equalizer, emboldening less confident students who might stay on the sidelines of face-to-face discussions by limiting the possibility of in-person embarrassment.

But are online environments really more welcoming? What might program and course designers do to ensure that digital courses don't isolate students from their peers and instructors?

The answers, like most in teaching and learning, aren’t clear-cut. Some observers of online education believe students can feel more connected to their peers, while others see evidence of students getting left behind.

Whether these viewpoints can reach equilibrium remains to be seen -- but instructors and program leaders are taking a more active role in improving the student experience.

Sounding the Warning Bell

Krystle Phirangee, senior researcher for the PeppeR research team at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and Alesia Malec, Ph.D. candidate in the institution's language and literacies education department, published a study last month that drew from interviews with six of the institution’s online students to reach conclusions about three varieties of “othering” they’ve experienced. (The article defines othering as "the way an individual or group differentiates, simplifies, exotifies, or objectifies the other through an individual’s (or group’s) own position as the self."

  • Professional: A student working a job or nurturing a career while taking classes might feel disconnected from students who have more time and energy to devote solely to academic pursuits. Alternatively, an employed student with a strong work ethic might feel overly productive compared to students with less experience juggling concurrent obligations.
  • Academic: Differing learning goals make connections between students harder to achieve, as when some students focus only on their own success while others make good-faith efforts to help others succeed.
  • Ethnic: Students from different backgrounds approach discussion topics from different angles or struggle to feel connected to the perspectives dominating online discussions.

“Feelings of disconnection and isolation did not result in any of them dropping their online course, as may be expected,” Phirangee and Malec wrote. “However, the experience of being othered created feelings of disconnection, isolation and lack of community with their peers and/or their instructors and negatively influenced their learning experiences in their online courses.”

Those aren’t the only potential sources of “othering.” Phylise Banner, a consulting learning experience designer, thinks age can also be a subtle dividing force, and a particularly pervasive one in online courses, which bring together students from different stages of life. Older students can find younger students intimidating and avoid interacting with them, while younger students sometimes forget to adapt their language style to an audience beyond their age group, Banner said.

She thinks higher ed instructors have a lot to learn from their K-12 counterparts, who are often trained more deliberately on navigating delicate emotional environments. Reading written cues that convey similar information to body language is especially important online, she said.

“The most important thing is designing that learning experience where everyone is welcome,” Banner said.

The Canadian researchers acknowledge their study was limited and might not reflect the dominant online student experience. Still, they found enough similarities in tone among their conversations -- which started as more general research into the effectiveness of online courses -- to start constructing the idea of a pattern.

Instructors could turn these findings into opportunities for self-improvement, according to Phirangee. A welcome video at the beginning of an online course could establish a solid connection up front, rather than waiting for it to develop over time. Icebreaker activities, while sometimes stilted face-to-face, could help loosen up the tension and lay the foundation for more candid discussions. Setting aside discussion forum corners for free-flowing, casual conversation mimics the spontaneous after-class huddle that can foster fruitful discussions.

Leveling the Playing Field

The oft-repeated refrain that students with social anxiety feel empowered to “speak up” in online courses offers one rejoinder to concerns about the online experience. Such concerns have driven some institutions to put into writing policies and practices that previously served only as guidelines.

At Sarah Lawrence College, in New York, instructors in a largely online graduate health care program are required to post in discussion forums at least twice during a given module -- consistent with expectations for students. The goal is to replicate the institution’s ingrained emphasis on seminar-style discourse, and to make students feel like their contributions are worthwhile, according to Judith Babbitt, dean of graduate and professional studies.

“Teaching online after a while, it’s not that you get lazy. [But] there’s a sense that it’ll just move along by itself without you,” Babbitt said. “By putting some of this into contractual obligations, you’re really making them pay attention and do it.”

Offering multiple paths to success can increase the chances that a majority of students will feel served by a course, according to David Joyner, associate director of student experience at the Georgia Institute of Technology. While teaching the institution’s much-publicized undergraduate online computer science course, Joyner has developed a participation system that allows students to post to discussion boards and/or conduct peer review on classroom assignments.

“As a result you’re constantly confronted with not only the different viewpoints of other people, you get to see other people,” Joyner said. “You’re constantly reminded that you’re a part of a community that’s all going through these steps together.”

Joyner also schedules meetings between his students and teaching assistants. Students get to check in on their progress and score additional participation points in the process.

Justin Louder, associate vice provost for online learning at Texas Tech University, also schedules one-on-one meetings in his courses. He establishes a “course comments” section in the learning management system so students can provide feedback on his efforts.

Over a decade of online teaching, Louder has developed a sensitivity for subconscious signs that students are struggling, perhaps in ways they couldn’t articulate if asked directly. Sometimes students will post discussion responses “at the very last second possible” before the midnight deadline, which often means they were too distracted by work obligations or family struggles to devote time to a thoughtful comment.

“In a face-to-face class, if I see a kid has missed two weeks of class, you physically see that and say something’s going on there. Online it may take a bit more to see what’s going on,” Louder said. “But the problems and issues that impact students’ lives are the same: financial, family, job related, personal, health issues.”

Part of the responsibility for improving online experiences falls on students, according to Kelly Hermann, vice president of accessibility services at the University of Phoenix. She works on opening dialogue between instructors and students about how to accommodate specific challenges -- and the communication has to go both ways, she said.

“We may send an email to faculty notifying them of accommodations, but that doesn’t take the place of a student taking initiative to talk to the instructor,” Hermann said.

Maintaining Perspective

Most of the challenges described in this article wouldn’t seem out of place in a broader discussion about classrooms of all types, including face-to-face. Research and anecdotes affirm the contention that online offers benefits to students beyond the capacity to pursue studies remotely.

Many of the solutions are situational -- programs with most students in a 50-mile radius can pull off and benefit from an introductory face-to-face meet-up, for instance, and one-on-one meetings are more feasible in classes with a small number of students. Still, instructors and observers urge all involved in online teaching to take an active role in addressing potential disparities.

"A lot of people still think that online is easier or it doesn’t take as much time," Louder said. "On the faculty side, if you’re truly engaged with your students, and you’re making that connection with them, it takes quite a bit of time."

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