Does your online program have a residential component? Do your students come to campus for part of the program? Do you combine online classes with face-to-face instruction. Distance learning with intensive residential sessions?
There are any number of educational reasons why a residential portion of an online program is a quality marker. Residential sessions can serve to bond student cohorts, build relationships with faculty and program staff, and provide an opportunity for instructional strategies that work better in a face-to-face settings. During the online portion of most degree programs our students are juggling multiple work and family commitments. The residential portions of a program are times of intensive and immersive study, a chance for concentrated learning.
I've also come to believe that a residential portion of a predominantly distance program pays strong dividends when the online classes begin.
Having students on campus at the start of a blended (online and residential) program allows for the following tasks to be completed:
1. The Computer Tech Check:
Unless your program buys everyone the same computer, you will run into student computer issues. There seems to be no end to the number of hardware or software issues that can bring a laptop to its knees. In a residential degree program a computer going down is annoying, but it is not fatal to learning. Students can still attend class, and there are usually spare computers in the library or in a campus lab. The student can keep going. In an online class if the computer is not working the student is not participating. Online courses are often compressed, and any time lost to computer issues increases the likelihood of frustration and non-completion.
A "tech check" at the start of a residential portion of a blended program can ensure that the computer is good to go for online learning. You can make sure that the OS is updated and patched, that the viruses or malware have not taken over, and that the speed and performance is adequate for online coursework. A hands-on hour with a student computer is worth at least 10 hours of online and phone troubleshooting. Even remote login and screen sharing applications (the ones that allow you to take over a users machine), do not provide the same troubleshooting and educational opportunities that exist when you can lay hands on the computer and talk face-to-face with its owner.
2. Training and Practice on Learning Platforms:
The learning management system (LMS) requires little training. The LMS has been around long enough that many students are familiar with the platforms, and they are easy enough to use for new users to come up to speed. Synchronous learning platforms are another matter. Many students have never used a synchronous learning tool for online classes. The opportunity to practice on the synchronous learning platform, and to explore advanced features and functionality, means that once the students are at a distance that everything will run more smoothly. This is particularly important if you are giving your student teams their own online meeting rooms to utilize, as they will need to provide their own troubleshooting during online group meetings in which faculty are not involved.
The other aspect of synchronous learning platforms is that they rely on the webcam and microphone to be working well. I'm always surprised at how often student laptops have problematic microphones, sound, or webcams. These computer problems are often difficult to diagnose and fix at a distance. A residential portion of an online program provides hands-on time to get the computer, and its operator, ready for synchronous learning independence.
3. Observing How Learners Use Their Technology:
During residential sessions I like to watch how our students utilize their various devices and software for learning. One change that has been surprising me is the degree to which students prefer to use a mobile device or tablet (in our case an iPad) over a laptop. I'm a hardcore keyboard guy. I like to be able to type, and I think of my iPad mostly as a consumption device. Many students that I watch seem to have the opposite viewpoint. They are doing everything on the iPad Many use a bluetooth keyboard, but some simply type on the screen.
The decline in printing has been another surprise. In the past I would witness students printing out the articles and materials for class. Printing is now rare, as most students are reading all the articles and books and chapters on their iPads - often marking up the documents with GoodReader. Less printing is probably a good thing, and I wonder how much money we are saving in ink and paper. Could we apply savings on printing towards subsidizing mobile or tablet programs?
What has been your experience with online sessions for your predominantly online programs?