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Ask an Expert: Making the most of online learning

EdNews Parent expert Ann Morrison offers tips on how to help your child make progress in a virtual classroom.

Q. My teenager is taking a couple of classes online this semester to supplement the classes he is taking at school. At first we thought it would be a great idea because he has a job and it allows him more flexibility. The trouble is that he is falling behind in his online classes. We talk to him about it and he tells us that he will “take care of it,” but when we check his grades, it turns out he hasn’t. We are worried he won’t pass these classes. What do we do?

A. Several implicit characteristics of online learning contribute to making it easier for students to fall behind.

Denver Public Schools’ students work in a computer lab in this <em>EdNews</em> file photo.
Denver Public Schools’ students work in a computer lab in this EdNews file photo.

First, put a student in front of a computer and, at some point, they will end up on Facebook or some other site that is more interesting than their math or English class.

It takes motivation and self-regulation to attend to challenging work for extended periods. These skills are strengths for some students, but not for all.

Second, where face-to-face classes allow for socially-constructed learning through interaction with peers in real time, student interaction with peers in the virtual classroom comes through discussion boards.

Often, a teacher will pose a question on the discussion board for students to respond to. Depending on the time frame of the course, one student may respond to the question and another may not log in for days or weeks.

Although the activity is intended to foster discussion, unless all of the students are on the assignment at the same time the discussion ends up being more of a string of responses to the question without interaction between the students. Learning from peers is an important part of classroom learning that is largely missing in online classes.

A student may have a question that requires an answer before proceeding. The teacher and resources provided by the course are just two sources of information. Other high-quality sources of information are available on the Internet and in books. Finding and using these sources can take some initiative and problem-solving which, again, are strengths for some students but not for all.

Last, while online teachers can provide information to students, they cannot watch and listen for student learning and adjust instruction accordingly. In the face-to-face environment, a teacher can look at student faces and listen to their discussion to gauge whether students are learning. If a class needs clarification or re-teaching, the teacher can check student understanding and provide guidance in that moment.

If a student misunderstands content in an online class, the teacher may only become aware of it when grading the student’s assignments.

So what is a parent to do?

Here are some tips that could help:

• Decide how involved you will be. First, decide whether you need or want to have control of the situation or if you want to encourage your child to take control of the situation himself. This decision is fundamental in how you proceed in supporting your child in completing online classes successfully. Your approach need not be completely hands-off or hands-on. Your child may be more motivated by one class than another, requiring differing levels of adult involvement and supervision.

• Consistent study time. Elements that add structure to an online course are test and assignment due dates, a consistent daily schedule that includes time for coursework and breaks, a work environment that lends itself to studying, and an adult who checks progress at least once a day.

• Assignment calendar. Managing studying and assignments independently can be overwhelming and frustrating. The answer to managing assignments is an assignment calendar. Many course management systems have due dates for each assignment. Some students take online classes to accommodate athletic, work or travel schedules, however. In this case, the assignment calendar needs to accommodate those parts of the student’s life.

• Divide up the work. In order to make an assignment calendar for your child, take the number of assignments your child needs to complete before the end of the course and divide by the number of days they will be working on it. Adjust the workload to group more small assignments on one day and leave tests or larger assignments as the only task for other days. Keep the assignment calendar somewhere conspicuous in your home and let your child cross off units, tests or assignments as they are completed.

• Use a planner. If you want to encourage your student to take more responsibility for their success, provide them with the tools they need, ask them to make a master schedule and then show it to you. A calendar or planner they like is a good tool. Take a trip to the office supply store and let them pick out their own planner to increase their buy-in for using it.

• Same time, every day. Most parents, teachers and administrators of online learning will say that it is essential for a student to work on their online courses at a consistent time every day. Making consistent progress is much more difficult when a child’s schedule doesn’t allow for consistent work time.

• Create a good work environment. Creating a work environment that lends itself to studying is important. Students who are easily distracted will benefit from low room lighting and a desk lamp to direct attention to the course materials and computer and away from visual distractions in the environment. Many students will insist that they study best on their beds or in their bedrooms. If they make progress working in the environment they say works for them, then great. If they do not show success working where they want to, then the environment needs to be changed.

• Check your child’s progress. It is important for a parent to check their child’s progress regularly. If you are taking more control of your child’s progress, then be clear about consequences for not staying on schedule and be prepared to follow through. Alternately, consequences for lack of follow-through must be paired with rewards for strong follow-through. In order to decide on appropriate rewards and consequences, consider what is important to your child. Make rewards and consequences proportional.

Parents who are leaning toward encouraging their child to take more responsibility for themselves should still check progress regularly. Be sure your child knows the natural consequences for lack of progress and then be prepared to let them fail. The lessons learned from natural consequences can sometimes be the best lessons of all.

Let us know if this helps.

About our First Person series:

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