Keys to Online Learning Success: A Conversation with Dr. Lewis Sanborne

Aug 16, 2011 by Tom Dellner

By almost every conceivable measure, online higher education continues to grow. According to the latest annual Sloan Survey of Online Learning—the leading barometer of online learning in the United States, conducted by the esteemed Sloan Consortium—online higher education is growing at 21 percent, far exceeding the two-percent growth of the overall higher education population.

The factors most often cited for the rapid growth of distance learning are its convenience, flexibility, and affordability. But not to be discounted is the mounting research establishing that online learning is a remarkably effective learning methodology. In fact, according to a 2009 report issued by the U.S. Department of Education, students who took all or part of their instruction online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through face-to-face instruction.

However, as anyone familiar with online higher education knows, it’s anything but an easy path to a degree. To learn more about the characteristics and study techniques of successful online learners—and to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions about online learning—we sat down with Dr. Lewis Sanborne, a leading authority on student success in both online and traditional learning environments.

Noel LevitzDr. Sanborne, who earned his PhD in higher education administration from Illinois State University, is an executive consultant with Noel-Levitz, an organization that has helped institutions of higher learning enhance student retention, satisfaction, and success for almost four decades. He’s a member of the National Academic Advising Association and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning and has advised a wide range of colleges and universities in a career that has spanned more than 20 years.

California Southern University: What are some of the common personality traits you’ve observed in successful online students?

Dr. Lewis SanborneDr. Lewis Sanborne: Self-discipline is certainly at the top of the list. If you can’t manage your own time, set your own priorities, and commit to a regular study schedule (even if you have to do 20 minutes here, a half hour there), you’ll likely struggle.

Motivation is also essential, and very different from self-discipline even though the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. You can be extremely self-disciplined, but if you don’t want it—really want it—the first time that something gets in the way, you’re going to step aside and take a term off, and the next thing you know you’ve dropped off the program. You need motivation to tough out difficult situations. Reflecting on my own experience as an adult student working on a doctoral program, I noticed several colleagues who didn’t have that unwavering desire to earn their degree, and they all eventually dropped out of the program at various points.

CalSouthern: What about working students? In your experience, have you noticed any common characteristics that contribute to these students’ success in the online environment?

Sanborne: It’s not a personal trait or characteristic, but with regards to students balancing their education and professional lives, I’d like to emphasize the importance of support. You need the support from those around you, whether it’s a spouse, significant other, children, co-workers, or a boss. I was taking an online statistics course and was very fortunate to have a boss that agreed to let me close my door for two hours on Wednesday afternoons so that I could complete weekly online quizzes. That flexibility on my boss’s part was crucial to my success in that class; having a supportive environment is mission-critical.

I also think it’s important that adult students are resourceful in both carving out their study time and also in dealing with common scenarios that could interfere with that study time. For example, perhaps you have a plan A for dealing with transporting your kids to and from day care. I think it’s also important to have a plan B, as well. I consult with a number of two-year institutions, and I’ve seen many cases where a student disappears the first time their car breaks down or a child gets sick—and they don’t come back. Even though you might be taking courses from your computer at home, it’s still a good idea to have plans—and contingency plans—in place in advance so that these common inconveniences don’t derail your degree program.

Also, students should exercise a certain amount of patience and make sure that their personal stuff is in order prior to enrolling. For example, the student’s significant other or children need to be at a stage where they will allow the student sufficient time at the computer, or where they’ll be fine with the student coming home late from work because they’ve gotten permission to study at the office after work hours—whatever the case may be. These are key essential starting points, especially for students who will be studying in the online environment.

CalSouthern: Noel-Levitz, the acclaimed higher-education consulting firm you’re associated with, recently published a paper underscoring how critical student satisfaction is to their ultimate success. Could you elaborate?

Sanborne: Sure. Research indicates that the more satisfied students are, the more persistent and stable they are in their studies and—ultimately—the more likely they are to succeed. One of the key components of student satisfaction is what I like to call “alignment”—whether the students’ expectations are in line with the reality of the education experience once they’re enrolled in an institution.

It starts with marketing: are the promises made by the institution honest and sincere? Equally important, do these promises resonate as much with the faculty and staff as they do with the students, so that everyone is on the same page with respect to what the expectations are?

Another element of alignment—from the student’s perspective—is whether the program actually does for him or her what the student wants and expects. In other words, do the outcomes of the degree programs align with what the student expects his or her professional preparation outcomes to be?

CalSouthern: If alignment is so crucial, what are some factors that lead to misalignment? What can a prospective student do to ensure that he or she is a good fit for a particular institution?

Sanborne: Adult students sometimes procrastinate when identifying which online degree program is the best fit for them. Often, instead of doing their research up front, they’ll enroll at the last minute on the recommendation of a friend. Ideally, I would like to see a sufficient time and a sufficient program plan in place between application time and the start of the first course—whether there are monthly or rolling course starts—to allow the new student to become properly oriented and to make sure that their expectations are appropriate for the degree program and the institution that they’re attending.

And, of course, students need to do their up-front research. There are many places you can go online to read reviews and see what people are saying about an institution. Even better, perhaps they can speak with current and former students.

Checking to make sure the institution is accredited is hugely important, as well. In addition, if you’re an employed student and you’re looking for a degree program to help you advance within your current organization, make sure that your employer will accept the credential or the degree.

CalSouthern: We’ve talked about personal traits and characteristics of successful online learners—are there any studying or learning techniques that are critical to student success?

Sanborne: I think it’s critical that you are an active learner, with active-learning strategies in place. Related to this is the ability to self-assess your learning (which can be a huge ask for many people). You need to know how you learn best and if the material isn’t being fed to you in that way, you either need to adapt your learning style or develop strategies that allow you to work in your comfort zone.

To give an example on a smaller level, you may be reading material and get to the bottom of the page or screen and it’s time to turn the page or scroll down, but you have no idea what you’ve just read (we’ve all done that). You need to be able to monitor your learning so that you recognize this and either go back and read it again, or maybe take a break, turn off the radio—whatever you need to do to re-focus. It’s not how long you spend studying, it’s how effective the time you spend studying is. You need to actively monitor your learning and make sure that those hours that you devote to study are effective and efficient.

Know how you like to process information and find ways to make that work for you. For example, if you’re a kinesthetic learner, maybe you can read your e-book or listen to your podcast while you’re on the treadmill so that you get that physical motion.

CalSouthern: Much is made of these individual learning styles. Do you put much stock in this, or do you find it to be a bit overblown?

Sanborne: It may be overblown—slightly. Research indicates that about 70 percent of adults are capable of adjusting their learning styles and can be effective learners in visual, auditory, or kinesthetic educational settings. That study also found that 10 percent can’t learn, period, and that 20 percent can only be effective if the teaching method is in alignment with their preferred learning modality. So, I suppose that you might have a slightly higher likelihood of success in the online environment if you are comfortable with text-based learning, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t be successful if you aren’t.

In my opinion, the benefit of the conversation about learning styles is getting students to think about it early in their education experience. I think it’s probably more important that they think about how they learn, about how they can study more effectively, than what their preferred learning style actually is. It’s the process and awareness that’s critical and what gets students to think about applying active-learning strategies to their studies, which ultimately leads to success.

CalSouthern: Are there any mistakes or bad habits that, in your experience, you see online learners fall prey to, and which reduce their chances for success?

Sanborne: I would put procrastination at the top of the list. Whether the program is self-paced, synchronous, or asynchronous, students sometimes think that they can wait until the last minute, only to realize how much work is involved in learning the material or producing a paper.

Also, perhaps because it’s an online environment, students don’t realize how regularly they need to plug in and connect with the material. When you make the commitment to take an online class, you should be making a commitment to be a student in an intentional, constant way. The very best students are those who are thinking all the time about what they’re reading, the dialogue they’re having with instructors or other students, and how it all connects. They’re thinking about it in the car, in the shower. You can’t segment it so that you’re only plugged into your program on Tuesday evenings or for 30 minutes prior to an online quiz or lecture. Students that distinguish themselves to online faculty are those who have a regular, visible presence in the virtual classroom space.

CalSouthern: Do you perceive any commonly held misconceptions about what it takes to succeed in an online degree program, or about online education in general?

Sanborne: There’s something of a two-sided misconception regarding technical skills and their impact on online learning success. On one side is the faulty notion that one needs to be a computer whiz to do well at an online institution. The flip side to this—and equally false—is the belief that if you have computer skills, you’ll automatically be successful.

With well designed online classes, especially if they’re preceded by well designed orientation programs, the student’s technical proficiency shouldn’t have an impact either way on their ultimate success in the online environment.

Another even more widely held misconception is that online learning is easier and requires far less of a time commitment than traditional classroom learning. I’ve never read any studies that do anything but refute this. The rule of thumb I use is to plan to devote at least 10 hours per week to an online class. It may take more; it may take less, depending on the student, the material, and the course structure. Be prepared to add more time if necessary.

Also, online education is far more relational than most people anticipate. Just because it’s distant, it doesn’t mean it’s impersonal or mechanical. I frequently hear faculty talk about getting to know students meaningfully on a personal level in an online environment. This is something that all students need to realize and think about intentionally: the online faculty and support providers—at least at the best online institutions—are there to help you holistically, and not just to get you to finish a certain number of modules by a particular date.

CalSouthern: Do you have any thoughts regarding the efficacy of online higher education?

Sanborne: There are plenty of institutions that offer both online and face-to-face courses with the same examinations, and students in the online courses often outperform those in the traditional classroom setting. I have little doubt that the online learning medium can be extremely effective.

Also, we’re seeing online institutions leading the way regarding certain improvements to higher education. For example, higher education in general does a shoddy job of measuring learning outcomes, partly because we don’t do a good enough job defining the desired learning outcome before the course ever starts. The exceptions to this general rule often occur in the online environment, where you have to design the entire course before the first day—everything has to be there. And if you have a good team of instructional designers, web developers, and faculty who are all contributing to the design of an effective online course, I think you’re much more likely to have clear learning outcomes, as opposed to a traditional face-to-face course that “Dr. Jones” has put together, perhaps on the fly.

CalSouthern: Do you foresee any exciting developments for online education in the future?

Sanborne: I think we’ll see online education—partly because it’s under more scrutiny than traditional, brick-and-mortar education—drive improvements in higher education in general. As I mentioned above, I think we’re going to see improvements in our ability to define and then measure student learning outcomes.

I think we’re also going to get better at alternative learning assessments that allow us to give more credit for prior learning, whether it’s traditional or not. Again, this will be driven by online universities that have so many adult learners with various life experiences, and military service men and women looking for credit for prior learning.

I would hope that we start moving away from the credit as the coin of the realm, so that we’re not always equating credits with seat time in a class. Again, online is helping to push us in this direction. If we’re able to do a better job of measuring student knowledge and ability at exit versus at entrance, then we can begin to offer credit by examination or for training received outside the classroom environment.

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