In Part One of this two-part exploration of the realities of online learning, we interviewed four recent graduates of California Southern University to gauge their opinions on a variety of critical issues relating to online higher education. In Part Two, we delve into faculty members’ perspectives on topics ranging from the challenges and advantages of the online learning environment, to characteristics shared by the most successful students (as well as common mistakes that plague otherwise successful learners), tips for optimizing the student-instructor relationship, and the future of online education, among other subjects.
We spoke with three professors (or faculty mentors, as they are known at CalSouthern). They were extremely candid and engaging, shedding light on issues of critical importance to current and prospective students alike.
CalSouthern: Numerous misconceptions exist about online higher education. Are there any that you find particularly troubling or problematic?
Dr. Barbara Denny, CalSouthern School of Behavioral Sciences: In my opinion, the most troubling misconception is the misguided belief that online programs are inherently inferior to those offered by traditional schools. I have a unique perspective on this, having been with CalSouthern since its inception and having helped develop the School of Behavioral Sciences. We carefully researched the programs of some of the nation’s most respected schools of psychology. We incorporated the best of the books and materials. We recruited some of the finest faculty. The material is essentially the same. It’s simply a different delivery method—a delivery method that I believe is superior, in many ways.
CalSouthern: Another common misconception we frequently hear is that online education is somehow impersonal or mechanical, when we know that, to the contrary, it is very relational. Can you comment in this regard?
Dr. Nicole Johnson-Nguyen, CalSouthern School of Behavioral Sciences: At CalSouthern, we’re called “faculty mentors” for a reason. We’re not just here to answer questions about the specific coursework. We’re available to answer questions about the field in general, to provide feedback to help students shape their career aspirations, or simply to offer advice on how to best succeed in their degree plan.
Dr. Denny: As I mentor students, I learn about their personal interests and experiences and they learn about mine. It’s what happens when you work on a one-to-one basis. It’s an interpersonal connection that, in my opinion, happens far too rarely in the traditional education setting. In some cases, I’ve gotten to know students’ specialties and been so impressed with their work that I’ve even referred clients to them.
CalSouthern: How might learners or faculty mentors best optimize the student-faculty relationship?
Dr. Johnson-Nguyen: I think it pays for both learners and mentors to be extremely careful with their written communication which can sometimes be misinterpreted, or have its nuance lost. I try to personalize my communication and feedback as much as possible, and offer as much detail as I can. I find that the more I share with learners, and the more I show that I am providing personalized feedback, the more they tend to open up with me. Also, I make it a practice to check in with any student that I don’t hear from in awhile, to proactively address any problems that might be arising.
Dr. Mike Ewald, CalSouthern School of Business: I always send out a detailed welcome letter at the start of a class so that learners can get to know me, my interests, my expertise, and my experience. I strongly encourage learners to respond with a similar letter, letting me know what their interests and career goals are, what they hope to get out of the class, etc. The more I know, the more I am able to leverage the one-on-one relationship. I don’t want to simply grade a paper; I want to grade a paper for a particular student. I’ll tailor my feedback for each student, whether she’s a 25-year-old, hoping to rise to a management position in a telecommunications company, or a middle-aged man who wants to retire and begin teaching at a community college.
CalSouthern: What are a few challenges presented by the online environment?
Dr. Denny: Probably the most significant challenge to me is not being able to read facial expressions or body language to determine when a learner is challenged by a particular concept or is otherwise struggling. Unless they share that information—or it becomes evident in their work—I have no way of knowing. However, CalSouthern is excellent at sharing information so that if a faculty mentor, advisor, or other staff member senses any sort of problem, we’re able to reach out to that learner and help them get back on track.
Dr. Ewald: Online students tend to have busy personal and professional lives. Because of this, they need to work out a schedule and stay on that schedule—from day one of the class. If a learner gets to week three or four and has produced little or no work, that student is likely to be lost unless the university staff and the mentor intervene with special care and assistance. A true partnership between the university, the faculty mentor, and the learner is required. If this partnership is in place and a student starts to struggle, we can reach out to determine whether it’s a health issue, a job issue, or an ability issue, and take the necessary steps to turn the situation around.
CalSouthern: Conversely, are there certain advantages online education offers over the traditional classroom setting?
Dr. Denny: There are many. For example, the online environment provides a very safe, relaxed platform that allows for all students—importantly, even introverts—to interact with faculty in a meaningful way. Also, as alluded to earlier, the one-on-one relationship allows mentors to customize feedback according to a learner’s particular interests. I currently have a student in my Crisis Intervention course who wants to work with the military on post-traumatic stress disorder and other common mental health issues affecting service members. I am able to gear many of his assignments and special projects toward this area of interest. Finally, I think a great advantage lies in how nimble online universities like CalSouthern can be. Without the burden of a large bureaucracy, we’re able to quickly refine courses or add new courses to reflect changes in the field.
Dr. Johnson-Nguyen: Much is made of the flexibility of the online environment—you can study as your schedule allows. But this is more than just a mere convenience; it allows learners to do their work at the time and in the setting that works best for them. As a result, they’re able to be more engaged with the material and study more effectively and efficiently.
Also, in addition to the one-to-one, personalized mentoring, learners are able to learn from other students. The online learning platform enables debates and discussions with fellow learners, many of whom are professionals in the field and can offer their expertise to help a learner better grasp a concept, complementing the mentor’s efforts.
CalSouthern: Can you identify some common traits, characteristics, or habits of your best students? Conversely, are there mistakes you frequently see made that set back potentially successful learners?
Dr. Denny: So often, the difference comes down to organization and time management. I frequently tell learners to imagine the time they would be devoting to a traditional program on a weekly basis: the time in class, the time driving to and from, the study time outside of class. Carve out the same amount of time for your online program and then schedule your study time accordingly—and stick to that schedule. Also, if you have a spouse and/or family, you’ll need their support. Have a frank discussion and re-allocate responsibilities, remembering that since you are adding the study time to your weekly schedule, you may have to delegate or minimize other responsibilities to accommodate it.
Dr. Ewald: As I noted earlier, developing a schedule at the very beginning of the class so that you can hit the ground running is extremely important. As for common mistakes, failing to properly reference the work of others, not taking the time to carefully proofread or edit written material, and not becoming comfortable with APA (American Psychological Association) Style—which is required by many online universities, including CalSouthern—are some that come to mind.
CalSouthern: Looking out three to five years, what do you envision for the future of online higher education?
Dr. Ewald: We’re seeing Americans continue to work more and more hours and taking on more and more responsibilities in both their professional and personal lives. Online education—as practiced by leading institutions like CalSouthern—is the only option that accommodates this cultural trend: the innovative delivery system gives potential students an affordable, flexible alternative that doesn’t sacrifice educational quality.
CalSouthern: What are some of the most satisfying moments you’ve experienced in online education?
Dr. Johnson-Nguyen: I enjoy the feedback I get from learners who were initially skeptical. Maybe they were skeptical about the effectiveness of online learning; often they were skeptical of their own abilities. But when these students realize that they had more ability within themselves than they ever dreamed, or that they learned more than they ever imagined via an online program, it’s extremely satisfying.
Dr. Ewald: Some satisfying moments are tangible, like hearing about a student achieving a promotion because of earning his or her degree. Others are intangible, like simply seeing a student reach a goal they once thought was unattainable. Both are equally satisfying, as is watching a student discover a love for learning and then deciding to use their degree as a stepping stone to even higher academic achievement.
Dr. Denny: There are so many examples. One of my favorites is helping learners who—because of geographic isolation, financial issues, work and family obligations, or any of a number of other reasons—would have had no opportunity to achieve their academic goals except through online education. It’s a wonderful feeling and a testament to this learning methodology.