When Online Students "Self-Advise," It's Up to The Instructor To Help


By Rich Russell

It’s beginning to look a lot like registration! I can tell by the long lines of students waiting to meet with academic advisers, or else camped outside the financial aid office like teens staked out for a Justin Bieber concert. In my traditional classes, I usually devote an hour to a sort of “consumer’s guide” for students: how and when to register for classes, what to consider when signing up for a class (don’t, for example, take an 8 a.m. class if you know you’re not a morning person; make sure you understand the requirements of your program; if you don’t have a program yet, stick with gen. ed. requirements). Traditional students invariably want to know whether or not to supplement a semester of face-to-face courses with one or two online courses. Many of my real-life students will admit, “I’m not cut out for online education,” and I’m glad they realize this. (Respect the Luddite.) Too many students, of course, think that online classes will be “easy” — “I can do them whenever, wherever I want” — or that online education will be similar to interacting with people on Facebook, all “poking” and “liking” of things.

Students who have taken online classes — some of them recounting their experiences with a certain post-traumatic Weltschmerz — act as prophets to hesitant converts: you have to be very disciplined and self-reliant, they warn. And it’s true — and isn’t this what online education is, after all, the very reification of the American spirit! — the wild west, the e-frontier, where self-rugged individuals go forth to educate themselves in what is still a relatively untamed www-dot-terrain (dot-edu).

The problem with retention in online classes is that too many times, students have unrealistic expectations about what online classes will be like (think “networking” experience). And by the time they realize the course isn’t a good fit them, it’s too late to make a change. I insist that my online students take an online readiness quiz (similar to this one). I realize that, if students do realize in the first week that an online class does not suit their individual learning style, it’s almost too late already.

[Standing on soap box.] It is unconscionable for us to allow students to self-advise (an oxymoron, as my mom often says) and register for online classes without having a realistic understanding of both themselves and the nature of online education. Anyone who advises college students should be required to audit an online class, at the very least. Colleges should be required to have all potential online students attend training and informational sessions before registration. Would you buy a car without test-driving it first? [End diatribe.]

My online composition classes become, in essence, writers boot camps. Because of the nature of our interaction with each other online (almost all of it through written discussion posts and e-mail, in addition to the papers still), students are reading and writing three times as much as my traditional composition students are. Those who are successful (and the retention rate in my online classes is usually around 75 percent) have really gotten a workout (and, I hope they feel, their money’s worth). For students who are currently in one of my online classes, I set up an “Unofficial Advisement” discussion topic for them to suggest classes to one another (no disparagement of individual courses or professors is allowed). Recently, when one girl posted the question, “What does everyone think about taking a math course online?”, the thread erupted into a contest of who was the worst at math, after my comment that I know I would not be a good candidate to take a math class online, because — well, as the kitschy tee-shirt reads, “English Major: You Do the Math.”

Finally, in defense of Facebook, I do advertise what courses I will be teaching next semester on my Facebook wall, allowing for former students to decide if they would like to register for another one of my classes. (Some students wait for me to teach a specific course online; some of them waited three semesters, including a summer, before I was scheduled to teach Composition II online this fall, and then all raced to sign up.) Facebook is a helpful advisement tool when students are no longer under one’s official tutelage. Because as an adjunct I have no IRL office where students can informally stop by to ask for advice during registration season, Facebook has become an essential component to maintaining contact with former online and traditional students during this most hectic and important time of year.

About the Teacher in Pajamas: Rich Russell earned associate degrees in liberal arts and general studies from Atlantic Cape, a bachelor’s in English and creative writing from New York University, a master’s in secondary education from New School University and a master’s in English literature from University College at the University of London. Russell has been an adjunct instructor at Atlantic Cape since 2007 and served as co-advisor of Atlantic Cape’s student-run literary magazine, Rewrites.

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