Lost (and Found) in Translation: What Online Students Want

Key Takeaways

  • Institutions offering online learning must translate the traditional classroom space into the online one based on what the students want and need.
  • More than any other goals, students want connections and a sense of community in their online courses.
  • Effectively translating student wants and needs to online learning increases their likelihood of success in their online courses and in pursuing higher education.

Students go online for music, movies, books, friends, and even romantic relationships. They increasingly expect their education to be available online too. Colleges and universities are responding to demand with more courses — often by professors who themselves have never taken an online course.

The most recent Babson "Online Report Card" found strong growth in distance education at public and nonprofit private institutions; both now have about one-quarter of their students taking at least one course online.

How well do schools deliver online courses? How does a traditional classroom setting translate to screens? We asked the students and learned from them.

We looked at the student evaluations of all 80 undergraduate summer courses offered online at American University in Washington, D.C. during summer 2015. We also interviewed 30 graduate and undergraduate students from neighboring universities. We shared our findings on a panel with online student learners at the 2016 Ann Ferren Conference on Teaching and Learning.

Some of the data was predictable.

  • Students take online courses for the flexibility.
  • Reasons for choosing a summer course vary widely, but jobs, internships, travel, and the cost of living on campus can make classroom-based summer coursework difficult.
  • Students prefer to work at their own pace.
  • Students also enjoy responding to questions with more thought and research. In our experience, online classroom discussions often have more depth and breadth for the pause between question and answer.
  • Some students acknowledged difficulty scheduling their work without regular classroom meeting times.

We know that online learning isn't best for every student, but for those who choose this path and for the instructors tasked with the delivery, we must translate the traditional classroom space into the online one based on what the students want and need.

Students expect excellent instruction. We found a very high relationship between highly rated professors, interesting learning activities, and highly rated courses. Students want to use online resources, not just textbooks. Netflix and C-Span, interactive maps and data tables, and e-books are just a few examples. For written assignments seen by all students, they want several possible prompts instead of just one question the first two students answer and the rest of the students repeat. They like to be able to submit some assignments by video instead of text. And they like when the variety of materials, such as online readings, videos with transcripts, assignments, and the instructor's videos and PowerPoint notes, complement each other logically. This may require more frontloading of coursework preparation, but it also creates more interesting ways of assessing student learning.

Students don't know what they don't know. Just like their instructors, students require orientation when transitioning from traditional classrooms to online learning. "Training" begins with their first online post. Instructors might ask a warm-up question much like they would in a traditional classroom, drawing from students' previous — or exploring their nonexistent — online learning experience. We often find that successful online students want to share their tips on time management and how to navigate class platforms. Initial postings that troubleshoot Internet connectivity or how to contact the IT help desk set the stage for success.

Students want some traditional classroom–style features. Many want at least one synchronous video class meeting early in the semester, along with one-on-one virtual "office hours" with the instructor. Students seek instructor feedback on course expectations and submitted work, but they also value quick responses to simple administrative questions like those they might normally ask after class. A communal space works well for students to post assignment clarifications, deadline reminders, or supplemental materials related to course content. The benefit to the entire class is clear. Students also value a short video from the instructor, five to seven minutes long, outlining the subject matter of a given week, how it relates to previous and future topics, what the big takeaways should be, etc. They do not want a 50-minute sage-on-a-stage lecture.

Small class size brings big results. The data also showed that the highest-rated courses had between eight and 10 students. Courses with more than 20 students were rated significantly lower, as were courses with fewer than six students. The first 10 days of an online course are critical, as this is when most students sink or swim. According to the ITC survey, retention in online classes is eight percent lower than in traditional classrooms. Beginning the course with clear expectations, engaging learners immediately, and setting a welcoming tone in the first few days is critical to student success.

Building classroom community matters. Students don't prefer an "independent study" approach; they want to know, communicate with, and learn from their classmates. They like collaborative tools like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn groups for this. But they also want a "virtual hallway" — somewhere they can talk with each other about particular assignments without the instructor present. This sense of community is not easy to build, especially among students who may not already know each other and who don't share time zones. Students know how to use social media, videoconferencing, and blogs socially but not necessarily professionally. Online postings run the same risk of uncertain "tone" that professional e-mails can have. Instructors must distinguish between ungraded community-building activities and individually graded coursework so that students can build their professional online skills.

What do students most want from an online class? Connections. They want to develop relationships with the instructor, classmates, and the material. They want online learning to translate seamlessly from their computer to the lecture hall. In other words, to make it feel "real, like you are in the classroom." That's what instructors want, too.

For More Information

Watch our 2016 Ann Ferren Conference on Teaching and Learning panel presentation featuring American University students Sarah McKinley '19 and Chandler Randol '18.


Jim Quirk is an adjunct professorial lecturer, Department of Government, School of Public Affairs, American University, Washington, D.C. He has taught at Loyola University Maryland and The Catholic University of America, and at the Varna [Bulgaria] University of Economics through the Soros Foundation/Open Society Institute. He has published in scholarly journals on democratization, globalization, and security, and writes for the Foreign Policy Association blog.

Melissa Scholes Young is a professorial lecturer in the College Writing Program, Department of Literature, College of Arts and Sciences, American University. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University–Carbondale and an MA in Education from Stetson University. Her work has been published in Ploughshares, Narrative, Poets & Writers, Huffington Post, Washington Post, and other literary journals. She is a contributing editor with Fiction Writers Review and has been nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes. In 2015 she was named a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow.

© 2016 James Quirk and Melissa Scholes Young. This EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.