Technology Barriers to Online Degree Program: How to Support Students

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What is this Scroll Bar You Speak Of?

The online student’s email began, “Dear Professor Ballou, when you sent my feedback you cut off part of the message so I couldn’t see my score or the feedback section. Please send it to me again.” I was puzzled. The feedback system I use inserts a table into a message for the student. I wouldn’t know how to cut it off if I needed to. I figured it was a system glitch and resent the information. The student sent me another email indicating that the information was still cut off. This happened a couple more times with my trying to figure out what was happening; I was stumped.

Cracking the Case

As I thought about the situation, a line from Sherlock Holmes occurred to me “…[W]hen you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” I sent the following message to the student. “Hi [Name Withheld], there is a bar on the right side of the screen that has an arrow at the top and bottom of it called the scroll bar. You can use this bar to view the part of the message not displayed on the screen. Let me know if this helps.” A message came back. “Thank you so much. That worked.”

This illustrates the difference between learning online versus learning in a brick and mortar classroom and the importance of solutions for reaching struggling students.

Technical Weakness ≠ Academic Weakness

There are a couple of interesting facts about that interaction and the needed solutions for reaching struggling students such as this one. The student’s assignments were well done for the most part. He wrote clearly and made compelling arguments in his papers. He was clearly intelligent and capable. Unfortunately, he was also computer illiterate. The fact is that people who don’t know how to use technology in this age seem disabled. As a person in a wheelchair, I know a little something about disability; the fact is that being unable to move around effectively on the Internet is perhaps a more limiting handicap than the one I have. The lack of technical savvy is at the root of the problems some students experience in online education; so, instructors should have solutions for reaching struggling students in their online classes.

There are two key recommendations that I have regarding technology assistance for every instructor:

  1. Have a tutorial for any software application that students are expected to use in the class.
  2. Assess the student’s skills early and give them frank feedback about their skill levels.

Tutorials to Overcome Technology Barriers

It may seem beyond the scope of an instructor’s job to create online tutorials, but if the instructor is committed to teaching the concepts of his/her class, it is essential to remove the technological obstacle that faces some students. For instance, in a writing class it is important that students format their work properly, so instructors can read and provide feedback without stumbling through incorrect formatting, bizarre layouts and other visual problems. Therefore a solid tutorial on formatting and layout will go a long way toward keeping the students focused on the subject at hand, instead of worrying about the technology.

Frank Feedback

Instructors – intent on finding solutions for reaching struggling students – should include advice each time a student loses points for something that was invariably a misunderstanding regarding technology. This is not to say that students should not lose points. The fact is that the student signed up for the online program and has the syllabus before the first day, or on the first day, of class. If the student lacks the ability to complete the work, he/she should consider dropping the class or make arrangements to get some help with the software.

Advice for students should be clear and frank. If a student is required to use Microsoft Visio to demonstrate understanding of programming concepts, but their work is a mess on the page, tell them what is wrong and where they should go to learn more about the software, so they don’t continue making the same mistake. There are many resources instructors can find online that will give them the ability to help their students.

Instructors who use these two simple steps can have a lasting impact on a student’s educational career and make a difference in future classes that the instructor teaches. Take some time to consider these sources to recommended to students struggling with technology in your online program.