In the United States, K-12 online course enrollments have grown dramatically in the past 20 years. Although online courses provide students access to flexible learning options that are unavailable in their brick-and-mortar school, the flexibility inherent in online learning also makes it difficult for students to complete their courses. In an attempt to better support their students and reduce online course attrition rates, some brick-and-mortar schools provide their online students with an on-site mentor who helps to facilitate student learning. In fact, Michigan brick-and-mortar schools are required by legislation to provide their students who are enrolled in an online course with an on-site mentor. However, little is known about how students perceive the support provided by their on-site mentor and online teacher. For this report we conducted eight focus groups with 51 students and asked students in the focus groups to share their perceptions and experiences regarding their online teachers’ and on-site mentors’ efforts and interactions with them.
In this report, we focus on findings related to on-site mentors’ and online teachers’ facilitation efforts that required interpersonal and management skills: (1) facilitating interactions, (2) developing caring relationships, (3) motivating students to more fully engage in learning activities, and (4) organizing and managing student learning. In the accompanying report, Helping Online Students Be Successful: Student Perceptions of Online Teacher and On-site Mentor Instructional Support (embed link to report), we share and discuss student perceptions related to the instructional responsibilities that required knowledge of the online program and course content: (1) advising students regarding course enrollments, (2) orienting students to online learning procedures and expectations, and (3) instructing students regarding the course content.
What We Already Know About This Topic
- Online course attrition rates tend to be higher than those in face-to-face courses.
- Online students are more likely to succeed in their online courses when they are supported by both an online teacher and an on-site mentor.
- The types and levels of support that students receive can vary across online teachers and on-site mentors.
- Little is known about how students perceive online teachers’ and on-site mentors’ efforts.
What This Report Adds
- While students almost universally found their on-site mentor to be responsive, friendly, and easy to talk to, students expressed a wide range of emotions and experiences regarding their interactions with online teachers, and most students found at least some of their communication with online teachers frustrating.
- Students found that they were able to form stronger relationships with their on-site mentor than their online teacher. Students also commonly stated that they believed it was less important to form relationships with their online teachers and believed that it was more important to form relationships with the on-site mentor because that relationship would extend beyond the duration of a single course.
- Students found that their on-site mentors closely monitored their progress and commonly met with them to review their performance and set progress goals. While some students also believed that online teachers monitored their progress – possibly even more than face-to-face teachers – others did not believe that their progress was being closely monitored because their online teacher did not contact them when their progress was erratic or lagged far behind the pacing guide.
- Students were appreciative of having an organized space to work that was managed by the on-site mentor.
Implications For Practice And/Or Policy
- Online teachers should communicate expectations to students better and receive professional development on effective communication strategies.
- On-site mentors should recognize the important role that they play in students’ online learning and invest the time to establish caring relationships with students that can extend into future semesters.
- Online teachers should still work to communicate in ways that allow students to see them as “real” people who care about their success inside and outside of the course.
- On-site mentors should closely monitor student progress and meet with students regularly to review their performance and set progress goals.
- Online providers should establish teacher-student communication policies that require online teachers to contact students and students’ on-site mentors when they fall significantly behind the pacing guide.
- Online providers and in-school programs should work to ensure that online teachers and on-site mentors clearly understand their roles and have the skills to fulfill them.
When possible, we highly recommend that schools establish a learning space and schedule for students to work on their online courses and for on-site mentors to fulfill their important and extensive responsibilities.
This report is being published with the report, Helping Online Students Be Successful: Student Perceptions of Online Teacher and On-site Mentor Instructional Support. Both reports start with nearly identical introductions, literature reviews, and method sections. However, the subsequent sections are unique for each report. In the Findings section, we provide a detailed, rich description of student perceptions and experiences with frequent direct quotes from students. In the Discussion and Recommendations section, we provide more concise summaries of the major findings followed by recommendations that are based on those findings.
K-12 online learning has seen tremendous growth over the past two decades. The majority of online enrollments are used to supplement students’ face-to-face courses for a variety of reasons, such as to recover previously failed course credits, access advanced placement or elective courses not offered at their school (especially in rural areas), resolve scheduling conflicts, and maintain a level of consistency in their learning that is not possible in a face-to-face environment due to health or personal safety issues.
Regardless of students’ motivations for enrolling, online courses should provide each student with a challenging learning experience that is within their “regime of competence” (Gee, 2004, p. 19). However, too often online students are asked to perform tasks without the level of support that they require to be successful. These students can become frustrated to the point of giving up. Lowes and Lin (2015) explained that online students “not only need to learn a subject online but need to learn how to learn online” (p. 18). There are three common challenges to learning to learn online.
- High degree of flexibility. Typically, online students are provided more flexibility in when and where they work than what they have previously experienced in their traditional schooling. This flexibility can be especially problematic for adolescent students who tend to lack the metacognitive abilities to recognize and use effective learning strategies or the self-regulation skills to set and meet goals (Kereluik, 2013). Somewhat ironically, the very reason many students enroll in online courses (the need for flexibility) also proves to be a major obstacle to successfully completing the course.
- Online communication. Although students may be accustomed to communicating socially with their friends online, they can feel uncomfortable communicating online with teachers and adults (Hendrex & Degner, 2016). Communicating online for academic purposes also requires students to follow a different set of norms and etiquette (or netiquette) which can prove to be a barrier to interacting and collaborating with peers online. The lack of non-verbal cues in most online communication can also cause students to misinterpret messages from their online teacher and develop a sense of isolation (Murphy & Rodríguez-Manzanares, 2008; Borup, West, Thomas, & Graham, 2014).
- Technological competence. Online learning requires a level of technological competence that face-to-face courses do not. For instance, face-to-face students do not need to be taught how to open the classroom door and walk into their classroom, but online students will likely need instructions for logging in and gaining access to their online course. Hillman, Willis, and Gunawardena (1994) explained that students’ inability to use technology might prohibit them from successfully participating in online learning activities.
These obstacles can appear especially insurmountable when online students lack the necessary support. Some online programs rely heavily on parents to play an active supportive role in their students’ learning. However, parents commonly misunderstand the rigors of online learning – similar to their students – and have other time commitments that may prevent them from providing the level of support that students require (Hasler Waters, Borup, & Menchaca, 2018).
Some supplemental online programs now require that each student be assigned an on-site mentor who works with the student in their brick-and-mortar school. On-site mentors are not meant to replace the online teacher but to enhance and support the work that online teachers are currently doing. On-site mentors’ physical presence also allows them to provide types of support that are difficult for online teachers. More specifically, as the content experts, teachers are primarily charged with providing students with content-related support. Teachers are also responsible for assessing students’ understanding of the course material and their ability to apply their understanding in authentic ways. On-site mentors are primarily charged with developing relationships with students and motivating them to engage fully in learning activities. Mentors are also charged with helping students develop the communication skills, organizational skills, and study skills to effectively learn online. When working with multiple students, mentors can also promote co-presence and collaboration (Harms, Niederhauser, Davis, Roblyer, & Gilbert, 2006). Hannum, Irvin, Lei, and Farmer (2008) summarized that a teacher’s primary responsibility is to teach the content, and mentors’ primary responsibilities are to ensure “everything is working smoothly and order is maintained” (p. 213). Harms et al. (2006) also explained that, in practice, there is “considerable overlap” between online teachers’ and on-site mentors’ facilitating efforts, and on-site facilitators can at times act as teachers and online teachers can act as facilitators.
Previous and Current Research
Unfortunately, little is known regarding how successfully mentors fulfill their responsibilities. In 2017, Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute® (MVLRI®) published a report Helping Online Students Be Successful: Mentor Responsibilities (Borup & Stimson, 2017). In that report, we interviewed 12 on-site mentors and 12 online teachers. The on-site mentors were sampled because they had high online student pass rates, and the online teachers were sampled based on the on-site mentors’ recommendations. Each on-site mentor and online teacher then participated in two interviews. The interviewed teachers unanimously agreed that mentors played a critical role in students’ learning but also found that the quality of mentoring varied greatly across schools. Interestingly, of the 12 sampled mentors, 11 worked with all or most of their students daily in a classroom or lab setting, supporting previous research that has found a structured learning environment has a positive impact on student performance (Roblyer, Davis, Mills, Marchall, & Pape, 2008). It was also found that these successful mentors adapted their efforts based on each student’s individual needs and the time of the semester. More specifically, mentors tended to focus the majority of their efforts on:
- Orienting students to their online courses and establishing learning expectations.
- Supplying students with the required technology and materials.
- Troubleshooting technological issues.
- Building relationships with students.
Mentors explained that by week 3 or 4, things “really settled down” and they could focus on:
- Monitoring students’ progress and levels of engagement.
- Motivating students to more fully engage in learning activities.
- Facilitating instructional support and collaboration.
Toward the end of the semester, mentors again shifted their focus to:
- Monitoring student progress closely and “prodding” students to complete the course.
- Proctoring final exams.
- Recording students’ final grades.
While this research helped to identify the practices of effective mentors, it did not provide insights into how their students perceived these efforts. As the primary stakeholders, students’ perceptions are particularly important in understanding what works. Furthermore, more attention is needed that focuses both on online teacher and on-site facilitator responsibilities. As a result, in this report we conducted eight focus groups with 51 students at three brick-and-mortar schools. More specifically, we asked students in the focus groups to share their perceptions and experiences regarding their online teachers’ and on-site mentors’ efforts and interactions with them.
In this report, we focus findings related to on-site mentor and online teachers’ facilitating efforts: (1) facilitating interactions, (2) developing caring relationships, (3) motivating students to more fully engage in learning activities, and (4) organizing and managing student learning. In the accompanying report, Helping Online Students Be Successful: Student Perceptions of Online Teacher and On-site Mentor Instructional Support, (Borup, & Stimson 2017), we share and discuss student perceptions of responsibilities related to instruction: (1) advising students regarding course enrollments, (2) orienting students to online learning procedures and expectations, and (3) instructing students regarding the course content. By separating the findings, we are able to describe more richly student perceptions on each topic. It is important to note that the topics discussed in this report can lay the foundation for most of the topics discussed in the other report. The accompanying report focuses on responsibilities that require specific knowledge of course content and procedures while this report focuses on more general responsibilities that require an understanding of how to communicate with and motivate others.
Research was conducted in three Michigan brick-and-mortar schools where a sizable number of students were supplementing their face-to-face course work with online courses offered by Michigan Virtual. Michigan Virtual offers a state-run virtual school that enrolled 10,426 students, constituting 22,643 course enrollments during the 2016-17 academic year. However, Michigan Virtual only constituted 10% and 4% of Michigan’s total number of students and course enrollments respectively. While the online course pass rate in Michigan was only 55%, the pass rate for Michigan Virtual School was 81% (Freidhoff, 2018).
Michigan provided an especially interesting context for this research because Section 21f of Michigan Public Act No. 60 (2013) required local schools to provide on-site mentors to their students who are enrolled in online courses. However, Section 21f only stipulated that the on-site mentor “monitors the pupil’s progress” and be “available for assistance to the pupil.” Teachers, on the other hand, were charged with “determining appropriate instructional methods for each pupil, diagnosing learning needs, assessing pupil learning, prescribing intervention strategies and modifying lessons, reporting outcomes, and evaluating the effects of instruction and support strategies” (Michigan Department of Education, 2018-19, 5-O-D-2 & 5-0-D-3). Michigan Virtual teachers were also required to reply to messages and emails with 24 hours (M-F) and grade assignments with 72 hours (M-F) with the exception of English & AP which have 96 hours due to assignment type. Following these directives, on-site mentors and online teachers have great leeway in how they actually work to fulfill their responsibilities. As a result, students can provide important insights into which practices they value most.
Following a previous study where we sampled and interviewed on-site mentors at 12 successful schools (Borup & Stimson, 2017), we sampled three of the 12 schools that had particularly engaged and supportive on-site mentors. We then conducted focus groups with students at each of the schools. Based on our sample, the purpose of this research was not to describe typical students’ typical experiences. Instead, our goal was to learn what was possible, rather than what was typical. For this reason, findings from this research can provide insights but the findings should not be generalized across different contexts.
Mentors took somewhat different approaches in inviting students to participate, but all four chose individuals who they felt would be forthcoming and honest with their feedback and feel comfortable interacting in a focus group. Students first responded to a survey where they indicated which type of support they received and who provided them with that support. Survey results indicated that support most frequently came from students’ on-site mentors (see Appendix A). Following the survey, students participated in focus groups so that they could provide a more rich description of their experiences and perceptions. Each focus group contained four to nine students and lasted 45-60 minutes. Two focus groups were conducted at two of the schools, and four focus groups were conducted at the third for a total of eight focus groups with 51 student participants: one freshman, seven sophomores, 11 juniors, and 32 seniors. Of the 32 seniors, 18 had taken online courses in previous semesters. Focus group recordings were transcribed and comments were coded into as many different categories as possible. Similar categories were then combined to identify the primary themes that were discussed in the focus groups. Pseudonyms were used when referring to specific students. Researchers also met several times throughout the analysis to discuss themes and resolve any disagreements in the coding. During the analysis we found that students tended to be more critical of their online teacher than their on-site mentors. To control for potential bias, the interview transcripts were carefully reviewed following the initial analysis to ensure the findings were consistent with student comments.
Students expressed a wide range of emotions and experiences regarding their interactions with their online teachers. Some students were comfortable contacting their online teachers. In fact, Angela felt that it was comfortable contacting an online teacher because “it really can’t be awkward because it’s not face-to-face.” Selena added, “They’re not physically there so it can’t be socially awkward.” Some students, such as Kami, also found that teachers adequately responded to their needs because “you can always message the instructor and get what you need.” However, students sometimes had to wait longer than they expected to receive online teachers’ responses. Kevin shared, “She’s probably on lunch some of the days because she doesn’t respond as quick as I had hoped she would.” Steven added that the online teacher typically “got back with [him] within 24 hours.” Sophia did not seem to mind having to wait for a response and appreciated the ability to message the online teacher at any time of the day, “The great thing about online is if you’re having problems with an assignment, you can email your teacher and actually go on to the next assignment depending on what course you take.” Overall, students had to learn to “be patient and wait” when communicating with an online teacher.
Students in all eight focus groups described positive and negative aspects of their communication with their instructors. However, the negative comments were nearly double the positive comments. Students’ frustration and dissatisfaction largely stemmed from their feeling that they had to wait too long for a response. While most teachers responded within 24 hours, at times students would have to stop working when questions arose and wait until the next day’s lab time before they could work on the course. Jessica explained, “It’s kind of frustrating because I also can’t skip ahead because it might be something essential that I need to know.” Furthermore, four students shared that teachers “wouldn’t adhere” to the 24-hour response time guideline. For instance, Louis stated, “I think the main problem that you have with [online teachers] is just their response time…I’ve had up to three to four days where they didn’t respond.” Madalyn added that online teachers’ slow response time made her feel she was “just bugging them” so she did not “ask a lot of questions like [she] should.”
Students in six of the eight focus groups stated that they struggled somewhat communicating with teachers via email. Holly explained, “I don’t really like communicating email-wise, and that’s pretty much all you do. It’s something to get used to.” One thing that students had “to get used to” was communicating in a more formal way as Holly shared, “You can’t just shoot [the online teacher] an email, like a one-liner, ‘Hey, how do I do this,’… It’s a lot more formal.” David added that “trying to ask a certain question can get a little tedious.”
While students had mixed perceptions and experiences communicating with their online teacher, students were positive when speaking about their communication with their on-site mentor. Whenever possible, students would turn to the on-site mentor for assistance because they saw it as a much more efficient and comfortable process. Landon shared, “You could just walk in their class, ask them a question, and they’ll have an answer for you.” Furthermore, students believed that their on-site mentors enjoyed communicating with them. Angela explained, “He is so happy to help all the time… He loves helping in any way he can… I will gladly go to him for help.” Unlike emailing the online teacher which could be time-consuming and “tedious,” students found that their interactions with the on-site mentor to be comfortable and natural.
However, when students were not learning in a lab setting, it could prove difficult to communicate with the on-site mentor. Stella had a unique perspective because she was enrolled in two courses. In one she was required to work in a lab, and the other allowed her to work in the library when she was “ahead of pace.” She shared, “I go into the library, but then it’s hard to find [the on-site mentor] whenever I need to; whereas in the lab, he [the mentor] sits right in front of me and I can ask him anything.” Similarly, Katie added, “In the library, I normally have to go and look around the school for him. It’s kind of hard to do.” On-site mentors were even less accessible when students were working from home because students “don’t have [the mentor] obviously at [their] house.”
Not only did students’ on-site mentors effectively facilitate communication with students, students in six of the eight focus groups also described times when their on-site mentor helped to facilitate student-teacher communications. In describing his on-site mentor, Wyatt shared, “He’s very willing to talk with your teacher on your behalf…and so a lot of times he’s communicating with our teacher just as much as we are, I think, if we’re having issues.” Kacee stated that knowing the online teacher and on-site mentor were communicating about her learning was “nice but also weird at the same time.”
There was some indication that teachers were able to form close, positive relationships with these students. Of the focus group participants, perhaps Beth was able to form the closest relationship with an online teacher:
I ask my teacher a lot of questions. I email my teacher all the time, trying to schedule stuff, and then when I have problems with an assignment, or when I submit an assignment she’ll comment on it and be like, “You did really good at this.” She asks a lot of questions too, so she’ll [ask], “Oh, how did you do that?” So we’ll email back and forth just about personal stuff, just getting to know each other, just talking about the assignments. That’s nice. It’s really good to communicate.
Self-disclosure seemed to help these students to see their teacher as “a real person.” For example, Stephanie’s Spanish teacher would say things such as “Hey, I can’t be teaching today because my daughter’s sick” which made Stephanie think “Oh, he is a real person. He has kids.” Kacee added, “My teachers use bitmojis in their announcement boards, so I’m like, ‘Oh, they’re friendly.’” She also enjoyed it when the teacher facilitated social communication by asking students to participate in “a little discussion board where we told each other what we dressed up as for Halloween and what we’re doing for Thanksgiving and Christmas to keep it more social.” Kacee believed that the social interactions actually had academic implications “because it makes it a lot easier if you need help. You can just message one of the other students in the course even if they don’t go to your school.”
However, for every student comment that was positive there were nearly two stating that students’ interactions with their online teacher lacked meaningful social interaction. Beth summarized that online teachers “just don’t put an effort towards that.” For instance, Gina explained, “My online teacher doesn’t really communicate with me unless I get something wrong, and then she says, ‘Oh, you’re missing points here. You can fix it,’ and I fix it.” Similarly, Stella believed that her online teachers “don’t interact with you unless they need to.” The lack of social interaction made it difficult for students to fully trust their online teacher. Rick summarized, “So you can trust them to be fair with grading the work, but not really in relation to other things.” Sandy added that she was less likely to follow the direction of the online teacher because “It’s just a stranger telling me that.” Some students went as far as saying “It feels like you’re talking to a robot.” Tanner added, “They’re robots that help me.”
While students generally did not feel like they were able to develop positive relationships with online teachers, it is also important to note that some students did not feel a need to form those types of relationships. Harper stated that “there isn’t much of a need [to build a relationship] beyond grading what you submit.” In fact, Stella believed it “might be weird” if the online teacher messaged her to say “Hi, how you doing?” Sandy added that she had a teacher who “kept asking us questions about our lives” and would share family photos and give “updates about her life and in the discussion boards sometimes use real life examples.” Sandy found attempts at these types of social communication “kind of weird because you’ve never met them.” Students in one focus group argued that it was more important to form close relationships with their on-site mentor than with the online teacher because they “see [their mentor] at least four out of five days a week” whereas they could “go the entire year without having to email or talk to [their online teacher].” Furthermore, they acknowledged that their relationship with on-site mentors was more important because they saw them throughout their high school years, “whereas every online class has a different teacher.” In reference to her relationship with the online teacher, Sandy asked, “What’s the point of building the relationship? They’re not really going to get to know you that well, and you’re not gonna have them possibly ever again.”
Students shared that they were able to form “way better” relationships with their on-site mentor because they regularly communicated face-to-face. Students also recognized their on-site mentors’ attempts to get to know them personally. Roger said, “[My on-site mentor] walks around all day talking to all different kids about how we’re doing even outside of our class, so he tries to get to know everyone to build trust with them.” Similarly, Sage stated that her communication with her mentor was not “superficial…he’ll actually ask ‘How is your day going?’ and he’ll actually mean it.” Furthermore, Levi found that, “Everyone likes [the mentor] because he just connects to you on a personal level and he doesn’t care who you are, how popular you are, whatever.”
Cynthia added that on-site mentors could recognize non-verbal cues and know when she was “having an off day at school, and they’ll come talk to me. But with online [teachers], they can’t see and so they don’t know that.” Over time, students seemed to find that they formed close caring relationships due to their mentors’ friendly and positive demeanor. For instance, students at one school stated that their on-site mentor was “very, very personal,” “super friendly,” and “one of the nicest faces here.” Another student went as far to say, “I definitely feel like he’s my friend but also my mentor.”
Monitoring and Motivating Student Progress
One area where students shared more about their relationship with or expectations for their online teachers was in providing information specifically related to activity in their courses. Students in five of the focus groups commented on their perception that teachers regularly monitored their progress in the course. John explained, “I feel like they monitor your grades as much as a normal teacher would – they have to. A major part of their job is just grading the work.” Sage added that she knew her teacher was monitoring her progress in the course because she regularly received personalized messages acknowledging her efforts. Similarly, Madalyn recalled that her online teacher would send her “progress reports every couple of weeks” and would email her when her “grades are getting low or anything.”
In contrast to Madalyn’s experience, students in seven of the eight focus groups did not believe that their online teacher monitored their progress because their teachers did not contact or try to motivate them when they had fallen behind. For instance, Raymond was “getting a fairly good grade” and did not receive personalized emails about his progress, indicating that teachers may have focused their efforts on underperforming students. However, Rick admitted that he “just kind of forgot that [he] had the class” and did not hear from his teacher until the middle of the semester. The experience made him ask, “Does [my online teacher] even know that I’m not doing it at that moment?” Similarly, Sharron recalled turning in work after being four weeks behind, “The instructor didn’t care [that I had fallen behind], they just graded everything and were like, ‘good work’ but nothing was mentioned of it, that I even fell that far behind.” Jessica also tended to work in spurts with long gaps of inactivity in between but believed that the online teacher “didn’t really pay attention” to her progress because he never asked her, “Why are you on such a weird schedule?”
In one focus group, Bob stated that he believed that the nature of online courses actually afforded teachers more time than face-to-face teachers to monitor students’ progress and learning. However, Sandy countered, “I feel like they monitor our grades maybe more, but I feel like they care less about what the grade is.” Similarly, Sandy stated, “I don’t really get a lot of motivation from my actual teacher.” Even when online teachers recognized students’ progress (or lack thereof) and sent students motivational messages, their efforts appeared to have little impact on students. Rick found that encouraging statements such as “You’re doing good,” felt “more like a set response than a motivator.” Madalyn added that teachers could be more motivational if they “have better communication skills.”
In contrast to their perceptions of their online teacher, students believed that their on-site mentor closely monitored their progress and effectively motivated them to engage more fully in learning activities. Students shared that the on-site mentor also closely monitored their grades and met with students regularly to discuss their progress. These meetings could take different forms and could be with a group of students or one-on-one and could be scheduled or impromptu. Beth stated, “Every Friday, she looks through grade reports…. Then she goes around the room, comes by you, and says, “Hey, you’re here. You have this percent so you have this and this and this due to get [caught] up.” Adam, who admitted that he was “not responsible enough to check [his progress] for [him]self,” appreciated her “helpful checkups” with his on-site mentor because they helped to “make sure that [he was] up to date.” Bob believed that his mentor “will constantly track your progress” and Cole elaborated, “He’ll just call you up for a minute, ‘So how’s it going? You’re working on your course.’ He always checks in.” Kacee added, “Not to mention, even though you think it’s irritating, he’ll pull you out of other classes to see how you’re doing.”
Students also found that their mentors effectively motivated them to more fully engage in learning activities. In part, this motivation was a result of their relationship with the on-site mentor. Bob shared, “Since he is so invested in our lives, even personal lives,…you respect him in that way. You also want to do your work, just naturally want to do it.” Mentors also used a combination of rewards and punishments to engage students. While a few “really self-motivated” students claimed that their mentor’s efforts were unnecessary, most students valued their mentors’ motivational efforts. For instance, students explained that their mentor would “get on your case” when they were behind but also “gives you incentives.” For instance, Angela shared that if you are caught up in the course “you can leave, you have freedom…but if you’re behind you have to stay back and catch up.”
At times mentors also contacted parents to motivate students. Kacee explained that because online courses used a different platform than the local face-to-face courses, “parents don’t really check on there to see [their students’ grades].” As a result, parents were commonly unaware that students were behind and could “get mad” when the mentor contacted them. Kacee told that she was unaware that her mentor had contacted her parent until she went home and her mom said, “Go do your online [course.]… I know you’re behind…. Do it at the kitchen table.”
Organizing and Managing
One safeguard in place to help ensure online students’ success is their recurring lab time. Lab time is an opportunity for students to work on their assignments and projects while the on-site mentor is close by for assistance. Students in all eight focus groups reported that they believed learning in a lab under the on-site mentor’s supervision was important and often integral to student success. Cynthia explained:
I think it’s important for you to have a set amount of time to work on your class. If you’re not a self-motivated person, then [lab time] is set right there for you. Maybe it’s not perfect for everybody, [but] for me it’s really good [because] I might not have time at home to do it, so then I have time at school.
Stephanie believed “the lab is good because you’re under the eyes of the mentor and your fellow classmates. You just kind of feel the drive to [tell yourself], ‘Oh, I need to be working on it.’ It helps you stay focused on what you need to be getting done.” Raymond reiterated that, “sociologically speaking, seeing other people doing their work makes you want to. It’s just that peer to peer thing…you naturally follow along.”
Roger added that “it’s helpful to be around other students,” which was often echoed by others. According to Selena, “I think [lab time is important] because you’re surrounded by people who are somewhat dedicated to learning [and] being in the environment of having a mentor or a teacher around…it’s quieter [and] eliminates a lot of distractions.” Lab time is “a nice space” and is “very well-respected” in Charles’ recollection. He said, “We usually keep quiet and have everybody learn their own stuff” instead of “distract[ing]” each other, and if there were any of those distractors, their “mentor [would] tell them to be quiet and focus.” Students added that working in a lab setting allowed on-site mentors to closely monitor their behavior because they were “always there.” Katie explained that her on-site mentor would correct off-task behavior, “If you’re sitting in there playing on your phone, then he’ll come up and approach you.”
Among the participants, the general consensus was that lab time provided them with opportunities to complete work that might not be finished at home. Students saw lab time as an important part of their school day. However, a few students who were independently motivated to complete the work believed they would be successful without lab time.
Discussion and Recommendations
The methods used and the relatively few number of student participants prevent these findings from being generalized to all settings. For instance, these mentors were specifically sampled because they were highly successful, and they are not likely representative of the typical mentoring that occurs in brick-and-mortar schools across Michigan or elsewhere. As a result, a more inclusive method of sampling would likely result in different findings. The findings from this research help to show what is possible while also identifying areas for improvement. In that spirit, in this section we will discuss the findings from this research and make recommendations that may help these and other schools ensure that students are receiving the support they need to be successful online.
Finding summary: While students almost universally found their on-site mentor to be responsive, friendly, and easy to talk to, students expressed a wide range of perceptions and experiences regarding their interactions with online teachers. Unlike face-to-face interaction, communicating via email with their online teacher was less familiar and more difficult. The lack of communication cues and the nature of asynchronous communication made it more comfortable for some students to contact their online teachers via email than actually speaking to a teacher face-to-face. Some students also found that their online teachers were responsive enough to their emails even though they had to “be patient and wait” for their teacher’s response. However, most students found at least some of their communication with online teachers frustrating. Students’ frustration stemmed from what they perceived as their online teachers’ long response time, sometimes having to wait over 24 hours for answers to their questions. Some students also believed that their online teacher did not want to communicate with them and must feel that students were “just bugging them.” Lastly, students felt somewhat unsure communicating via email which was viewed as “a lot more formal” mode of communication than how they typically communicated online.
Recommendation: While students’ perceptions were likely influenced by their experiences communicating with their online teacher, it is also likely that their perceptions were influenced by their expectations and needs. As a result, two students could react differently to the same online teacher communication. While Michigan Virtual had a policy that all student inquiries would be responded to within 24 hours, Monday-Friday, four students’ perceptions suggest that not all instructors followed that policy all the time. While these types of negative experiences appeared to be infrequent, they seemed to erode those students’ trust. Understandably, emails can be easily buried in inboxes and not fully attended to by well-intentioned instructors. In fact, this is such a common issue for all email users that Gmail recently added a “nudging” feature that recognizes when a question is being asked in an email and then brings that email back to the top of the inbox when the email has not been responded to after a certain amount of time with a brightly colored “Reply?”. This type of nudging is not yet readily available for non-Gmail accounts; but as these new types of features become common, it may make lost emails less common. For now, online teachers can better communicate expectations by creating automated replies to emails when they are not able to respond. In the messages, teachers can communicate when they will be responding to emails and invite students to email them again if they do not receive a response within that time. Online programs – whether it is an outside provider or offered through the district – may also consider instituting office hours when online teachers are available for more synchronous types of communication. Some teachers may also benefit from professional development focused on practical strategies for efficiently communicating with students. While policies that help to ensure a 24-hour response time are helpful, they appeared to be insufficient for students who were unable to progress without first receiving assistance from their teacher. As a result, we recommend programs explore policies and strategies that help students to receive responses faster. Lastly, online teachers should work to nurture a welcoming online persona recognizing that students may be hesitant or unsure how to email.
Finding summary: Students believed that they were able to form “way better” relationships with their on-site mentor than their online teacher. Students found that they were able to develop these relationships through regular face-to-face communication and their on-site mentor’s attempts to get to know them personally. Students also believed that their on-site mentors welcomed their communication and responded in a friendly manner. One student went as far to say, “I definitely feel like he’s my friend but also my mentor.” In contrast, few students believed that they were able to form relationships with their online teachers. While online teachers’ shared personal information about themselves with students, the majority of students still found that their interactions with teachers were not social enough to form relationships. One student went as far to say, “It feels like you’re talking to a robot.” It is also important to note that students commonly stated that they believed it was less important to form relationships with their online teachers and believed that it was more important to form relationships with the on-site mentor because that relationship would extend beyond the duration of a single course.
Recommendation: On-site mentors should recognize the important role that they play in students’ online learning and invest the time to establish caring student relationships that can extend into future semesters. While students in this research did not feel a high need to develop relationships with online teachers, it is important to remember that the student participants in this research had highly engaged mentors and students with less engaged mentors may feel a greater sense of isolation and be more appreciative of student-teacher relationships. In other words, students may only need to form relationships with one adult, regardless of the role. Because mentors’ level of engagement can vary widely across schools, online teachers should still work to communicate in ways that allow students to see them as “real” people who care about their success inside and outside of the course. Establishing an online social presence can be challenging, and professional development may help online teachers do so effectively. Nevertheless, teachers’ time may be best spent focusing on building relationships with students at brick-and-mortar schools who do not have particularly active mentors. Research examining students’ perceptions at brick-and-mortar schools without an active mentor would provide additional insights.
Monitoring and Motivating
Finding summary: Students found that their on-site mentors closely monitored their progress and commonly met with them to review their performance and set progress goals. When students were not fully engaged in learning activities or were not maintaining adequate progress, mentors employed a combination of rewards and punishments to engage students. While some students also believed that online teachers monitored their progress – possibly even more than face-to-face teachers – others did not believe that their progress was being closely monitored because their online teacher did not contact them when their progress was erratic or they lagged far behind the pacing guide. Furthermore, some students took it as a sign of indifference on the part of the online teacher when they did not proactively contact students to motivate them to engage more fully in learning activities. Sandy explained, “I feel like they monitor our grades maybe more [than face-to-face teachers], but I feel like they care less about what the grade is.” Stella summarized, “I don’t get any words back from instructors. It’s [my on-site mentor] who kicks my butt if I’m behind.”
Recommendation: On-site mentors should closely monitor student progress and meet with students regularly to review their performance and set progress goals. We also recommend that online schools establish teacher-student communication policies that require online teachers to contact students and the student’s on-site mentor when they fall significantly behind the pacing guide. Many programs, like Michigan Virtual’s, only provide students with pacing guidelines – not deadlines. While maintaining flexible pacing is important, by checking in with students, teachers demonstrate that they care about students’ learning and may actually have a stimulating effect on some students.
Organizing and Managing
Finding: Students were appreciative of having an organized space to work that was managed by the on-site mentor. In fact, students found that it played a major factor in their success. Being in the presence of the on-site mentor and peers who were working on course assignments helped students stay focused. When students did get off task, the on-site mentor was there to correct and manage their behavior.
Recommendation: As explained earlier, previous research has found that online students who work in a lab setting are significantly more likely to pass their courses than those who do not (Roblyer, Davis, Mills, Marchall, & Pape, 2008). As a result, we highly recommend that, when possible, schools establish a schedule for and a learning space where students can work on their online courses and where their on-site mentors can fulfill their important and extensive responsibilities. That said, we also recognize that a lab setting is not always desirable for students who have shown themselves to be self-regulated learners or who are taking an online course specifically to make room in their schedule for other face-to-face courses. When students are not learning in a lab environment, on-site mentors should be especially diligent in monitoring their progress and quickly intervening when needed —especially at the start of the semester. However, one goal of online learning is to help students develop self-regulation abilities and learning skills. As the semester progresses and students demonstrate their ability to learn independently, mentors should also reduce their support accordingly to allow students the opportunity to develop important skills. For instance, students may start learning in a lab environment but through strong performance and progress, could earn the ability to have more flexibility in when and where they learned. As a result, lab time may be most important for students who are new to online learning or who have struggled to learn independently.
As online learning continues to expand, it is important that we carefully examine the types of supports that students require. Rose, Smith, Johnson, and Glick (2015) stated, “Rather than ‘Is online learning right for me?’ students [and other stakeholders] should be asked, ‘What support systems do [students] need to be successful in online learning?’” (p. 75). The student focus group participants agreed that their online teacher and on-site mentor each had important support roles. As a result, online teachers and on-site mentors should be provided the time and professional development that will help to ensure that they are able to successfully support students. It is important for online and brick-and-mortar administrators to remember that successful online teachers and on-site mentors are “made not born” (Roblyer, 2006).
Online teachers and on-site mentors both have important instructional and facilitating responsibilities. In this report we focused on on-site mentors and online teachers’ facilitating responsibilities, and the accompanying report (Helping Online Students Be Successful: Student Perceptions of Online Teacher and On-site Mentor Instructional Support) focused on their instructional responsibilities. It is difficult to overemphasize how important it is that online teachers and on-site mentors actively facilitate students’ learning. Roblyer, Freeman, Stabler, and Schneidmiller (2007) stated, “Student ability to handle distance education courses appears to depend more on motivation, self-direction, or the ability to take responsibility for individual learning” (p. 11). These online learning skills and abilities are lacking in many adolescents. As a result, the facilitating support that online teachers and on-site mentors provide to students can make the difference in students passing or failing a course.
In this research, we found that student focus group participants valued and relied heavily on their mentors’ efforts to communicate with them, develop caring relationships, monitor their progress, motivate them to more fully engage in learning activities, and manage their learning environment. In contrast, many students found some online teachers were unresponsive to their inquiries and explained that it was difficult to form relationships with them. Students also felt online teachers did not tend to contact them when their pacing fell behind what was recommended. As a result, students tended to feel isolated from their online teacher, and some saw their online teachers as uncaring. While students in this research found that the facilitating efforts of their on-site mentors could compensate for some of the limitations in their teachers’ efforts, it is important to note that we do not expect that all or even most online students have mentors as engaged in their students’ learning as were the mentors in the three schools that we sampled for this research. Facilitating students’ learning at a distance can be challenging; we recommend that schools explore policies and strategies that help improve the quality of communication that occurs between students and online teachers and create spaces and opportunity for on-site mentors to develop relationships and provide consistent support for online learners.
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