Online learning is extremely convenient. It allows me and my students to work from home in pretty much any location in the country; it gives students the opportunity to work with educators who live in other areas and allows adult students to maintain full-time employment while studying. However, many students are feeling the social isolation that comes with this type of learning environment. There are several ways to combat loneliness and still be part of an online academic community.
1. Connect with other online students
Online classrooms might have dozens of students participating at any given time. The instructors will often hand out several small assignments in order to help students connect with each other in the digital world. I strongly encourage my tutoring students not only to complete these assignments but to take it one step further and organize a virtual study group. Many students find it difficult to study entirely on their own and would love to meet with their virtual classmates. When I was taking online courses 15 years ago, we weren’t able to connect in the same way — online education was mostly one-way non-interactive communication. But now, with technology such as Skype and Google Hangouts, students can easily share documents or even their screen with students in another county or state.
2. Maintain a personal social life
Students who have chosen an online education, because they are working adults or home schooled at the high-school level, spend much of their free time tackling online assignments. It’s really important to do well in the class and have plenty of time to study, but it’s also essential to maintain a personal social life of some kind — get out of the home and into the real world for a little bit each week. In fact, I notice my students stress levels can get very high unless they arrange time to socialize. It’s something I try to combat early on in the term.
3. Take any opportunity to interact with the educator
Most online educators offer students at least some real-time interaction, through a Skype meeting, email or instant chat. I work with students as a supplemental educator, so they can chat with me anytime by appointment, but I still encourage them to interact with their primary instructor as much as possible so they can fully engage in the material and ask questions about difficult concepts or discuss something they find particularly interesting. Most instructors are thrilled when a student makes the extra effort to reach out with questions and are willing to take the time to discuss important aspects of an assignment.
4. Add in field trips and practical activities to your curriculum
Online curricula are designed to make it easy and convenient for students to learn at home without having to be in any place at a particular time. However, this doesn’t mean students should be limited by the curriculum. A syllabus provides a minimum amount of assignments and information about the coursework. If a student is studying art history, for example, I encourage visiting a local art museum to get an idea of what the textbook is really describing. If a student is studying business I encourage seeking out a mentor or setting up an informational interview with someone at a local corporation. A digital learning setting should not be a limitation for students. There’s often a lot more they can add into the curriculum themselves by exploring the world around them and interacting with other people.
5. Participate in a blended learning environment
Some of my students are limited to digital learning because they live in a rural area, while others simply choose it as a convenience. However, if a 100% online course just isn’t working for a student, I encourage a blended learning opportunity. In this scenario, a student attends two or three lectures per term, but completes most coursework online. Blended learning opportunities used to be limited to university-level education, but are becoming more common at the high school level. They can work well for students who live near a school or university, but need to work full-time, or those who have other life obligations that keep them from being at school on a regular basis. Many home school programs are also now offering students this option so they can work at their own pace but still have face-to-face access to a teacher either regularly or by appointment. In this situation, the student might live an hour or more from the school but is willing to commute once a week or so.