A few days ago I received this email from a student in my online psychology course:
I've talked about the importance of regular and substantive interaction from an accreditation perspective, but the first line in this email made me think about it from a student success perspective. The student saying the feedback I gave her made her less lonely struck a chord with me.
This is a good student. She is doing very well in the course, gets her work done on time, and, most importantly, asks questions of me when she is confused by something. She has taken only one other online course, and that one is entirely autograded. She mentioned in one of her critical thinking assignments that when she didn't understand something in that course, she searched for videos on the Internet she could watch, which she used to get additional help when she didn't understand something.
But she didn't ask for help from her professor.
When an online course lacks that regular and substantive student-professor interaction, students are less likely to ask questions of the professor, because they don't have any regular contact with that instructor. After an initial welcome message, they are often on their own to try to figure out any problems they may have. For a student like this one, that is not a problem, because she is inherently a "good" student - she persists in the face of an obstacle in order to over come it.
But what if she wasn't a "good" student? What if, in the face of an obstacle, she gave up if she didn't find a quick answer? At the community college level, this tends to be the rule, not the exception. Online students at community college tend to earn lower grades in online courses and fail them at a higher rate than traditional classroom courses. However, online students at community colleges are more likely to complete their degree if they take online courses, because of the convenience of online courses. Online students tend to be older, with family and job obligations that prevent them from taking traditional classroom courses, but they are also the ones who may be most harmed by the lack of interaction in online courses. If they lack that regular and substantive interaction with a professor, they may not feel the connection they need in order to ask the questions they need to have answered in order to succeed.
Autograded assignments will not provide that connection. You need to include regular assignments (not just a few over the course of the semester) which you grade and provide feedback to every week. Even if the student does well on an assignment, give them an "attaboy/girl" to make sure they know you are reading their work. That's what the comments this student mentions were about. In one, she talked about being classically conditioned to run to answer the phone when she was a teenager, and I mentioned running for the Good Humor ice cream truck when that bell rang. For her blog on problem solving, she found an article about the problem solving abilities of squirrels in finding food, to which I commented "Now I'm going to look at squirrels and wonder if they are plotting against me." Silly little comments that take just a minute or two to make, but they increase the likelihood that when she has a problem, she will ask for help.
Another student I have is also an adult student, who had some academic difficulty the prior semester. She had a slow start to the course, but I kept emailing her to tell her what work she was missing, and to give her specific help on how to get everything done. It turns out she was having technical difficulties with the publisher's web site, but I kept encouraging her to get caught up on everything else, while she worked that out. Because I allow students to submit work late without penalty (giving them bonuses for getting work done on time), she got all caught up, and now has a B in the course. Without that constant interaction early in the semester, she would not be as successful in the course as she currently is. She may have given up completely.
My experience and the research shows that early, frequent interaction between students and professors improves student success. Just a little time investment on your part - the time you would spend in the classroom for a traditional course - can make the difference to those students who might otherwise give up if they think they are interacting only with a computer.