Why Online Students Should Bother With Orientation

Devon Haynie

Jaqui Carlisle, who earned an online bachelor's degree from Champlain College this winter, believes there are various reasons students should complete their online orientations. Top among them?


"In our case, it was like a video," says Carlisle, a North Carolina resident who earned her degree in computer forensics and digital investigations from the Vermont school. "Some students just figure out how to let it run from their desk and they just walk away. But then class starts, and the rest of the class is trying to help them pick up things when they were supposed to be paying attention."

Online orientations may seem like a chore, but they actually have a range of benefits, experts say. Aside from saving students from embarrassment, orientation can give students a sense of what online learning entails -- and maybe even help improve class performance.

[Explore the U.S. News Online Learning Glossary.]

As more online programs pop across the country, schools are increasingly offering online orientation to help students get comfortable with the virtual classroom, says Paul J. Koehnke, dean of the central campus at Central Piedmont Community College. Online orientations are typically short, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. Some colleges require them, while others make them voluntary or don't offer them at all.

In a typical orientation, students learn about how to reach tutors, advisers and other resources. They also learn about their learning management system, the portal they will use to turn in assignments, communicate with peers and access their course materials. Students who take the time to familiarize themselves with the technology they need for their courses have a better chance of not falling behind, says Mika Nash, dean of continuing professional studies at Champlain College.

"Often learning management systems are not as intuitive as you might imagine," she says. "Those opportunities to look around and poke and play, those are critically important."

Some online orientations give students a sense of the time commitment and mindset they will need to excel at online learning, which many believe is actually more challenging than studying at a brick-and-mortar institution.

"A lot of times students will take an online class because they think it would be easier or it's the only option available and they need the class," Koehnke says. "Those are interesting reasons, but not the best reasons for taking an online course."

[Learn how to impress your online instructor.]

Online students tend to have lower completion rates than their on-ground counterparts, and online orientations aim to close that gap, says Amber L. Vaill, an instructional designer with Becker College.

The good news, she says, is that the little research done on online orientation seems to suggest that students who complete the experience have a better chance of success.

In a study Koehnke conducted for his recent dissertation, for example, he found that students who took an online orientation had lower dropout rates and higher grade-point averages than those who didn't complete it.

"Online students face a lot of challenges that are unique to them," says Vaill, who also wrote her dissertation on online orientations. "The biggest benefit of an orientation is that it helps students overcome some of those challenges by getting some of the information they need upfront."

[Listen to time management tips from online students.]

While most orientations are offered to enrolled online students, some are offered before students even register for a course.

Pennsylvania State University--World Campus, for example, also offers a free eight-week-long course for prospective students curious about whether they are prepared for online learning. The course, which students don't earn credit for, asks students to develop an academic and career plan. Students turn in assignments and have access to the learning management system, the library and academic advisers.

"This is for students to decide, 'This is right for me,' or maybe 'No, this isn't right for me right now,'" says J. Richard Brungard, program manager for the World Campus. "That way we don't have students who are racking up debt or using financial aid and not completing their courses."

Gary Rosche, a 44-year-old tax collector from Durham, North Carolina, who is pursuing an online master's degree in public administration from the University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill, encourages students to complete orientation regardless of whether it's required.

"I'd really consider it because I think beforehand I had some misconceptions," says Rosche, who was surprised by how, with the right technology, online learning could feel similar to being in a classroom. "Maybe for people like me who are older and who aren't plugged into every single new thing that comes along, the orientation is a good thing."

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