3 Challenges for Online Education and How to Overcome Them

Over the last few weeks, instructors and students have been adjusting to a fall semester that looks different from any they have experienced before. Even if every course isn’t fully online, remote learning technology has become a necessary part of teaching and learning, and it’s likely that this will continue to be the case for semesters to come.


Today, we’ll draw on material from two recent webinars—The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “What Students Wish Their Professors Knew” and Industry Dive/BibliU’s “Next Steps for Digital Course Materials: Cost & Workflow Optimization—to discuss three of the biggest challenges for online education moving forward, and how instructors and institutions can meet those challenges and continue to provide engaging content and mentorship for their students. We’ll also talk about how instructors can use Visible Body’s Courseware platform to implement these solutions.


1. Routine and organization

Vikki S. Katz, Associate Professor of Communications at Rutgers and one of the panelists from The Chronicle of Higher Education’s webinar, highlights that the everyday routines of in-class and online learning are very different. In the classroom or lab, students have a syllabus and regularly scheduled in-person lectures and activities. Regardless of the subject area, students generally know what the structure of a course should look like. Online, the student experience is more self-directed, and with the abrupt switch to remote education, many instructors have designed their online courses in different ways. 

For most instructors and students, the switch to remote education disrupted the routines they were used to. In a national survey of undergraduates from more than 19 universities, many students reported that they had trouble figuring out what was expected of them, and 70% of students said they had difficulty keeping track of deadlines.

Therefore, moving forward, Prof. Katz advises instructors to build clear structure into their online courses to give students a sense of routine that will help them feel confident and supported. This means that instructors need to help students understand what they need to do, when they need to do it, and how they can get in contact with faculty.

The tools in Courseware make it easy for students to keep track of when their assignments are due. When instructors publish an assignment, they are prompted to specify its publication date and its due date—due dates for published assignments automatically become visible to students on the Calendar. Students (and instructors) can also use the calendar’s search box to look for particular assignments. 

Another way that instructors can use Courseware to make assignment details clear to students is to send an email notification to students when a new assignment is published. When creating a new assignment, instructors can send an email notification by putting a check in the “Send Email Notification” box before hitting the “Publish” button, as shown in the image below. 


Students can track their progress in a Courseware course by checking their graded quiz results in the Gradebook.

How students can check their grades in the Courseware Gradebook.

Lastly, the students in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s webinar mentioned that they wished the online learning tools used across courses were more consistent. Prof. Katz seconded this idea: the easier it is for students to access what they need and the less technological hoops they have to jump through, the more they can focus on the content itself. 

On that note, we are pleased to announce that Courseware now has Single Sign-on (SSO) with Canvas! This means that students will be able to access Courseware from the navigation bar of the Canvas LMS.

How to use SSO for Courseware in Canvas.


2. Keeping students engaged with the material and connected to their classmates and instructors

Many of the webinars we’ve watched and articles we’ve read have focused on “humanizing” online learning, and The Chronicle of Higher Education added even more to this discourse by discussing group projects and office hours from both student and instructor perspectives.

The heart of the panelists’ discussion was that student-to-student and student-to-instructor connections are central to the effectiveness of online learning. However, fostering these relationships requires slightly different strategies for online courses than for in-person ones. 

Whereas semester-long group projects might be great while students are on campus, the student panelists in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s webinar said they are not nearly as effective in online courses and cause frustration more than they help learning. It’s still important for students to work in groups, but the panelists suggested shorter-term teamwork activities, such as synchronous discussion or activity groups. A flipped classroom, in which students present content to their classmates, would also be a good way to encourage interaction within the class. 

As we’ve mentioned in several other blog posts, students can present content during synchronous class sessions using the browser-based versions of the Visible Body apps in Courseware and the screen share features in Zoom, Blackboard Ultra/Collaborate, Screencast-o-matic, or other web conferencing platforms. In Human Anatomy Atlas, students can use the 3D Draw and Tags features to add detail and enhance their presentations.

A quick overview of how to use the 3D Draw feature in Human Anatomy Atlas.

Both the students and the instructors on the panel stressed that office hours are more important than ever in a digital environment. In keeping with the advice about routines and clear scheduling from the previous section, there are a few things professors can do to make it easier for students to attend office hours.

Laura L. Carruth, Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Associate Professor in the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State University, advised professors to take their students’ own schedules into account when planning out when their office hours will be. Sending out a survey with a couple of choices for days and times and having students indicate which ones work best for them is one way to accomplish this. 

Professor Katz also suggested that instructors can break down their office hours into time blocks and have students sign up for those particular slots. A calendar, a Google doc, or a spreadsheet would be a good way to keep track of these.


3. Cost and accessibility of course materials

The switch to online learning and the financial hardships that COVID-19 has caused many students have highlighted the need for quality, easily accessible resources. Now more than ever, affordable course materials are needed for students and institutions.

Even before the pandemic, print materials such as traditional textbooks were being replaced by digital alternatives. Overall, when compared to their digital counterparts, physical textbooks are slower to produce and update, and are more expensive for students.

The primary focus of the Cost & Workflow Optimization webinar by Industry Dive was to explore the ways in which institutions can grow their digital learning programs as efficiently as possible while providing maximum benefit to students. According to the speakers, digital course materials are the way to go with online courses. In the webinar, one of the co-founders of BibliU, an online textbook and digital content platform, detailed how digital resources offer the following advantages: 

  1. Digital materials are cheaper and easier for students to access. 
  2. Since there is no physical component students need to acquire, digital resources, such as e-textbooks, are easier for institutions to distribute through their online learning platform of choice.
  3. Digital materials make course content easier to personalize. 
  4. Digital resources provide a wider range of media options, such as videos, journal articles, and quizzes.
  5. Digital resources are more interactive, which helps students stay engaged.

As a digital platform that provides a multitude of resources and allows for instructors to create truly custom courses, Courseware exemplifies these characteristics. Instructors can use a wide range of assets from Visible Body’s apps—including text, 3D models, animations, illustrations, virtual tours, multiple choice quizzes, short answer quizzes, and dissection quizzes—to build interactive assignments. Instructors can also make assignments using their own links and files. The content in Visible Body Courseware can either replace or augment a traditional textbook or lab manual, and Visible Body even offers premade correlations with the most popular A&P textbooks and lab manuals. When it comes to price, Courseware is much cheaper than a traditional textbook; if students pay for their subscription, it only costs $49.99 for two full years of access. 

The OpenStax online textbooks are another good example of a digital resource that meets the criteria above. The OpenStax books are free to use and can be read online or downloaded as PDFs. With an account, users can highlight and take notes in the online text. If you’re interested in using OpenStax for an anatomy and physiology or biology course, you can check out our premade correlations here

For more online education news and tips, check out these related Visible Body blog posts: 

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