Magazine article Distance Learning

Easing Students' Transition to Online Graduate Education

Magazine article Distance Learning

Easing Students' Transition to Online Graduate Education

Article excerpt

Schools, organizations, or institutions that offer online education share the same dilemma: how to best orient new students to the online learning experience. Research supports the need for a comprehensive orientation for online learners, including an introduction to the technology, ways to access and use learning resources, and strategies for successful learning (Mueller & Billings, 2000). Most institutions achieving high retention rates among online learners require an orientation that includes technical and academic information about using the learning man- agement system, making effective discussion posts, accessing student services, figuring out time management, setting goals, and participating in community activities (Moore & Fetzner, 2009).

The George Washington University School of Nursing has been offering online education to graduate nursing students since 1997, with full degree programs offered online since 2005. While we have always offered a technology orientation to new students, over time we have recognized the need for a more robust approach to address common academic difficulties faced by the experienced, nontraditional students we serve. Many of our students return to school after an extended period in nursing practice. Ensuring that these students have the supports they need to succeed in their online studies poses a challenge shared by many universities offering similar online programs. For example, a study by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (2006) found that many adult learners are underprepared for college level work. This is consistent with observations made by our faculty that incoming students often lack essential, basic academic competencies such as writing and research knowledge. In addition, to succeed in online studies, many students need additional assistance in digital literacy and basic study skills, as well as instruction about how to learn with technology. To compound the challenge, while traditional on-campus students have access to academic support services such as the writing center, these resources are limited and often difficult for online students to utilize during traditional working hours, when these centers are typically open.

To address these challenges and move beyond our traditional technology-focused orientation, the School of Nursing developed five self-directed online learning modules that comprise The Graduate School Bootcamp. The interactive multimedia modules target specific learning skills, the same skills in which our students had demonstrated weakness. The modules are designed to help incoming students with refresher education on learning strategies and time management, academic writing, managing technology challenges, basic research concepts, and using library resources. The concept of a "bootcamp" seemed to fit the need for students to come up to speed in these different areas in a relatively short period of time. The bootcamp metaphor provided the foundation for a fun, fitness-based theme, with each module related to a different athletic activity. Figure 1 is a screenshot of a sample module menu.

The first module, Warming Up to Graduate School, provides a "warm up" to the expectations of graduate study. The module opens with a learning strategies selfassessment that includes customized feedback based on students' responses. It also addresses stress management, time management, study skills, and preparation for online discussions. The second module, Cycling for Sources & Success, shows learners how to conduct literature searches and use online library resources. The third module, Tech-Sawy: Tools for the Trek, helps learners use technology and digital media effectively for successful online learning. The fourth module, The Write Track, reviews the distinctive characteristics of academic writing and describes strategies for success in completing writing assignments. The fifth module, Diving into Research, presents basic research concepts students should have learned in their previous programs, such as research terminology, formulation of research questions and hypotheses, research design and methodologies, threats to validity, and data analysis. …

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