Online Graduate Students: What kind of support do they need?
The online graduate student faces all these challenges – plus a few more.
In graduate study, the dissertation looms large from the outset. It’s a much larger body of work than most new graduate students are used to. And it demands a step up to a new and challenging academic level. These aspects are daunting enough. But the postgraduate experience seems even more formidable when the process must take place in an unfamiliar and potentially alienating online environment.
Postgraduate students can easily feel marooned on an e-learning island, where help is far out of reach. Of course, this is not the case. But how can online graduate advisers help them remember that?
In my experience supervising online graduate students in the Business field, I’ve seen three common problems which needed to be acknowledged and remedied.
1. The online graduate student may find it hard to ask for help.
The postgraduate learner may already hold a position of authority and be a respected professional. The student may be used to directing activities and making final decisions. It can feel unnatural and uncomfortable to admit to needing help or direction. So some online graduates never ask for help.
- Clear orientation information and initial guidance.
A user-friendly reference document that explains the rules and expectations can be a great touchstone. The student can plug the gaps in their understanding of procedure in private.
- Warm and respectful communication – both initially and on an ongoing basis.
This approach can remind online learners that asking for help is not only OK – it’s expected and “normal”. It is completely unreasonable for an online graduate student to know how to get through the process before they even begin.
2. The online graduate student may be distracted for long periods.
Long periods away from a dissertation can be disastrous – leading to loss of interest in the subject, and real dismay at how much energy is involved in restarting the momentum. During such periods, there’s time for self-doubt to creep in.
But the reality is that many online graduate students will inevitably be separated from their dissertations by the sudden demands of work or “Life”.
- Set up a dissertation schedule early on.
Some aspects of the dissertation will be more time-consuming than others. By providing guidance about which sections should be tackled first, and how long they should ideally take, the student can prioritise the trickier parts, and keep moving forward.This plan can be set out in a dynamic scheduling document which can be updated and adjusted as progress continues.
- Regular reminders and encouragement.
Some online graduate students are simply too overwhelmed to heed warnings of impending doom in schedules, diary notes, and wall calendars. This is when a regular email reminder can be helpful.The appropriate tone will depend on how far away from the dissertation the student has drifted. The message might consist of a gentle nudge and request for a progress update, or a more assertive request for a report on the current status. Either way, the student is reminded that there is a schedule to follow and meet.
3. The online graduate student may feel very isolated.
Graduate study is a solitary pursuit at the best of times. But in a face-to-face graduate setting, it’s easier to feel part of a community of students.
In an online environment, feelings of isolation can build up – and online graduate students can begin to doubt their abilities, and develop distaste for their projects.
- Online discussion boards (either via the learning institution or on public forums).
Just as discussion boards can substitute for tutorials and peer support for undergraduates, online forums can help to provide virtual support in graduate study, too. Participating in online discussions is often a part of postgraduate coursework, so this can quickly become a familiar avenue for support and exchange of views.This virtual network can be a viable channel for postgraduate students to talk about their challenges and offer suggestions and support to their peers.
- Positive adviser – student rapport.
A distressed student is more likely to seek support and help from an adviser who is approachable and positive. The goal is to make the online graduate student feel comfortable seeking advice sooner rather than later.If the student knows that the adviser will respond fairly quickly and with actionable advice, they are more likely to stay calm and continue to make effective progress.Online graduate study is a complex business, and these are just a few of the many challenges which face both the adviser and student. I believe an awareness of these potential challenges on both sides can at least bring these potential issues out into the open before they become problematic.