The advantages of online learning are also its weaknesses. Here’s where consultants help.


The last time I taught in a college physics classroom was in 1999 when my adult students shook off the weariness of a day’s work and caring for their children to pay attention to their fellow students. class and to me for three hours.

A lot has changed since then, as the world of online learning built for working adults has grown. As an online college consultant, I know adults are drawn to the flexibility of an asynchronous online learning environment and the pace of accelerated semesters. This pattern has become more common in the past year due to the pandemic and as colleges look for different ways to reach their students while teaching remotely.

While asynchronous online learning works well for many students, it is not without its challenges and these may be the same attributes that make it attractive – this is the paradox of online learning. Students who are balancing more work responsibilities, older children or parents are generally drawn to the virtue of online courses anytime / anywhere, but may also need the most help in handling all of these things.

We examine the characteristics of online education and how they enable and limit learning, as well as consider suggestions on how counselors can help students resolve these tensions.

A flexible schedule requires structure

Not having to show up in the same place and time as classmates allows students to schedule their schoolwork based on their life responsibilities. But for some students, that flexibility can easily turn into missed deadlines.

I remember a student who would wait until assignment deadline night to dive into homework. Too often, they ended up having to ask their instructor a question about the assignment, but didn’t have time to get an answer before the deadline expired. As a consultant, I was able to help them develop better habits necessary for success.

Counselors can help students establish healthy work habits by sending helpful tips for meeting deadlines before class starts, such as:

  • Plan Ahead: Get an overview of the course by reading the syllabus. Use a planner to indicate key course deadlines, review it regularly, and implement steps to meet those deadlines.
  • Block out time: Schedule regular time each week for schoolwork and stick to it. Don’t wait for an assignment notification to get started.

Anywhere Access benefits from a dedicated space

Mobile learning management apps allow students to do homework and attend classes anytime, anywhere they have an internet connection. They can check announcements during work breaks or read discussion posts while waiting for a flight at the airport.

While on-the-fly access may work well for some course responsibilities, many assignments require targeted blocks of time to think and write. In my academic coaching work with students whose grades are deteriorating, it is not unusual for me to hear a student describing work on their homework while at work. When I investigate further, the student realizes that his attention has been fractured to the point that he is unable to complete an academic assignment.

A dedicated space can lend itself to learning. If possible, students should find a place that can be dedicated to study and that provides ideal learning conditions. This means removing distractions like mobile devices and unrelated browser windows, and enlisting the help of friends and family to honor their space.

Autonomy can lead to isolation

Some students need to be explicitly encouraged and supported to express themselves in discussion posts and assignments in an online environment. If students are not to speak or be seen, they can slip into feelings of isolation. This can be addressed by defining engagement expectations and developing students’ inquiry skills.

Through the admissions process, online orientation, in conversations with counselors and course faculty, we can help students understand the value of discussion, engagement and knowledge cultivation through collaboration. It is essential to let them know that they have something valuable to say.

But saying it just doesn’t make it easy for students to express themselves; for example, asking questions is a learned skill. Counselors can instruct their students on how to approach an instructor and how to formulate a question that gets what they need.

One particularly rewarding counseling experience occurred when a student, dissatisfied with their grade, asked me, “How do I ask a question to a teacher who doesn’t seem combative?” I helped them formulate their question to their instructor in a way that avoided the defensive “why did you do that?” statements and instead used a problem-solving approach: “I want to understand”.

Slow down to move forward

Online colleges often compete for students by urging rapid completion of the program. Subsequently, students may underestimate the time and effort it takes to get a college education.

One student proposed taking on the maximum credit load for four consecutive quarters, working full-time and as a parent. Staying positive, I praised their ambition, and then we imagined and articulated the reality of their days and weeks with such a program. The student has realized that this program may not be feasible. While they haven’t changed their course right away, they are now aware of the risks and are ready to change their course if the need arises.

If students fail a course, that F and the resulting shame can create setbacks and potentially derail a student’s progress. Counselors are able to suggest to students that they sometimes have to slow down to move forward. This could mean suggesting that you take fewer credits per term. Counselors can also teach students to become aware of their strengths and to develop healthy academic habits and routines. They can offer tools to help students manage their time.

Finally, proactive contact with students goes a long way in letting them know they are not alone. Counselors are there to encourage, guide, educate and direct students to further learning resources. After all, the students who are least likely to ask for help are the ones who need it most. A solid communication plan involves proactive contact with new students and with students who show signs of academic difficulty.

Successfully managing the online learning paradox requires an both / and mindset. It requires human contact: listening, inviting, encouraging and connecting. Admission counselors, academic counselors and coaches, instructors, program directors, and anyone else who interacts with students play a role in managing expectations and providing support. We need to be transparent and let students know that the work will be hard but that they are not alone on their journey.


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