One of the biggest challenges of online study is students’ need for real-time help. This is one of the things that education, right now, does not do very well–message boards, blogs, and even OpenStudy have a handle on asynchronous learning, but when a student needs to have their question answered right that moment because he or she needs to know that concept for sure before learning anything else, the internet has no convenient solution. At a k-12 level, students often use Facebook chat for this kind of study help (“How did you get the answer to question 3?”), but it’s limited by being unreliable, tied in to another service, and purely one-on-one. For distance learning university students, who may not want to share their personal lives with classmates or who may be looking outside their classmates completely–or who just want group chat–Facebook chat is a less-than-appealing option. So, what’s a college student to do for real-time help?
College libraries may have an answer. To increase usage by computer-dependent students, many university libraries have started using Meebo clients and other IM services on their websites to provide a host of real-time services–book renewal, research help, or answers to questions about school events. Some forward-thinking libraries even use services like Text a Librarian so that students can, well, text a librarian for help. Since so much of the information that librarians deal with is now digitized–online journals and the like–students increasingly don’t need the library to find resources, but do need the research expertise of the librarian; instant message systems allow for that real-time help without tying students to a brick-and-mortar building.
These services could just as easily be applied to study sessions. If a school picks a TA to help with the class, he or she can man a chat client for a certain number of hours each week. If a school’s committed to 24-hour accessibility, they can even hire several TA’s in different time zones; if not, students can vote on when they most want study help and those can be the TA’s business hours (no need for it to be 9-5). Schools could even use Meebo rooms for unmonitored group chat; the chat rooms can be embedded on web pages, so it would be easy to stick the chat room on whatever page students are used to going to for their online class. When the TA is off duty, students can still pop into the group room and see if their classmates were around to help. Web-embedded chat allows for real-time learning without the requirement of close monitoring from professors.
One-on-one texting services are probably not the way to go for study group questions; however, group texting clients like GroupMe have huge potential to be really useful for text-based study groups. The free service (US-only for the time being) allows for group texting and conference calls of up-to 25 people. No smart phones are required. Once a person is added to a group, they’re sent a text from the group number. Any time a member of the group texts that number, everyone in the group receives a text; if someone calls that number every phone rings into a conference call. If a person doesn’t want to receive group messages, they can either mute the group or remove themselves from it entirely. For short questions and answers, GroupMe is a great way for professors to encourage student-managed, real-time learning, and students will appreciate the ease-of-use and easy access to their peers–because of the single number, there’s no need for students to find out each other’s contact information once the professor or TA sets up the GroupMe group.
Real-time Q&A sessions can be difficult for online learning, but they’re certainly not impossible. Web-savvy professors can lower their work load and increase student performance by taking advantage of the tools available to improve the online studying experience–an excellent situation for everyone involved.