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Q&A: Overcoming Student Challenges in Online Learning 



There were some bumps when the National Math and Science Initiative teamed up with rural North Dakota schools to introduce online-only Advanced Placement® courses in 2018. Collaboration and perseverance helped uncover the root causes and students exceled. 
Toni Schneider, Gregg Naranjo and Jim Smithwick have been at the center of NMSI’s work to expand access and opportunities for students in rural America and in urban areas where schools struggle to hire and keep enough highly qualified AP® teachers. They sat down to share experiences. 
Jim: Even though students are constantly online, online learning is new and intimidating for many of them. We definitely saw anxiety with some students and that delayed their engagement. 
Gregg: Yeah, students today are mobile and digital native, but they use their devices in very different ways. Learning where to go for assignments, support and other resources can be difficult for new online students.  
Toni: Basic technology also can be a challenge. In a traditional class, students can get help from their teachers when something isn’t working. They can’t talk with an online teacher if they aren’t able to get connected. 
Jim: Yes, and there can be hardware and broadband Internet challenges even before they try to log-in. 
NMSI: So how can schools and teachers help students get past those challenges? 
Toni: One thing is to give students clear guidance and familiar access to teachers or online academic coaches to ask questions as they are getting started. That might be a mobile messaging system like Remind, Google Classroom or whatever students are accustomed to using.  
Gregg: There also has to be a lot of open discussion to find work arounds for issues such as hardware and Internet access. These are tough issues, but they can be solved with creativity and community engagement. 
Jim: We also found that students working in the same space – even if they are in different courses – makes a big difference. How that looks at a time that we are practicing social distancing will be different, but students being able and encouraged to stay in touch is critical. 
Gregg: Students also need time to adjust to online learning. The way they submit work, take advantage of discussion boards, collaborate with peers and interact with teachers and academic coaches is all different. It takes consistency and proper guidance to overcome these types of challenges. 
Toni: Another thing is scheduling time. Many students initially struggled with finding time in their busy schedules to participate in online learning. We encouraged schools to create a set time in students' schedules dedicated to their online courses, but some students still struggled to find additional time. 
Jim: We also found that students need to be prompted to advocate for themselves. Some students struggled, initially, reaching out to the supports that are in place. Help is absolutely available, but students have to be proactive. 
NMSI: Thanks to all of you for sharing these insights. 
Toni Schneider is senior manager for school cultivation and partnerships. Gregg Naranjo is manager for science program design. Jim Smithwick is a program manager who works directly with NMSI program schools in Idaho, New Mexico, Nebraska and North Dakota.