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«The purpose of this qualitative study was to examine how communication preferences, learning preferences, and perceptions about online learning ...»

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however, there were 14 students in the blended Honors world literature course, (OC, 06/06/10). Nevertheless, there was also only one professor, and she did not have the aid of any assistants for either sections. The course with 55 participants was nearly three times as many students as would be placed in a non-lecture course on campus. Due to the novelty of online learning for both the professor and students and the additional questions that may arise from novice users, it is highly recommended that online course size have a limitation just as face-to-face courses do. Limitations in the number of enrolled students may allow professors time to entertain students’ questions promptly and maximize discussion among professors and students. This limitation of student enrollment could, in turn, enhance and maximize the online-learning experience.

Participants often wanted verbal-two way communication among students and the professor. Some students expressed a desire to work with classmates in groups and actually see or lay their eyes on professors and students to pickup nonverbal cues.

Though the ability to accommodate this preference in an online learning environment may not have existed as little as three years ago, it is quite available today. In my observation of the online course, I noticed verbal email and discussion board features as well as multimedia applications like Elluminate which could have honored this preference for students; however, most of the features were listed as disabled by administrators. Because the literature supports how African-American students tend to prefer call and response speech patterns, it is imperative that administrators enable these features and educate professors on its use so that African American students, in particular, who prefer and learn by audio-visual stimuli may optimize their online learning experience.

Finally, administrators need to stay abreast of new technologies and also educate the faculty on their uses. While audiovisual-based tools were available in the class, most of them were disabled from teacher use. If teachers were aware and trained on these tools, they would be in a better position to make use of them in their classes.

Implications for Classroom Practices Because research reveals that African American students prefer speech over written text, professors should try to use as many online tools which allow for speech as possible. Professors could take advantage of voice-enabled email, voice-enabled discussion boards, podcasts, audibly enhanced PowerPoint, and video blogs. Using voiced enhanced tools in the course could maximize learning in the course.

Participants also noted a need to learn from peers either individually or in groups.

This desire for social learning practices was also indicated in the literature as African American students tend to learn best in groups. Professors of African American students are therefore encouraged to have students engage in assignments which would allow students to work collaboratively. It is important to note that while many of the participants discussed their desire to work together, they disliked having one’s grade depend on group efforts. In other words, students like the option of figuring out work as a group without it having to be a group project per se. Professors who teach online courses may accomplish this by forming learning groups, enabling group discussions, and making use of asynchronous online chats.

Many participants also discussed a need for immediate feedback and quick responses to questions. This, too, was noted in the literature as slow responses by instructors were referenced as a disadvantage to online learning. Professors of online courses must recognize that due to the lack of human contact in online courses, quick responses to questions and assignments are vital to students’ success. Professors should answer questions from students within a reasonable time frame as indicated on their syllabus and also return assignments within a reasonable time period so that students may apply feedback to upcoming assignments. In addition, professors may find that forming a virtual question thread, which would allow students to post questions and receive answers visible to all, may help address general concerns and issues more quickly. In addition, an asynchronous or synchronous chat may also help students receive more timely responses to questions.

Though the discussion thread is often the only means of “having class” in many online courses, many participants’ interviews and my observations of the course indicated that they did not take discussions seriously. First of all, most participants failed to participate in all of the discussions. Furthermore, many participants admitted to purposefully posting minimally and found ways to avoid reading other students’ responses. One participant also described discussion threads as busy work where learning did not take place at all. Often discussion threads are conducted via text; however, the research literature and the study’s participants acknowledged that African Americans communication preference is often based on auditory ability. Furthermore, both the research literature and the study’s participants noted how African Americans have a preference for professors to disseminate knowledge. Many participants said that they would like for professors to summarize key information needed to be learned in discussions. They also discussed their preference for study guides. As such, professors may wish to consider articulating learning objectives in each discussion thread. They may also wish to think of other creative ways to “have class” online other than typical discussion threads.

Last but not least, professors should continue to create very detailed syllabi and delineate clear expectations of assignments. Nontraditional online learners need this detailed, definitive document to plan and manage the multitude of demands on their lives.

In addition, it also helps students to meet the expectations of the professor where their assignments are concerned.

Implications for Further Research Based on the analysis and conclusions of this instrumental case study, implications arise for future research study. Because it is not clear whether the findings in this study related solely to the 10 African American participants in the study or related to other nontraditional online participants from other minority groups, I recommend future studies of other ethnic minorities such as Latinos, Asians, and American Indians. Perhaps preferences articulated in this study may apply to other online learners from other ethnic minority groups.

Only one participant in the study was a male. Therefore, many of the perceptions about learning, communicating, and online learning were articulated from an African American female point of view. It would be interesting to hear the voices of more African-American males who participate in online learning courses. Information from this study, as well as future studies that highlight on gender may help to broaden the knowledge about African American male achievement.

It would also be helpful to have a comparable study of an online course at a HBCU where learning and assignments were completed based on audio-visual modes instead of textual modes. Additionally, it would be interesting to see if this mode of teaching and learning would supply them with the kind of interaction and call and response speech patterns the participants mentioned as a preference. Such a study could help to provide a clearer focus on best online teaching practices at HBCUs.

In addition, because the study focused on one HBCU in the southeastern part of the United States, one cannot be sure whether the findings of the study relate to all HBCUS. As a result, future studies concerning learning preferences for students at nontraditional African American students at other HBCUs in diverse parts of the United States should also be conducted. This research may help to corroborate or negate the findings of this study.

Furthermore, one cannot be sure whether the findings about nontraditional African American students attending a southeastern HBCU would relate to nontraditional African American students at PWI. As such, a study focusing on African American learning preferences at PWI should also be conducted.

In addition, nine of the participants in this study were from middle class backgrounds. Only one participant in this study was from an economically-challenged background. In addition, no participants in the study were from upper class backgrounds.

Because there was not enough representation from other socioeconomic classes, a future study focusing on various socioeconomic classes may help to shed more light on learning preferences of African Americans from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

Because of the novelty of online learning, much of the focus on online learners rests with ethnic majority instead of ethnic minority learners in general. More quantitative and qualitative research needs to be completed about African American online learners. As more and more K-12 schools incorporate online learning into their curriculums, it is important that achievement gaps do not widen due to online learning and communication preferences.

Additional research should also focus on equity issues in online learning. As student loans are now controlled by the government instead of the private sector, online schools who often grant more graduate degrees to African Americans than HBCUs are now under continuous scrutiny for issuing the largest amounts of financial aid loans and also having the largest default rates in comparison to brick and mortar schools. As early as 2014, the government may refuse financial aid to students who attend some for-profit online schools. Should this occur, how will this impact nontraditional African American students who attend online for-profit institutions? Who will then serve the needs of these students? Will HBCUs and PWIs have the knowledge and finances to educate African American students according to their learning and communication preferences online?

Or will these African American students continue to experience digital inequality?

–  –  –

Nontraditional African American participants in this study had various preferences to communication and learning and various perceptions about online learning. As a whole, participants indicated a preference for live auditory two-way communication and frequent interaction among students and the professor. When it came to learning, participants preferred various modalities. Though text was often the main form of gaining knowledge in the course, multimedia and constructivist activities were also included. The majority of participants discussed their sense of being overwhelmed by the length and complexity of the reading. As a result, many participants indicated a preference for professors to highlight essential information through study guides and a desire to give and receive help from other students through social and group interaction.

While online learning helped these busy adults complete their college educations while balancing work and family, their preferences for two-way auditory communication and frequent verbal interaction implied that online learning was a means to an end rather than an enriching alternative to traditional classroom instruction. While a few of the participants found the online learning experience adequate or beyond, most of them mentioned a need for more interaction among students and the professor. They also desired the professor to respond to questions and provide feedback to assignments more expeditiously. Therefore, in order to create online courses which appeal to nontraditional African American communication and learning preferences, administrators and professors must create more audio-visual content and assignments, as well as allow students a means by which to learn collaboratively.

–  –  –

AARCO Consulting. (2009). Changing demographics: why nontraditional students should matter to enrollment managers and what they can do to attract them.

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Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2008). Staying the course: Online education in the United States, 2008. Needham, MA: The Sloan Consortium.

All Online Schools: Your Guide to Education and Training. (2006-2009). Financial aid for an online education: Innovative ways to finance your education. Retrieved April 29, 2009, from http://www.allonlineschools.com/online-education-resourcecenter/finance.

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Making the research process more public. Educational Researcher, 31(7), 28-38.

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Chism (Eds.), Teaching for diversity (pp. 19-33). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

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Arnone, M. (2002). Historically black colleges grapple with online education. Chronicle of Higher Education, 58(30), 27-29.

Armstrong, B. (2002). A virtual assessment of historically black colleges and universities. Technical Report: Public Administration Program, Applied Research Projects, Texas State University.

Atkinson, S. (2004). A comparison of pupil learning and achievement in computer aided learning and traditionally taught situations with special reference to cognitive style and gender issues. Educational Psychology, 24(5), 659-679.

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Retrieved from ERIC database.

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