Importance-Online-CoursesThe advances in educational technology over the past few years have been staggering. With online courses, social media, and mobile devices, classrooms today are a far cry from what they were even just a few years ago. The definition of “student” has expanded to include anyone interested in pursuing education for any reason, and “learning” has moved out of the classroom to, well, everywhere. Online and mobile learning allow students to access courses whenever and from wherever. Co-learners can be located in different cities, states, or even countries. Today, we all learn together.

All of this technology has opened up worlds of possibility, but it is important not to forget that on either end of the technology there are people—people creating content and people engaging both with the content and with one another. Even though we may use digital interfaces, personal connections are still essential to learning success.

One of the most important responsibilities an educator at any level has is to recognize when a student is struggling. This can be more difficult to do in an online course, with no assigned class times and often less stringent deadlines than traditional courses. When students can engage with a course so flexibly, it isn’t always easy to tease apart the times someone is truly falling behind from just really busy weeks. Frankly, it can be easy for someone to slip through the cracks.

I have had some experience with this problem, and with how important an instructor’s personal touch can be in solving it.

My education has been varied. I have attended traditional schools and alternative schools. I have taken hybrid courses, massive open online courses, and self-paced courses, and earned formal credentials, digital badges, and certificates of completion. You name it, I’ve tried it.Overall, I’ve been successful at these endeavors. I’m highly motivated and I know how to succeed in an academic environment. I do school well.

At least I always had.

Then earlier this year, I enrolled in a course at a local university. It was a hybrid course: mostly online, with two full-day in-person sessions. An old pro in online learning, I logged in to the course regularly, did the readings and assignments, and was usually among the first to post my reactions and reflections on the discussion board. The assessments were all smaller pieces of a larger project, which I was working on with another student. By about three weeks into the course, we were already two steps ahead of schedule.

And then something happened. Well, nothing specific, just life. I started to take on extra projects at work and had more family and social commitments. The time I had to dedicate to the course became shorter and shorter, and I found myself struggling to finish the readings and participate in the discussions. I imagine this experience isn’t that uncommon among adult learners.

For two weeks, I didn’t login to the class at all for fear that when I did there would be hundreds of unread messages on the discussion boards. My project came to an abrupt halt. I was, simply, overwhelmed. Without telling anyone, I decided to drop out. I had missed the official withdrawal date, so I just stopped engaging with the course entirely. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but at that point it felt like a necessity.

A short while into my unofficial drop-out period, I received a phone call from the instructor. It was a Friday afternoon, around 4:30. We talked for about 30 minutes. By the end, we had made a plan for how I could finish the course, and that weekend, I did. It felt great.

My story is not unusual. More non-traditional learners are entering the ranks of students, and most of them are taking courses online. Pile coursework on top of the responsibilities of jobs, families, and other commitments, and even the most motivated, well-equipped, tech-savvy students are going to stumble occasionally.

Online courses are empowering many people to go to school who for various reasons might not otherwise be able to do so. But they can’t replace great teachers—not only for their ability to identify students who are struggling, but also for their expertise in facilitating meaningful learning and in engaging students in a way no computer can replicate. As educational technologies continue to improve, it’s essential that we not become so enamored with those technologies that we lose site of the important role personal interactions play in education.

Author Bio: Rosemary Brown is a business and market researcher with over 20 years of experience. She has been extensively involved in exploring the impact of technological innovations on business organizations, enterprise culture and organizational processes. Currently, RoseMary is conducting a series of marketing experiments on how web-based tools like ProProfs Knowledge Base Software helps to advance learning and performance. Rosemary has a Masters Degree in Marketing Management and Strategy.