Online courses are known for the convenience and flexibility of allowing students to complete their coursework on their own schedule. With that freedom, though, comes a tradeoff. Online college students don’t have to attend a physical class, but they don’t have the opportunity for face-to-face interactions with their instructors and fellow students, either.

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What Happens When Students Lack Social Interaction

Many students find that learning isn’t just an intellectual activity, but a social one – and that explains why a number of students report missing in-person interaction with their instructors, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. They may also miss face-to-face interactions with fellow students. For some students, this lack of social interaction – and the accompanying need to be self-motivated to get their work done – can lead to feelings of isolation. For many students, not having enough interaction with professors and peers is among the biggest challenges of studying online and passing their courses.

You might expect that the lack of socialization would affect online students exclusively. After all, students of traditional college degree programs still meet with their instructors and fellow students face-to-face each week. However, even with this opportunity for interaction, students aren’t necessarily better off socially just because they set foot on a physical college campus. Today’s college freshmen spend less time socializing and more time studying (alone), and that has led to an “all-time low” in students’ emotional health, according to U.S. News & World Reports. Apparently, online college students aren’t missing out on the “college experience,” at least not any more than traditional students are.

Shifting the Social Aspect in Online Courses

The social aspect of learning doesn’t disappear entirely in online college courses. It only changes. For example, online colleges are making courses interactive in a variety of ways, from implementing virtual laboratory projects for science classes to creating animated videos of course material.

Instead of have class discussions out loud in a physical classroom on campus, students engage in virtual discussions within their course’s online learning platform. They may even find these discussions more fulfilling than traditional course discussions. In virtual discussions, each student must contribute something substantial to the conversation – something that may not always happen in traditional classrooms, where participation grades may have more to do with whether the student spoke up than with what he or she contributed.

While instructors may communicate with online students primarily through email and messages on the virtual learning environment, they can also engage students in a more social way. Some create videos explaining course material so that students can still see and hear the lecture. They may even communicate with students in less formal ways, such as through social media.

Students may need to adjust to the different format of an online course. However, with hard work and dedication, they can not only succeed in learning but also find the social interaction they’re looking for – just not in the way they’re used to.