Strategies for Online Instructors: Understanding the Needs of the Online Learner

This is the first post in a four-part series that presents instructional strategies addressing the unique  needs of online students. In this post I’ll present a model that outlines three distinct learning phases inherent to an online course and how instructors can support the learner through each.

Cognitive overload. There is no question that online learners suffer from cognitive overload at the start of an online course. Many learners struggle, are ill-equipped to handle the volume of information inherent to an online course. Frequently, students lack the technical skills needed to navigate through the course itself. In a traditional setting the process of assimilating information is different – course material is often distributed throughout the course, the syllabus reviewed, quite often the instructor further clarifies course requirements at various intervals throughout the course. Not so for an online course. Course information is abundant, often delivered all at once. Students can feel as if they are drowning in information and not sure where to begin. I’ve been there.

In the virtual environment a unique skill set is required, quite different than what is needed within a face-to-face (F2F) setting. A high level of motivation is required for online learning, as are time management, organization and self-directed learning skills. Granted, these skills are needed for a F2F class, though at a much higher level in the online course.

Why a Framework of Support is Needed
Students learning online need a different level and type of support. Often there is considerable guidance for first-year students in a F2F setting – yet not for online students.  Research suggests that learners of distance education classes are at a higher risk for dropping out,  performing poorly, or not completing the course. There has been much discussion in higher education circles lately about high drop out rates within online course, yet few resources exist to explain the process of learning in an online environment. A framework to guide instructors is needed.

 Online Learner Support Framework
The framework presented in this post, the Online Learner Support model is based upon  the PARS model, Providing Academic and Relational Support adapted by Stephen D. Lowe (2005). The model is both descriptive and prescriptive, providing insight for the educator into the needs of learners (part I) by analyzing their level of dependence over the duration of the course in three distinct phases. Building on part I, part II is prescriptive in nature outlining specific strategies for instructors and institutions to support online learners. These two parts, when layered together create a practical framework for the instructor and institution.

Part One: Self-directed Learning Phases of Learner
This part of the model is informative as it illustrates the learners inclination to drive the learning process through the phases within a course based upon their level of dependency. Moving through the weeks of a course, the student ideally will learn how-to-learn and become less dependent. Within phase one when the student is dependent, he or she requires direction, instructional and/or institutional support to learn how to navigate and manage the course. I’ll discuss this concept further in my next post, and will elaborate on how instructors can apply this information.

Part Two: Levels of Instructor Support (academic and relational) for Learner
This part outlines specific types of support required to help the virtual student throughout the three phases. Support is divided into two categories: first is relational support. Relational support takes the form of personal interaction and social connection which creates a foundation for student motivation and engagement. The second category is academic and technical support. This level of support requires competent and responsive faculty, technical support, quality materials, tutorial assistance, knowledgeable support staff and orientation to the learning platform.

Next in the Series
The model is dynamic and relevant. Over the next 3 posts I will review each of the three phases in-depth, outlining characteristics of students and providing specific strategies course instructors and institutions can employ to support online students effectively. Check back later this week for my next post titled, Strategies for Online Instruction: How-to support and guide the Dependent Learner.

Smith, K.T. (2006). Early Attrition among First Time e-Learners: A Review of Factors that Contribute to Drop-out, Withdrawal and Non-completion Rates of  Adult Learners undertaking eLearning Programmes. JOLT.

Lowe, S. D. (2005). Responding to Learner Needs in Distance Education: Providing Academic and Relational Support (PARS). PDF

11 thoughts on “Strategies for Online Instructors: Understanding the Needs of the Online Learner

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