Strategies for Online Instruction: How-to support the Dependent Learner

This is the second post in a four-part series outlining teaching strategies for online instructors that address the unique needs of online students. This post describes how to meet the needs of the dependent learner.

Welcome weeks are in full swing at college campuses across the country, Join us for the many activities during Welcome Week 2012! Celebrate your first night on campus with free food, laser tag …” – reads an  email message to full-time college students at a well known university. This is typical of welcome week events planned for new [and returning] students. Orientation weeks are key to students’ success – familiarizing students with campus resources, creating a sense of belonging – these are just a few of the intended outcomes.

Yet how does this translate to the online environment? How can course instructors and their institutions cross the virtual divide and prepare students for the online learning experience? In this post I’ll address how educators can provide the right level of academic and relational support to online students during the first phase of the course. I’ll also include strategies for educators to encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning.

Online Learner Support Framework
In part one of this series, I introduced the Online Learner Support model which is based upon the PARS model, Providing Academic and Relational Support (Lowe, 2005). This model suggests how to support the online learner in three distinct phases. There are  two dimensions to the model, 1) the learner level of dependence (descriptive) and 2) the behaviours required by the institution and instructor to support the learner through each (prescriptive). The first dimension is illustrated in the diagram below. Learner ‘self-directedness’ is derived from the concept of Self Directed Learning (SDL).
Phase I: The Dependent Learner
Why is the learner so dependent in phase I? Two primary variables affect the learner’s level of self direction:

1) The online environment. This learning context [place of learning] requires a unique skill set: technical skills, knowledge of the learning management platform and time management skills. Not to mention the cognitive overload – the amount of information the student must digest and make sense of.

2) Unfamiliarity with subject matter/area of study. Research done by scholars on self directed learning suggests that learners have high levels of self-direction in course topics in which they already have familiarity with (Song & Hill, 2007). For example, a learner who has studied Spanish previously, will have a higher level of self-direction when enrolled in a beginner Italian course, than a learner without previous exposure to the language. We can infer then, that learners without a level of familiarity with the subject matter will be more dependent.

Important Note: A class of students will likely be at different levels of self-direction within phase one. This model assumes that learners are new to the online environment. Realistically, instructors will have classes with learners at various points within phase one – as shown in the image below (students represented by red ‘x’s).

How can the Instructor support the Learner in Phase I? Guide and Clarify
Now we get to the heart of the matter – how can educators support students in phase one?  There are two types of support required, academic and relational support. At the beginning of phase I, academic support is needed at higher levels than relational support. Learners need guidance and direction with materials, technical support for the course home page, etc. Students also are sorting through due dates, instructions for assignments, etc.

According to Lowe “the relationship at this stage is more like a trail guide [the instructor] who is not so much concerned about establishing a relationship [with the student] as he/she is in getting someone safely through rough terrain. The guide does a lot of pointing and directing but very little time is spent getting close to and emotionally engaged with those being led” (2005).

As the diagram above right shows, the need for academic support declines in phase one. The focus moves from the need to provide new information to the learner, and instead needs to shift to help the learner understand and make use of the information he or she already has. Relational support on the other hand, needs to be emphasized towards the end of phase one as the student becomes more independent and takes charge of his or her learning. Below are specific action steps for educators that will help to move learners from a state of dependency to one of independence.

What Institutions can DO in Phase One

  • Provide a learner readiness self-assessment tool for the online learner.  This may help the learner to identify areas of weakness and skill gap, thus placing the student in the position to seek resources and guidance.
  • Outline the expectations of the learner – for the learner. An important step. The institution would do well to outline for the student what his or her role is in the learning process.
  • Provide technical and academic support (a 24 hour response time). Also consider dividing the support into categories. In our program we have 3 categories of support, 1) academic/course help, 2) technical support and 3) administrative support, with separate contact information for each.
  • Create an online Orientation program for learners to complete before the course begins. At my workplace we open our online courses five days prior to the official start date of the session during which time the students work on the orientation activities. The orientation program consists of: student introductions through discussion forum, syllabus review, viewing of introduction video and a brief self assessment quiz on the orientation material.
  • Offer study skills resources and/or programs tailored to online students.

What Instructors can DO

  • Consider that learners need both academic and relational support. Send an introductory welcome note [email] before the course begins to all students. Include course details that are not overwhelming, but informative.
  • Provide prompt responses to student questions – delayed responses (over 24 hours) can discourage students, even provide increased levels of stress for some.
  • Extend support to students by demonstrating willingness to answer questions students may have by offering multiple contact options : email, SKYPE, Google chat, Google Hangout etc.
  • Record a motivational video message. Consider recording a short 2-minute welcome message for students. We have implemented this in our programs – students love it.
  • Keep in mind – relational needs are not high in phase one. In depth and challenging personal interaction is not needed until the end of phase one and the beginning of phase two.

Next in the Series
As we’ve seen this model is both dynamic and relevant. My next post will explore phase two of this model in depth and include tactics and strategies for course instructors and institutions that will support online students as they progress from a state of dependence to independence. Check back next week for my next post in the Strategies for Online Instruction series.

Strategies for Online Learning, Online Learning Insights
Lowe, S.D. Responding to the needs in distance education providing academic and relational support (PARS), (2005). PDF
Song, L. & Hill, J. A conceptual model for understanding self-directed learning in online environments, (2007). Journal of Interactive Online Learning, v 6 (1).

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