How-to Encourage Online Learners to take Responsibility for their Own Learning

“To single out the institution as being solely responsible for student departure, as do many critics, is to deny an essential principle of effective education, namely that students must themselves become responsible for their own learning”. (Tinto, 1994)

Author Vincent Tinto could have been writing about distance education when he wrote his book Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition, but he was writing about the drop-out phenomenon in traditional colleges. Yet this quote is relevant to distance education today, perhaps even more so as educators wrestle with the high drop out rates of some online courses, specifically MOOCs. In recent posts I’ve written about how course instructors can support online learners, how to consider the needs of the learner and guide them through phases of dependency to independence. Yet what is the responsibility of the learner? What role does the online student play in his or her learning? And how can this be communicated to him or her? In this post I discuss learning models that assign responsibility to the learner, how these principles can be applied to online learning, and finally describe how instructors and institutions can hand over responsibility to the student.

Which Learning Theory Applies to Online Learning?
Of the numerous learning theories that have emerged in the past there are assumptions made about the characteristics of the learner. Distance learning has often been associated with adult learners. Adult learning theories – for instance Malcolm Knowles’ Andragogy Theory or K.P. Cross’ Adult Learning Theory, both suggest that the adult learner requires motivation, a drive to learn, life experience to apply to the learning situation and a sense of self-directedness. And, more recently the Connectivism Theory, similar to J. Bruner’s Constructivist theory, is associated with networked learning and Massive Open Online Courses. This theory suggests that learners come to a course already motivated, seek to engage with the content, other learners and construct new knowledge. We can apply some of these principles to online learning credit courses, and go one step further by communicating to the learner what they are responsible for.

Behaviours of Successful Online Learners
There is much we can extract from these theories as mentioned, and apply to online learners. We can identify behaviours that students need to demonstrate to be successful in an online learning community. Some behaviours:

  • Time management and organization skills where the learner is able to complete assignments within due dates, manage course materials and content effectively.
  • Motivation and drive to learn demonstrated through participation in forums and/or group work.
  • The drive to ask questions and seek instructor support.
  • Strong writing skills where the learner can create discussion posts and interact with classmates.

Not to be overlooked are the technical skills learners must possess coming into the course. Learners need to have basic computer skills, such that they can send and receive emails, upload and download files, navigate the Web, source and evaluate digital content. Proficiency in Word and Power Point software is also strongly recommended.

One tactic numerous institutions use to reinforce the required skills, is to offer a self-assessment on the school’s website. A ‘quiz’ that will assess whether the learner is ready to learn online.

How the Institution can Communicate Learner Responsibilities
The first step is for the institution to identify what the learner must know, or the skills that are needed. Next, the learner responsibilities must be articulated, recorded and then made accessible to potential learners. Our institution does a fairly good job outlining expectations within the course, but we are lacking in this area (posting on our website for example the skills required). I’ve included several links to schools that do a good job in communicating upfront what is expected of learners.

Metropolitan Community College outlines a comprehensive list of Student’s Responsibilities for Online Courses on a web page and divides each into categories, computer skills, communication and participation, computer skills, time management etc.

How Course Instructors can Assign Responsibility
We’ve discussed how the institution can outline responsibilities that stipulate for its potential students what is required, yet what can course instructors do? instructors can help the learner by outlining in the course syllabus or within the course home page, what he or she as the instructor expects from students.  We are working on the assumption that the learner is responsible, has a specific skill set and is ready to learn. Yet further clarifying actually helps the learner learn. Examples of expectations might include:

  • Learners are responsible for completing reading and watching lectures as assigned with module each week.
  • Learners take an active role in discussion forums by posting thoughtful responses, responding to classmates.
  • Assignments must be submitted on time, late work will not be accepted unless student contacts the instructor prior to the due date.

These are just a few examples – instructors can customize student expectations to fit the course’s uniqueness. Including these responsibilities upfront, at the beginning of the course is necessary. It calls attention to the responsibilities – gives the learner the chance to  be successful.

Instructors don’t need to shoulder the entire burden of the online student’s success. The learner is responsible for his or her own learning, yet institutions and instructors can ‘give’ the responsibility to the learner by outlining what it ‘looks’ like.

Student Responsibilities for Online Learning, Hostos College
Adult Learner Characteristics, R.I.T. Online Learning
Student Responsibilities in Online Learning, Metropolitan Community College

12 thoughts on “How-to Encourage Online Learners to take Responsibility for their Own Learning

  1. Natascha

    I’ve enjoyed reading your insights into the behavior of online learners. The postings have helped met to improve my own online learning experience. Do you think that the same encouragement for the learner to take responsibility can be created within shorter corporate training courses where there is less interaction with an instructor? Or do we need to create that encouragement in the workplace but outside of the course? Learners are generally required to take courses so attendance is not an issue, but I wonder if they would get more out of the experience if they felt more involved/responsible for their learning. I know it’s a little on the edge of the blog topic but I would appreciate the opinion.


    1. onlinelearninginsights Post author

      HI Natascha. Excellent, excellent question! Not out of the scope at all. Very relevant to online learning in general. Your question re-phrased – who should be responsible for motivating/encouraging the employee/learner within a corporate environment for short training courses? I would have to say it depends on two key factors, the 1) type of training and its overall objectives, and 2) the competency level of the employee. If the training is mandatory training that is compliance type training that all employees have to take, the this would be more of a directive, without encouragement beyond an established deadline (which reminders as needed).

      However, if the training is developmental in nature, designed to improve an employee’s skill level for his or her job, then encouragement and/or support from a manager or other individual would be beneficial. If the training is initiated by the employee for self-enrichment and/or self-improvement then the motivation and drive would ideally be intrinsic, and reside within the employee, in other words the employee is acting as a self-directed learner.

      One other factor to consider is the development level or competency level of the employee. If the employee is taking the training to develop and/or improve a skill set to do his or her current job, there should be outside support and motivation provided by a manager type individual.

      Training and development in a company has so many more variables than does online education within higher education! It is complex, yet has great opportunity to develop competencies of employees. Hope that helps – the long-winded answer. I encourage any readers with insight or experience in this area to provide your thoughts as well! Thank you Natascha for your comment and for reading my blog. 🙂


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  5. ewestmore

    Thanks for your blog, I really appreciate the thoughts about learning behaviors of online learners. Do you have any thoughts or information on how international users are motivated by online learning? Do you think there are cultural differences that could affect the behaviors and motivations of online learners?


    1. onlinelearninginsights Post author

      Excellent question. Many international students are participating in open, online courses through platforms such as Coursera for example. I recently completed a course with Coursera, Introduction to Sociology, along with 10,000 other students. Students were from 100 different countries. The perspectives offered through the discussion boards were very interesting given that people had perspectives from their own cultures. Many study groups formed by country. I found the experience very positive as did many other students from the comments I read online. I have read a few research reports about interaction between students of different cultures in an online course, and their appears to no difference on the frequency of interaction, though I believe the for people who’s English is a second language do require more time to formulate responses in discussion forums. Thanks for your comment and thanks for reading!


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  9. Jewel Gardner

    You mentioned briefly that there are adult learning theories pertaining to online learning. Are there also juvenile learning theories pertaining to online learning? I am a middle school educator in South Carolina. Recently many online schools have opened up for middle school and high school level students. Do you think this is a good substitute for “brick and mortar” schools?


    1. onlinelearninginsights Post author

      HI Jewel,
      Excellent question! Young students still need much guidance for learning, as many do not have the maturity to organize and plan their learning. I believe these online schools deliver the content online, but for the younger students especially, require an adult (teacher) to closely guide and direct the learning. High school students may have more skills in self-direction, and can be successful if the course is designed for frequent interaction with the instructor and many support options from the institution delivering the learning. The course design plays an important role in the learning delivery. Here are some resources you may find helpful: and
      Thanks for your comment Jewel!



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