Three Actors that Contribute to Student Success in Online Courses: The Institution, Instructor and Student

This post examines three actors that are essential to student success in online courses: 1) the institution, 2) the instructor and, 3) the student.

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Actors Contributing to Student Success in Online Courses

What contributes to student success in a course delivered online? To consider the question from a different perspective one can pose the question this way—who is ultimately responsible when students are not successful—when they fail the course for instance? Is it the student for not having the discipline for online learning? The instructor for not providing support, or the institution for not providing services to support the online student? These are questions worthy of examining at a philosophical level, though in this post I examine select behaviours and strategies associated with the three actors involved in the process of students learning online, 1) the institution, 2) instructor and 3) the learner.

What Contributes to Student Success?
Before examining the three actors roles in the learning process it’s helpful to identify the factors contributing to student success in online environments including the skill set required. It’s also instructive to acknowledge that there is an underlying expectation that students enrolling in online courses are self-directed and capable of managing the tasks associated with online studies. Yet research and feedback from educators reveal something quite different; many students are unprepared to learn online, lack the basic skills, and are not capable of assuming responsibility for their learning. Online course work requires that students use a range of skills including accessing resources, people and content within a network, analytic and synthesis skills to distill relevant information from an abundance of information and resources (Kop, Fournier, & Mak). Though as mentioned, it’s not uncommon to find students lack some, if not many of these skills.

Not only are students often unprepared, but institutions often fail to prepare faculty and instructors for online facilitation. A starting point in boosting student success is identifying the behaviours associated with each of the three actors.

1) The Institution: Student Support Services via the Institution 
One characteristic of institutions offering successful online programs is their ability to support the unique needs of distance students through a student support services function.  As online programs evolve and mature we now have numerous programs to examine and study. Though each unique, there is a common theme—a focus on the students by acknowledging their diverse needs and challenges of studying online. Below are select examples.

Services for online students need to be customized, re-tooled from those provided to traditional students. Services should include technical support, academic advising, online community programs and clubs, library services and career planning.  Some institutions have gone further and developed programs that offer personalized academic support, SUNY Empire State College for example offers a peer tutor program. This program is unique, it’s not a subject matter coaching program, but a mentoring program where the goal is for tutors to help students identify and implement strategies that promote independence, active learning and motivation.


“Creating College Success” from Rio Salado College,  an Award Winning Program

Rio Salado College developed an orientation program “Creating College Success”. It’s a one-credit course delivered fully online. The goal of Rio Salado’s program is similar to that Empire State’s—student self-sufficiency in academic environments.  Penn State World Campus, one of the first universities to deliver online degrees has a comprehensive roster of services for virtual students. One service that all institutions should consider is offering extended hours for technical and academic help via email, phone, or instant messaging.

Western Governors University is one that offers not only academic and technical support, but wellness services through its Well Connect program where students can call a toll-free number any time of day or night for support including personal counseling, legal and debt counseling, new parent transitioning support and more.

2) The Instructor:  Course Design and Instructor Support 
There are two areas that fall under the instructor support: 1) course design, and 2) instructional support.

Course design plays a significant role in students’ potential for learning online, given that students engage with course content, instructor and peers through the course platform. The way in which course content is presented on the course site, the instructions for assignments or activities are written, even the structure and order of the tabs on the course home page (course interface) have an effect on how the students engage with the course, will potentially affect students’ learning. Professor Robin Smith, author of “Conquering the Content: A Step-by-Step Guide to Online Course Design” (2008) describes course design this way:

Design features incorporated in [the] system course development and the learning guide, will create an environment in which students are confident of their pathway, and the only challenge is the course content, not the navigation of the course or figuring out what must be done in order to complete the course…this focus on course design, will free you [instructor] up to spend the semester teaching and interacting with students rather than answering questions about course navigation or specific directions about assignments.” 

The instructor’s role in online courses will vary depending upon the nature of the course, but more importantly instructor behaviours will be a function of the level of students educational background and students’ skill level in the areas mentioned above (collaboration skills, technical, etc). To assess what level students are at when entering the course, ideally the instructor does so through involvement in discussion forums, course introductions, synchronous activities, etc. that allow the instructor to get to know students. Instructors also can do so by reviewing student work early in the course so he or she can provide detailed feedback, challenge the student, suggest external writing support as needed, etc.

The goal is that the instructors focus on challenging students academically in the course via feedback and interaction; individually and as a class. Support for technical, research, or basic academic skills should be provided by the institution, via support services. Institutions should also offer professional development courses, workshops or resources to support online instructors and faculty in course development and instruction.

3) The Student:
The student is ultimately responsible for his or her success in the learning process; it is up to him or her to leverage the resources of the institution and the support of the instructor. There is an effective tool however, a leader readiness questionnaire, that many institutions make available on its website which identifies the skills and tools students will need to be successful with their online studies. Also the concept of giving the responsibility of learning to the students, is another method to encourage success—letting students know they are ultimately responsible.

Below are links to several learner readiness questionnaires provided by various institutions, one is licensed under the creative commons share alike license which makes it available for use to anyone.

In a follow-up post I review tools and resources available on the web that support the development of the skill-set students need for online learning. Readers may also find a previous post, Five-Step Strategy for Student Success with Online Learning helpful— it outlines behaviours associated with successful outcomes for online students.

Supporting student success in online course work begins with the institution—ideally with a strategic plan that includes a system for provision of administrative services, academic counseling, and support specific to online students, as well as professional development and comprehensive resources for faculty and instructors teaching online. Yet to maximize the value of the support offered by the institution and instructor, the learner needs to own the learning, and know the responsibility for success ultimately rests with him or her.


7 thoughts on “Three Actors that Contribute to Student Success in Online Courses: The Institution, Instructor and Student

  1. Anupam Goel

    This is one of the best articulated posts I have read on online learning. I like the way you have focused on the three actors that contribute to the success of online learning. I (being a student), believe that the success of students in an online learning course boils down to the students appetite for the course and the discipline. Having good student services, course design & instructor support is extremely important and does aid student learning, but it can’t be a motivating factor until and unless a student is disciplined and interested in the course. Another point that is worth talking about is the instructors role once the course kick starts. I believe there should always be a pretest(short quiz) for all online courses, which can help an instructor learn about his/her students, which can be helpful in assessing a student. This pretest can also be a rubric to customize the students course work & enhance student learning.


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      Hi Anupam. Your idea of a pre-test for students to take that is shared with the instructor is an excellent idea! This really could help the instructor identify how to customize the learning experience, especially in an online course where students are more likely to have a range of different needs due to the reach of online platform.

      Another good point you bring up is the motivation and discipline aspect of student learning–these factors are critical to successful student learning along with the other actors that support the learning experience.

      Thanks for your comments!


    2. Vinuthna Gaddipati

      Totally agree with the author and excellent idea about pre-test Anupam. Being mainly an in-class student most of my life, I enjoy and learn better with discussions going on in the class which helps students open up and think out of the box. Sadly, most of the universities Online courses are designed such that the in-class lecture recordings are made available to online students and more focus is on having a proctor to submit their exams or assignments. Though, these online students learn the course content, they miss the personal interaction and in most cases, the professor wouldn’t even know his/her students and students their other online mates. Thus, along with a pre-test , may be having a weekly or bi weekly online skype sessions or other video chat (Synchronous communication) should be made necessary in order to help get the 3 factors of student success in online learning together. Knowledge sharing and building comes only with interactions and motivation. The instructors role as a moderator of online students interactions is also extremely necessary for their improved success.


      1. Chaitanya Yaddanapudi

        Yes I do agree with Vinuthna. I strongly feel that instructor presence as a moderator and mentor will bring in a lot of seriousness and students tend to take more of ownership of their work. Having a face to face interaction over Hangout / Skype would bring in more of belongingness and this helps in students interacting better. An excellent post on the similar lines is – Here Debbie has outlined on how we can make the discussions more collaborative.


    3. Nitin Tummala

      Yeah Anupam I agree with you that this is one of the well articulated and quality post that I have gone through in recent times.
      The conclusion saying that the role of student is important irrespective of the contribution of the instructor and institution is really true.
      @Anupam: The idea of the pre-test that should be taken by the students is a wonderful idea. This is really useful in knowing the knowledge that a student already has and will be very helpful to the instructor like a heads up to know about the student.
      Apart from these there should also be some motivational factors like badges that should be there from the institution as a whole or from the instructor in person that will encourage students to participate more in acquiring knowledge.
      This not only is the motivation to that student but increases the overall learning of all the students by propelling the competitive edge among them.


    4. Pandi Kumar Maharajan

      Nice points put together by Debbie about the important actors and their responsibilities contributing to an effective online course. I totally agree with Anupam on the fact that the teachers should understand students motive and interest in the coursework before the class and motivate them based on their feedback. I like to add few factors that can be identifies from the feedback and motivation the student to succeed. 1. Allotting responsibilities to students will make them feel that they are empowered. 2. Make student think the course is useful by relating it with the students interest (such as how the course can be used beyond school) 3. Caring is another factor that will make students feel highly motivated, so teachers should care what student learns. 4. Form groups and allow students to collaborate based on their interest.


  2. Mattie Gillispie

    That’s true, the success of the student is the combination of this three actors that contribute to students effectiveness in online studies and much more, moreover the students become the winner by the instructor’s advice and help. its very nice and informative content related to the success of the student because the every person on some time in past was the student and become successive personality with its instructor advice and help. Thanks.



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