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.


Online Course Design with ‘X’ in Mind

I share in this post how the ‘X problem’ approach to problem solving is helping to create a unique course design framework for online courses.

Image: Got X Problems? Design Mind on Air (link in resources below)

I’d hit a roadblock in my ongoing efforts to create a course design model for educators to help with the development of online courses and MOOCs. But this week it felt like I hit gold when I discovered the ‘X Problem’ approach to problem solving. I had an aha moment when reviewing the method described in “Innovation X” (2010), a book written by Adam Richardson, Creative Director of the global innovation company frog design, inc. 

In previous posts I’ve shared the research project I’m working on, which is to create an updated course design framework that is relevant and applicable to 21st century learning and instructional modalities. In a previous post Why Online [Really] need an Instructional Design Strategy, I described how educators need to implement a course strategy, particularly for online courses, and in a subsequent post reviewed several instructional design models. These design models mentioned in the post such as the familiar ADDIE model, are not flexible enough to create courses for today’s varied, dynamic and sometimes chaotic learning environments.

“Isn’t it time for the MOOC providers to review the learning design so as to ensure the course is built on a flexible emergent design, rather than a rigid, one size suits all online course principle?” (Guardia, Maina, & Sangra, 2013)  

And there is a need, as the above quote suggests. Though not only for MOOCs, but for other formats that include blended/hybrid formats, fully online and competency-based learning.

The X Factor
I’ve been stymied to come up with something new that is adaptable, yet solid in its learning theories and principles. It was this web page that [finally] moved my thinking about a course design framework forward.  It was the table on the page comparing five different design methodologies that prompted me to look at the concept of design, not just in context of an educational problem. Richardson describes how X problems fall into a class all of their own, “a new class of 21st century challenges that defy conventional planning”. I discovered the book after listening to Richardson discussing his book in a brief podcast interview on Design Mind where he shares this:

“The process focused on design in X-problems consist of a cluster of four challenges that come up over and over again for companies of all sizes, across many industries. Often each of the four is looked at and dealt with in isolation, but in reality they are interrelated and must be treated systemically in order to be solved.” Richardson

X Factor Applied to Course Design
The ‘X’ factor applies to the education industry just as it does to others—as Richardson emphasizes the challenges within industries are universal. Richardson describes how ‘X’ represents the unknown, and the ‘X’ on the treasure map—the goal we are all seeking to achieve. In context of course design we can consider ‘X’ in terms of the variables that an instructor and course designer need to consider and analyze in the development process. And, the variables are becoming more varied and complex as new educational delivery systems and technological applications emerge for educational purposes. A course design model that considers these variables can guide the course development process to keep technology in its place [as a tool], and keep the learner needs and course goals in the forefront.

Some of the variables affecting course design are:

  • learners – their background, skill set, experience, Internet access capabilities, etc.
  • purpose of course [credit, certificate, personal development]
  • Learning theory subscribed to – constructivist, connectivist, etc.
  • course objectives and goals
  • course delivery method/platform
  • discipline of subject matter [course topic]

The Variables
The variables, as discussed determine the outcomes of the development stage of the  course design process. It is in this stage that the instructor develops the syllabus, determines content vehicles (push or pull), decides upon and creates assessment methods, determines the type and scope of learning activities, identifies guest presenter(s) etc. These variables determine the instructional and learning strategy of the course. Thus, when considering the x variables, and following the principles associated with x problem method, a course plan emerges that is specific and tailored to the course. The method supports a customized approach to course design, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach.

Stay tuned for more updates. I have created several drafts of visual representations of this X Design model which I’ll share soon.


“Start Here”: Instructional Design Models for Online Courses

Screen Shot 2013-05-28 at 2.07.01 PMAn instructional design model is the place to start—it is a framework, a tool that guides the structure of a course, that leads the learner to a topic, that removes distractions, provides focus, but still allows a learner to take control. Effective instructional design also helps an instructor to teach, to guide and support learners, and to promote meaningful and active learning. When an online course is not well-designed, often the student doesn’t know where to start, is not sure where to find resources, how to interact, or how to learn. Furthermore, if a student is preoccupied about technical aspects of the course due to ambiguous instructions, glitches, or cumbersome applications, the focus becomes not on learning, but on the technology—more barriers.

This is why I am an advocate for instructional design, why I believe it’s essential now more than ever as learning moves to virtual classrooms. This is the third in a blog post series on instructional design, and my aim here is to share with readers the numerous approaches to course development.  In a previous post I reviewed why we need instructional design and in another post, the role of learning theories in instructional design. In the final post of the series, I plan to introduce a model that I’ve adapted for online course development from the models I’ll review here.

There are numerous models for instructional design as mentioned, yet few exist that are specific to online course design. Though I’ve found one, and included it here for readers to consider, as it has a learner-focused orientation. The remaining are traditional models, [often applied to online design] and likely familiar to readers—the ADDIE principles, Dick Carey & Carey, and Rapid Instructional Design.

ADDIE the 5 phases of instructional design: Analyze, Design, Development, Implement, Evaluate

1) ADDIE : The Classic
ADDIE is not a formal instructional design model; there is no documentation to be found that outlines or describes the origins of ADDIE as a formal model or even framework, yet there is reference to the ADDIE as far back as the 1970’s in select educational literature. ADDIE is best considered as a classic representation of instructional design principles; its acronym associated with the five key principles of course design: AnalysisDesign, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation.  The principles are solid, the five phases are universal to education and training development, so much so that the great majority of instructional design models build upon these five components.


Dick, Carey and Carey Instructional Design Model
Dick, Carey and Carey Instructional Design Model

2) Dick, Carey & Carey Model: Traditional [1978]
This is a systematic model of instructional design, first introduced in 1978. It is sequential in nature similar to the ADDIE model, yet the model’s authors were influenced by the work of Robert Gagné, an educational psychologist and academic researcher—Gagné is best known for his ‘conditions of learning‘ which focus on real-world settings. The model assumes the learner is active in the learning process,  integrates the learner needs, skills and learning context into the design. It is a well-researched model that relies heavily on theoretical principles of learning, which no doubt is why it is a respected and widely implemented model in higher education.

I’ve used this model extensively when working with professors to transition and adapt face-to-face courses to the online format. When studying instructional design in graduate school, we studied this model extensively. One of the texts I still refer to today is, The Systematic Design of Instruction, 7th edition [Dick,Carey & Carey, 2009].  The text also suggests that this model is appropriate for e-learning [p 2 ]. However, there are drawbacks, critics suggest it is rigid, cumbersome, driven by predetermined objectives, thus incompatible with learner-determined objectives. The model is also instructor-focused, assumes the learner is a consumer of content and materials, and not active in the learning process.

I do agree with some of the criticisms, however there are foundational principles within the model that are as applicable to the design of learner-centered, online courses as they are to classroom-centered courses. To create learning environments for learners that are learning online or following  a self-directed course for instance, a structure that guides and leads the learner to engage with the content, to apply and develop knowledge is essential. Creating this kind of seamless learning experience is best accomplished when a systematic process is followed or adapted (as per a course design model such as the Dick, Carey & Carey model) to shape the course for the most effective learning outcomes.


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Screen Shot of the 11 of the 24 dimensions of the Instructional design for online learning (IDOL) model for higher education [Siragusa, Dixon & Dixon, p 933]
3) Instructional Design Model for Online Learning (IDOL) [Siragusa, 2005]
This model  draws from the ADDIE principles, and the Dick, Carey and Carey model. It’s perhaps best described as a ‘framework’, since the authors of IDOL suggest it be used in conjunction with another design models, not as a replacement for. It presents 24 pedagogical dimensions for consideration during the design process [Siragusa, Dixon & Dixon, 2007].  However, I do see this framework as a stand-alone model; it is particularly relevant for online course development given its consideration of pedagogical philosophy.

4) Rapid Instructional Design, [Meier, 2000]
According to the model’s creator, David Meier, Rapid Instructional Design (RID) is a replacement for traditional models of instructional design. Proponents suggest this model is applicable because of the dynamic and rapid shifts in educational priorities and learning technology [Meier, 2000]. RID uses accelerated learning design strategies, and encourages course prototypes that are not time-consuming to develop, and can be adapted and modified on-the-fly.

5) Rapid prototyping is similar in scope to the above method. The goal of rapid prototyping as it relates to instructional design is to “develop learning experiences in a continual design-evaluation cycle that continues throughout the life of the project. This cycle, known as the spiral cycle or layered approach, is considered to be iterative, meaning that products are continually improved as they cycle continues” []. I’ve used this model, even taken a graduate course in this technique for designing curriculum, and though I see the benefits I find it lacking in the depth, particularly the analysis phase. It lacks a visual representation of the model, which I suggest is needed for clarification and communication when working with a design team on a course project.

There are numerous instructional design models as discussed, though very few address the changing dynamics in education, and in the scope of course design, the different delivery methods used today. There is  a need to adapt and change how curriculum is developed, how teachers teach, how learners are assessed, and even a need to consider how knowledge is constructed. Though one component that I suggest that can address at least a small aspect of these challenges, is a tool and method to create learning experiences that will support learners, help them be successful in meeting their needs. Though traditional instructional design models provide a starting point for review, a new, flexible instructional design model is needed for a fresh start. A fresh approach to support focused and specific learning that can be used by faculty, educators and students; a model that helps to remove barriers, break down walls, and open up learning like never before. Stay tuned for my next post in this series.