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Preparing Students for Elearning

Elearning Course

October 14, 2002

The following is a summary of "content created" as a result of Week 4 of discussions using a non-traditional approach to learning (participants of "elearning noncourse"). This article is best understood as a collage of thoughts, rather than a cohesive essay.

Contributors to the discussion: Jennifer Cowley, Sharon Chanley, Stephen Downes, Lisa Holstrom, Dawn Ressel, George Siemens, Mitchell Weisburgh

Preparation Ecosystem
Preparing Students for Elearning
Role of the Student in Elearning
Role of the Instructor in Elearning
Role of Learning Styles

Profile of "Ideal" Online Student
Tasks to Complete Before Course Start
Support Documents for Students

Elearning struggles with high drop out rates. The concept of anytime/anywhere learning often becomes never/nowhere. As many corporations and schools have discovered, the online medium, while still dealing with issues similar to classrooms, faces unacceptable rates of drop outs and failures.

In order to improve student completion rates, organizations have several options:

  • Design better learning resources
  • Improve teacher's/facilitator's skills
  • Improve student's capacity to learn through preparation for online learning.

This article focuses on the final point: preparing students for elearning. It is important to note, however, that many of the skills and habits listed here are applicable to any classroom. The divide between classrooms and online is sometimes artificial, and no where is this more true than in student preparation.

Preparation Ecosystem

  1. Environment -- students need a certain environment (PC, connection, software) and some preparation needs to be done to make sure that the student has that.
  2. Tech skills -- students need to know something about how to use whatever learning system exists. there has to be a way to impart this knowledge.
  3. Subject matter skills -- students need to have some pre-requisite knowledge in the discipline to take the course.
  4. Study skills -- students need to have the discipline and learning skills to benefit from the course.
  5. Support -- when students run into problems with any of these there has to be a mechanism to a) find out and b) help them through it.
  • Content - designed for interaction - to keep students engaged -page clicking won't necessarily motivate students
  • Learner - Disciplined, motivated to learn, has a need for learning, self-directed
  • Instructor - aware of students needs/concerns and involvement levels, attempts to draw students in to discussions early, organized schedule, provides resources for learners in need of additional learning (remedial)
  • Technology - should play a servant role. Tools should be selected that involve learners and help them to connect with each other/content/instructor. For example chat, discussion questions, voice over IP are useful for connecting students and can be seen as student-centered technologies
  • Organization - focused on learning, time and resources made available, learners supported (through help desks etc.)

Many of these areas are outside of the instructors influence...but still need to be considered or if an area is weak (i.e. limited organizational support), other areas may have to play a more prominent role to ensure learners are prepared and succeed.

Transitional support is critical for classroom to online shifts. Instructors need to provide a transition process. Students expect similar levels of support and direction (as they have in classrooms), and suddenly find themselves in an exploratory environment - a disorienting experience. (Is this a reason for the high drop out rates we have in elearning?)

For example, one participant stated:

I currently have a group of students, and during a recent feedback request, the responses were heavily centered on "I need an instructor to tell me what to do/think/know". Usually, with most courses I've taught online, the number one concern relates to the changed role of the instructor in relation to student activity - e.g. - the instructor allows students to explore content...rather than giving the answer. This is not an issue only in online environments - anyone who takes a similar approach (exploratory learning) in a classroom has the same student responses. In a classroom, however, an instructor can still give the answers when students are frustrated with the ambiguity of exploration. Learning online, on the other hand, forces students to explore - putting them at the center of the learning experience.

I should expand my statement...in a classroom, during a lecture session students can ask and receive clarification immediately. This obviously isn't the only time learning happens, after all, much of the students time is spent reviewing notes and reading texts outside of the classroom lecture. If classroom students have questions outside of the lecture, they actually have less access to an instructor than do online learners (unless the instructor has an email/discussion forum or chat sessions scheduled).

Online, students do not receive information in lecture format. Information is acquired through exploration, so an instructor is often not present at the time the question arises (unless a synchronous format is used – instant messaging, or even a platform like HorizonLive) As such...the student may have to contact the instructor via email to have questions answered - which is not as rapid as asking an instructor a question during a lecture.

Students online can still receive answers to "ambiguity of exploration", but there may be a time delay versus a student in a classroom lecture (though, as stated above - the time in lecture is a small part of the classroom learning process - students online actually have greater access to instructors the rest of the time).

Preparing Students for Elearning
The type of learning, formal or informal, impacts student preparation. Often, formal elearning (online course) tend to create preparation resources that help students to "take a course" (versus learning). This may perpetuate continued dependence on the instructor or course as the "source" of knowledge. Informal learning is learning that occurs independently and often without direction. Few resources are available to prepare for this type of learning.

Consider the following resources intended to prepare students for learning online:

Are You Ready for Online Learning?
Becoming a Successful Online Student
Online Self-assessment Quiz

Here is what they communicate:

  • Amount of time to be devoted (usually 10-15 hours per week)
  • Degree of interaction required (and tools used)
  • Emphasis on self-motivation
  • The use of an instructor (and therefore preparation related to that)
  • Entrance Requirements
  • A 'classroom'
  • Time-dependency

These may be accurate requirements (and important information) for learning online, but the emphasis is not explicitly on learning - it is how to function effectively according to the manner in which the course is designed. Informal learning (like listservs, Internet searches, or even this "noncourse") have few restrictions and allow learners to perform at their own level of need.

Regardless of the formality of online learning, basic computer and Internet skill, decent connection are a must. These are, however, foundational skills that must be developed in students before learning can occur. They may not be included in every course, but remedial resources should always be listed to direct students to additional help.

Role of the Student

Student preparation is not exclusively the responsibility of the instructor. One of the defining traits of online learning is the increased independence of learners. Online students can contribute to successful learning/preparation through the following:

  • Awareness - evaluate expectations, assess time needed to complete work, understand motivations/value of the learning, assess personal skills -technical and study skills
  • Orientation - online, a student goes through several stages before engaging the content - the computer, internet, the virtual classroom, software, instructor and students, and finally the content. Different students will enter a course at different levels of preparedness...but in online courses, and instructor should be able to accommodate a student at any level
  • Disciplined - follow course schedule and complete assignments
  • Organized - schedule study time and online time to ensure all course obligations are met
  • Self-directed - able to motivate her/himself...ask for help when needed, etc.
  • Internal or externally motivated (ie, some requirement or just because it's something that really interests them).

Role of the Instructor
The instructor should realize and account for the student experience...ways to address it: offering simple assessments on computer skills needed...introductions at the start of a course (let students post pictures - make it personal), offer links to student resources (including remedial), provide clear schedules, have scheduled instant messaging/chat times, etc.

Additional instructor roles:

  • Establish rapport with students - make them feel at ease and encourage them to participate
  • Communicate constantly - regular emails, active involvement in discussion forums (but still allow private student-only forums)
  • Flexibility - often online learners are adults who have varying time constraints - expect it and accept it.
  • The instructor is the creator and curator of the online environment - levels of respect, concern for learning, etc. are all set by the instructor. An attitude that accepts failure as critical to learning is needed

It obviously helps the process if the instructor has taken an online course and knows the frustrations and headaches.

High online dropouts can be (partially) addressed through solid student-centered course design, student preparation (i.e. bringing to the student's consciousness the reality of the online experience), clearly communicated expectations (i.e. instructors), and active instructor involvement in drawing students into discussions.

A good list of instructor support activities can be found at: Keeping the Momentum

As well, instructor competencies needed can be found at: Technology Competencies. This is an extensive list, but can be summarized as:

  • How to use the Internet
  • How to get connected
  • How to learn online (study habits, time management etc.)
  • How to use course management system
  • Familiarity with software - word processor, spreadsheet, communications tools

Role of Learning Styles
Student's learning styles will obviously impact their success online. Students may benefit from understanding their own learning style by completing and online questionnaire. The following resources provide an overview of learning styles.

  1. A Learning Style Survey for College
  2. Learning Styles and the Online Environment
  3. Using Students' Learning Styles to Provide Support in Distance Education (.pdf)
  4. Matters of Style (Lists a variety of learning style theories)

Important considerations on learning styles:

"Students have different learning styles--characteristic strengths and preferences in the ways they take in and process information. Some students tend to focus on facts, data, and algorithms; others are more comfortable with theories and mathematical models. Some respond strongly to visual forms of information, like pictures, diagrams, and schematics; others get more from verbal forms--written and spoken explanations. Some prefer to learn actively and interactively; others function more introspectively and individually...A learning style model is useful if balancing instruction on each of the model dimensions meets the learning needs of essentially all students in a class." (Matters of Style)

Profile of "Ideal" Online Student

  • Self-disciplined
  • Mature, experienced
  • High emotional quotient
  • Willingness to ask for help (which requires self-awareness and high
    emotional quotient
  • Independent

Tasks to Complete Before Course Start

  1. If this is the first course you've taught online (in this environment), this is what you should do:
    • Identify tech support available
    • Take an online course as a student
    • Familiarize yourself with the tools and support available
  2. If this is the first time you've taught this course online,
    • Pilot the course - with colleagues and potential students
    • Prepare a "back up plan" for technology/server failure
  3. If you are assembling (some of) the elements of an online course that you or others are going to teach,
    • Pilot the course - with colleagues and potential students
    • Back up the course content
    • Prepare or determine support mechanisms for students and instructors
    • Ensure workload and assignments are reasonable, but challenging
    • Verify that copyright/IP concerns have been addressed
  4. Things you have to do for every course even if none of the above apply
    • Prepare learners - send out welcome emails
    • Test links
    • Test assumptions about student readiness and technology access (i.e. are some students on 56k? if so, how will video work? or even complex activities?)
    • Plan a course initiation activity - phone conference, chat, in
      person...this activity should focus on connecting students with each other...and create a degree of comfort

Additional information see: Preparing to teach with the Web

Support Documents for Students
One participant made the following comments relating to student support documentation:

When I first started two years ago, the online program (at UIS) was sending a long letter to students with every conceivable bit of info they might need to start the online course. The students, not surprisingly, didn't read most of it. It was one of those letters that was set aside "until you have time to read it". We have slowly cut the letter down to the primary information students need: how to get to their online course; their id's and password; and, how to contact instructor if can't get in successfully. This has worked much better for students -- it is straightforward and short. All the other introduction-type materials go online.

Additional support documents that may benefit online learners:

  • Instructor expectations of learners
  • Course outline
  • Course schedule
  • Listing of assignments - detailing which are to be submitted and which are strictly for learning concepts
  • Grading rubric/philosophy
  • Remedial resources - relating to technology skills, course concepts, and online learning
  • Communication - how to contact the instructor, including phone, email, chat, virtual office hours, etc.

Successful preparation for online learning is not significantly different from classroom preparation. As with any new concept, however, it is important for an instructor to communicate how existing practices integrate with a new concept (in this case, learning online).

High dropout rates are not a function of the online learning environment - they are a function of poor course design, lack of instructor familiarity of the environment, and learner preparation. Preparing learners to learn online is perhaps the greatest skill that we can offer. In an era of "lifelong learning", skills for acquiring knowledge play a greater role in success than do knowledge concepts (as they often cycle to obsolescence).


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License