Online learner support: some resources

This post includes some of the useful resources I came across when researching the topic of online learner support. 

One recurrent advice for effective online learner support is the inclusion of collaboration in the learning design so that students learn to rely on one another and feel a part of a community of practice.

For example, in her article “Rethinking Learner Support: the challenge of collaborative online learning” (p. 114), Mary Thorpe emphasises the importance of group learning and collaboration as part of learner support in online environments: 

“The availability of learners to each other and to the tutor asynchronously and well as synchronously has the potential to overturn the emphasis in distance education as an individualised form of learning. The potential to create extensive dialogues and interchange electronically means that online teaching is often prioritising the learning group as a chief resource for learners and the focus for the tutor, rather than the needs of each individual learner, though these too can be accommodated in the pedagogical design supports that.” 

This webpage provides a list of practical steps that teachers can take to facilitate learning in a culturally and ethnically diverse student body. A number of these steps will also apply to instructional design for online contexts.

This book by J.E. Brindley, C. Walti & O. Zawacki-Richter (eds.) includes a selection of papers on various aspects of online learner support.   

This article by Ivan L. Harrell II provides a usefully concise description of learner support in online environments with an extensive reference list.

On the importance of scaffolding in online learning design see this article by Stacey Ludwig-Hardman and Joanna C. Dunlap

This useful resource by Catherine McLoughlin discusses a possible model for learner support in an online environment. 

Diversity and learner support

As part of my ongoing education in instructional design and learning technologies, I have been studying learner support as informed by the social and cultural context of learners. Here are some results of my research. 

Implications of learner diversity and inclusion policies for learner support

This short video presents challenges related to cultural diversity in distance learning settings. While set in the US context, it discusses issues directly relevant to the increasingly culturally-diverse student body in the UK and elsewhere.

Research has shown that students “value having their academic and social identities acknowledged and their particular needs addressed” and they “appreciate the teaching that does this” (see this HEA research briefing for more details).

The changing educational landscapes and the inclusion of new technologies, pedagogies and learning scenarios result in the need for incorporating learner support already at the level of instructional design. With increased flexibility of online educational delivery (where materials are often not provided to learners in a ready-made form but rather negotiated dynamically in response to student needs, aspirations and motivations), learner support can usefully be conceptualised as a “triangle” between interactively created course content, tutor and learners. 

Understood in this way, the design of learner support should include the following issues:

  • emphasis on the value of cooperative, experiential and problem-based learning, encouragement of such learning;
  • more explicit inclusion of learning communities in learner support processes; encouragement to utilise communities of learners more extensively as a support tool that strengthens a learner’s sense of belonging, provides a social support network, facilitates acquisition of knowledge and skills through learner to learner contact and helps learners negotiate administrative systems (see this resource, pp. 13 onwards);
  • facilitation of group-based work through support from tutor to tackle problems, managing group processes, asking students to work with others they never worked before, building in low-risk encounters so that students get to know each other in structured ways across any boundaries;
  • emphasis on the value of diversity e.g. by designing tasks where cross-cultural engagement is necessary to complete the task successfully;
  • encouraging learners to reflect on cross-cultural differences, e.g. by designing activities where they need to consider how knowledge, content or professional practices may be alternatively conceived of in different cultures;
  • scaffolding built into course/module design;
  • stress on implications of flexibility and importance of time management and taking responsibility for own learning- planning that is sensitive to students’ other commitments.

You may find this article on facilitating online learning processes in a virtual learning environment useful to help you apply learner support processes and procedures in actual teaching practice. 

This article on getting students online and keeping them engaged using synchronous and asynchronous online learning processes and methods can help you to see whether your online teaching practices facilitate student engagement.