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Chapter 15

Supporting the Online Learner

Judith A. Hughes
Athabasca University


The ability and potential of online learning to enhance access to education, particularly higher education, is largely determined by the potential learner's circumstances, which in many ways define the learning environment. Not surprisingly, online learning's evolutionary predecessor, distance learning, has been applied to two situations in which access to education is problematic.

The first occurs when a very large population has access to a limited number of “seats” in conventional educational institutions. This situation gives rise to what Daniel (1996) refers to as “mega-universities”—distance teaching universities with 100,000 students or more. Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), with an estimated 500,000 students, is one example, and the Open University of Hong Kong (OUHK), with over 400,000 students, is another.

The second situation is one of sparse population—one in which the community of learners is spread over a wide geographical area. The fledgling University of the Arctic is an example of a response to this situation. In both of these cases, the learner's physical environment presented a need that online learning could address.

A third situation is emerging. Learners who wish to use technology to structure their learning environment are seeking out the means by which they can do so. In a sense, their preferred learning environment presents the access issue that online learning can address.

In all three situations, the challenge is to provide access to higher learning, determining what the learner brings to the environment, and what they need in terms of support. These factors can vary—after all, the first two situations are artifacts of geography, whereas the third has more to do with personal learning preference. That is why designing learner supports requires an understanding of the learners' circumstances.

This chapter discusses the importance of setting up a supportive learning environment for online learners, and provides some practical advice. Underlying this advice is a philosophy that encourages an environment that aims to develop the learner's independence, while ensuring that supports are readily available when needed. Student supports that are flexible, clear, and continuously available are described, and best practices outlined.

Knowing the Learner

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It is a good idea to remind ourselves that the learning enterprise is not about us as educators: the focus should be placed on the learning, not the teaching. Similarly, in providing learner supports, we should focus on what the learner needs, not on what we want to or are able to supply, but it is surprising how easily this emphasis can be lost in our wish to help. We identify real needs best if we know our learners. Therefore, we must ask questions about the learner's readiness for online learning, access to and familiarity with the technology required, proficiency in the language of instruction, individual learning style, and educational goals, as well as about how aspects of the individual's culture can affect learning. These are some of the things that we need to understand about the learners; they are also things that the learners need to know about themselves in order to benefit from the learning experience.

Once the institution has this information, it must determine what supports are most critical for learners, and must establish priorities to ensure that resources, which are always limited, are directed to the most useful supports. In doing so, the institution must keep in mind that some learners will require more support than others, and that any learner may need more help at one point in their educational career than at others. So the institution must find a balance between “just-in-case resources” and “just-in-time resources” that recognizes that an online learner is often an adult with responsibilities other than their educational goals. Flexible, continuously available, easily accessible learner support systems are required, but such systems must be genuinely useful. Learners have been clear that they need to see the value added by a resource, or they will not use it; they have also let us know that supports should be available but not intrusive.

Learner Readiness for Online Learning

The learner brings a set of skills, experiences, and expectations to the learning environment. This section outlines the resources necessary, first, to assist potential online learners to make informed decisions about their readiness for this form of learning experience, and then, to provide advice for making specific program decisions. To encourage independence in the learner, the focus should be on self-assessment, although counseling backup should be available when needed. The list below presents a series of questions that learners who are thinking about post-secondary study online should ask themselves, and identifies the kinds of assessment tools that are available to answer them.

•   Am I ready for university (or college)?—This type of online resource provides the opportunity for the prospective learner to determine their readiness from academic, financial, family support, and time perspectives. Such a self-assessment, which is Web-based and easily completed by the student, serves to highlight areas that might need special attention. It guides the learner through a series of questions in which they examine their own expectations and readiness. Once the assessment is complete, follow-up e-mail counseling complements the process. For an example of such a self-assessment tool, see the Online Resources section of Athabasca University's Services for Students Web site: http://www.athabascau.ca/main/studserv.htm

•   Am I ready for studies in the English language (or other language of instruction)?—This type of online resource assists the learner to decide if their command of the language is sufficient to allow for success, and places the learner in specific language course levels. The learner may be directed to online remedial resources, and should always have the option of contacting an advisor. For an example of such a resource see http://www.athabascau.ca/main/studserv.htm

•   Am I ready for online learning?—This type of online resource assists potential learners to determine if they have the necessary hardware and networking capabilities, and should help them to explore whether this learning environment is comfortable. Short sample experiences should be available to assist with the process. For an example of such a resource, see Deakin University's Learning Toolkit at http://www

•   What is my preferred learning style?—As does any form of learning, online learning makes demands on the learner. The institution can make many resources available in a variety of formats, to suit different learning styles and preferences. However, a learner may not have identified the format they find most useful, and it can be helpful if the institution assists the learner to examine their own learning style. Interactive tools are available on the Web to help the learner to do so; however, these tools vary in quality, and the institution can assist by providing an annotated evaluation of these resources.

•   Am I ready for university-level mathematics?—Proficiency in mathematics, as well as in language of instruction, has proven to be a significant success factor, particularly for adult learners returning to the educational environment after some time away. However, mathematics can also be a significant stressor. Assisting the prospective learner to identify their strengths and weaknesses in mathematics, and making remediation available, can reduce this stress. An online self-assessment can be designed to help the learner to determine their readiness for particular mathematics courses, to recommend a mathematics course appropriate to the learner's level, and to identify remediation resources. For an example of such a tool, see http://www

•   Do I have the skills to be successful in my chosen program?—This type of online resource outlines what skills are needed for particular areas of study. The resource should be program-specific and should refer the student to online tutorials if needed. For a Web site that assists the learner to make program choices, see the Open University (UK) student pages at http://www.open.ac.uk

Matching Educational Programs to Career Interests

Often, potential learners will seek out online learning opportunities to create or enhance career goals. As educators, we may want to view the educational experience outside the context of career development, but as stated previously, the learning experience is not about us. The fact is that learners bring that context to their educational decisions, and we need to understand that they do so. Online resources designed to assist learners to determine their own interests and skills, and then provide a career map aligned with educational programs, is a reasonable expectation. After all, most of these learners will experience several career changes—some of them quite significant—throughout their working lives. The United Kingdom's Open University focuses on the learner's need to contemplate the future in making educational choices (see http://www.open.ac.uk). “Mapping Your Future” on the Athabasca University Services to Students Web site (http://www.athabascau.ca/main/studserv.htm) provides the learner with a means of exploring career clusters and the credentials required to pursue them. After an initial exploration, the learner may wish to communicate online with a counselor to refine their career goals. Once this is achieved, electronic “program plans” are designed by an advisor, taking the career goals as well as prior learning into account. It is important to have the learner explore first, and then have counselors provide assistance as needed.

Supporting the Learner

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Well-designed course materials and strong academic and tutorial support are necessary in all educational enterprises, and the special considerations in the case of online learning are the subject of a separate chapter. This chapter deals with non-academic supports for the learner.

Having assisted the potential learner to make an informed decision to pursue online learning, we have enhanced their chances for success, but quite different support is now required. Once again, the balance between being available and being intrusive is important. Learners require support in different areas, and as providers, we must anticipate the array of needs, and then work with individual learners to clarify what is needed at a given time. Learners need to know exactly what they can expect in support, how to interact with the institution, what is expected of them, and how to determine when they need assistance.


Learners need to know both what is expected of them, and what services they can expect to receive from the institution. Online learning may be a new experience for the learner, and it is important that service standards be clear and easily available: How long should it take to receive confirmation of my registration? How much time does it take to receive my examination grade? How quickly should I expect a response to e-mail? Who should I contact for library assistance? These standards should be published for all students to see, and can serve as benchmarks for service units within the institution.

Information and Administrative Support

Daniel (2000) points out that a key component of supported open learning is “effective administration and logistics.” Institutions engaged in distance and online education know that smooth administrative processes can be as much a factor in learner success as the design of learning resources. The learners themselves report that flexibility of access and smooth administrative support are important to the learning environment. One would expect that learners who have chosen an online learning environment prefer to perform administrative functions (such as registration) online as well, and this is proving to be the case. Institutions that provide online learning report that students express a preference for having the control that online administrative processes afford.

Providing online administrative access is not without challenges, and improved technology, carefully designed Web pages and helpdesk support are crucial. Constant monitoring and updating of procedures is required, to find smoother interactions and to tease out administrative frustrations. Designing Web pages and then forgetting them is simply not acceptable. The following list outlines a process for the continuous improvement required:

•   design the administrative Web page;

•   test the technology and revise as necessary;

•   observe the learners using the Web page and ask for feedback, then revise;

•   monitor the use of the Web page regularly;

•   look for enhancements and improvements, and incorporate them; and

•   always have helpdesk attendants available to troubleshoot.

At the institutional level, regular learner satisfaction surveys can ensure that administrative interactions are not barriers to learning. Portals designed to individualize and personalize interactions enhance the learner's experience. Portal software is growing in popularity as more institutions become involved in online learning.

Technological Support

As noted above, the learner must know what technology is needed for the online environment, before they decide to register. A person engaged in online learning requires technological support that is clear and readily available. Drawing the line between technological support on the one hand and academic support on the other is often a challenge, and these types of support must be coordinated carefully. There are three common support formats: an information center provides institutional and program information; computing helpdesks troubleshoot technological issues; and call centers are frequently used to support a particular program area. All three must work together to support the whole learning process.

Successful information centers, helpdesks, and call centers have the following characteristics:

•   reliable networks;

•   asynchronous access “24/7”;

•   synchronous access at clearly identified times;

•   quick response, with acknowledgment and follow-up;

•   follow-through to resolution of the issue;

•   simple, clear instructions;

•   access by attendants to all critical databases and expertise; and

•   the ability to identify problems with policies, procedures, or systems, and to suggest change.

Study Skills Assistance

The online learner may be returning to learning after some time away, may be new to post-secondary study itself, or may not have experienced online learning before. Assisting the learner to identify particular needs in the area of study skills can reduce stress and enhance the experience. For example, it is critical to understand that “life happens” and the learning experience may be just one of the demands that the learner faces. This is particularly true for adult learners. Some resources that may help online learners who was facing challenges to their study skills include

•   Web pages designed to assist in the development of time management and study schedules;

•   resources to help students learn to balance educational pursuits with other life demands;

•   tools for facilitating “study buddy” connections for peer assistance;

•   online strategies and exercises to reduce “exam anxiety”;

•   resources to assist in reading for comprehension;

•   assistance in annotating online resources such as e-books;

•   resources to assist in writing papers;

•   clarification of rules for citation and avoiding plagiarism;

•   assistance in searching library resources on line; and

•   assistance in making critical analyses of information from online resources.

Online Educational Counseling

Well-prepared Web resources can be provided online, but asynchronous counseling assistance is required as well, particularly for learners who are experiencing difficulty. The online environment is one in which learners can “fall through the cracks” if assistance is not readily available. From time to time a learner may need someone to assist in keeping a positive outlook and determining if an intervention is needed. Learners need to know that help is there if they need it. The institution should provide this resource and all institutional staff should be trained to identify when a learner might benefit from a session with a counselor. It is important to remember, however, that while referrals can be made, the decision to pursue them belongs to the learner.

The work of the counselor in an online learning environment has three aspects. The first is to work with Web designers to develop online resources to help learners to identify and address barriers to reaching their educational goals. The second is to interact with the learners when an intervention is required. The third is to work with other institutional staff to ensure that processes and procedures enhance learning.

Educational and career counseling are well suited to the online environment, but personal counseling is less so. Personal counseling should be limited to immediate crisis resolution and referral. Counseling units need information about community resources to which they can refer clients.

Ongoing Program Advising

Distance and online learners are often adults and they frequently spread their learning over a number of years. They report that they need program planning that will help them achieve educational goals in an expeditious manner. Moreover, learners often transfer between institutions and jurisdictions, increasingly so in a global learning environment.

Learners need to plan their coursework based on particular programs, while remaining aware of course transferability. The role of advisors is to assist learners to understand program requirements, match courses they may be transferring into a program, and then plan the remainder of their program accordingly. Since the adult learner may change career and educational goals at any time during the process of completing a program, advisors need to be readily available and to have access to all program and transfer information. Software products are available to allow advisor and learner to navigate this process. Academics, counselors, and others within the institution need to know when to refer learners to an advisor.

The Digital Library

In the early years of distance education, providing library support to learners was a challenge. Courses were developed in print format, and comprehensive course packages were sent to each learner. The library typically developed a collection that was made available, by mail or fax, to the learner on request. Distance educators worried that learners were not gaining the library search experience that would enhance their studies and their research skills. Online sources of information have transformed libraries in distance education: where in the past libraries focused on holdings, they can now focus on access; where they used to be information repositories, they can now be gateways to information.

This transformation has allowed the library experience to be more profound for the learner and more integrated within the learning process. From a learner support perspective, a well-designed online library

•   is easily found among other institutional Web pages;

•   provides an up-front tutorial for the new learner;

•   is integrated with the institution's online courses;

•   provides tools to assist with online searches; and

•   provides access to personal assistance, if needed.

The transformation of libraries in distance education has posed some interesting fiscal issues for institutions. In the past, acquisitions budgets provided for purchasing holdings that became part of the collection, part of the assets of the institution. Annual funding was provided for collection development and updating. Even subscriptions to periodicals, an annual expense, resulted in a “holding.” Subscriptions to online resources are another matter entirely. As libraries move toward becoming gateways rather than repositories, a new way of viewing funding is needed.

Access for Students with Disabilities

Online learning can enhance access for people with disabilities. New assistive technologies can allow access to learning opportunities previously denied to this population. Increasingly, the legal requirements to provide accommodations that allow access are being defined by the courts, and institutions are required to ensure that necessary accommodations are provided, without compromising academic rigor. In an online environment, the following services are expected:

•   administrative accommodation with respect to timed assignments and examinations;

•   alternative formats for learning materials;

•   advocacy within the institution;

•   advice about assistive technologies;

•   advice about funding sources;

•   referral for specific needs; and

•   “reasonable accommodation” as outlined in law.

Student Rights and Access to Ombuds Services

Online learners have as much need of clearly articulated rights as do learners in traditional educational settings. An advocacy process designed for online learners is one in which the learner is made aware of student rights and responsibilities. An institution can fulfill its basic legal responsibility by making a student code of conduct available on the Web and in print on request. However, a prudent institution will go well beyond this demonstration of due diligence. Web sites that clearly outline intellectual honesty expectations should be readily available on the Web and should be referred to frequently. Reminders just prior to assignment preparation reduce the chance that the learner will fail to provide proper scholarly acknowledgment.

Traditions regarding what constitutes intellectual property and what is generally accepted common knowledge are not universal concepts, nor are they always understood. Cultural views about ownership of knowledge vary, and if the rules that are to apply within the institution are to be understood, then the institution must ensure that they are properly explained. For example, although many educators do not accept the idea, the reality is that students do not always understand the concept of plagiarism, much less how to avoid it. To address this problem, the University of Puget Sound has designed an excellent Web page that provides learners with exercises to enhance their understanding of the concept of plagiarism and to assist them in avoiding it (see http://library

All efforts to provide smooth interactions between the learner and the institution notwithstanding, there will be situations in which the learner becomes ensnared and does not know where to turn. A highly visible ombuds office should be available. Moreover, from the institutional perspective, the ombuds office can assist in identifying policy and procedure problems that require attention within the institution.

The Online Learner's Role in Governance

Online learners have valuable contributions to make to an educational institution. Institutions that specialize in distance and online learning can provide opportunities for students to participate in institutional governance. Student government is possible in such an institution as well, but administration must make special arrangements to facilitate the process.

In many ways, the student union has the same issues in keeping in touch with its constituency as does the institution itself. Both are vying for the attention of a learner who may be juggling learning with other life demands. It is in the institution's best interests to have a healthy student union and to work with that union to meet the needs of the learners. Some means by which to achieve these goals include

•   making networks available to the student union;

•   providing one main institutional contact with whom student union representatives can interact;

•   assisting in collecting student union fees;

•   making information available, within the confidentiality guidelines;

•   having student representatives on all decision-making bodies;

•   having decision-making bodies meet through electronic means (video-conference, online conference, etc.) to maximize participation;

•   keeping the student representatives and the student union apprised of significant events, initiatives, etc. (e.g., strategic planning, budgeting, tuition fee increases);

•   engaging in shared initiatives with the student union (include them in convocation, copublish newsletters, etc.);

•   seeking advice from the student union on important issues; and

•   demonstrating appreciation for the work of the student union.

Learner Satisfaction Monitoring
and Environmental Scanning

Regular monitoring of the learners' satisfaction levels and scanning of the student services environment assist the institution to make continuous improvements. Year-over-year comparisons are possible if the survey instruments are carefully designed. In this way, trends and areas in need of attention will become apparent.

Focus groups are being successfully conducted online by institutions that are at a distance from their constituents. Such groups can be used, for example, to test out the efficacy of a new course, program, or service.

A Case Study: University of the
Arctic—Stretching the Limits

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University of the Arctic is a virtual university in the real sense of the word (University of the Arctic, 2001). It is a consortium of universities and colleges from the northern countries known as the “Arctic Eight” (Canada, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States). It was formed because there was a sense that these northern countries represented a community that transcended national boundaries by virtue of their “circumpolarity.” There was also a sense that the northerly parts of these nations shared cultural, environmental, and learning issues with one another that the more southerly parts did not necessarily experience. The founding principles were based on notions of development “in the north, by the north, for the north.” This university would develop an issues-based curriculum culminating in a Bachelor of Circumpolar Studies.

At the time of writing, five courses have been developed. The first, Introduction to the Circumpolar World, has been pilot tested in classroom format in one location, and as a Web-based offering involving learners from institutions from four of the Arctic Eight countries. The Web-based offering stretched the limits of online learning, and serves as an example of the potential of online learning to acknowledge a community of learning based, not simply on geography, but on shared realities.

Some Early Decisions

Language of instruction was one of the first decisions taken. It was decided to develop the courses in English and translate them at a later date. Subject matter experts from Russia, Greenland, Finland, Canada, Norway, and the United States wrote the curriculum in English, and the material was edited into fourteen modules.

Another early decision was that the online delivery would take place within a portal environment that would foster a community of learning. WebCT was used for delivery, largely because this platform was well recognized throughout the circumpolar world. The portal was designed to provide a supportive learning environment, and at the same time, an uncomplicated technical environment. The realities of the variability of technical resources across the Arctic became apparent, and the motto became “as inclusive as we must be, striving to become as innovative as we can be.” It was important that no group be excluded from the project.

Reliability of networks was seen to be important, as was the need for a “Plan B.” The course was housed on the server of the institution that was thought to have the most reliable server arrangement. In addition, learners were provided with print materials should any technological mishaps occur.

The pilot of the introductory course began in mid-February 2002, and lasted for fourteen weeks. Learners from Russia, Greenland, Finland, and Canada all worked with their local university or college. There was a site coordinator at each location, and the instructor was located in Canada.

The Community of Learning

Largely because of the instructor's skill, but also because the learners shared so many issues, a community of learning soon developed. Asynchronous discussions formed the basis for exchange, with informal study groups (often conducted in the local language) arranged by on-site coordinators. Because of the time zone issues, chat rooms were not initially designed into the portal, but the students asked that this utility be added. This was done, and a few hardy souls spent the wee hours of the morning communicating with colleagues across the North Pole. Learners shared resources via the Web, and each institution was expected to provide library and other student support resources.

Lessons Learned

The decision to keep the technology simple was a wise one. The simple portal and WebCT worked quite well, but a more comprehensive orientation to WebCT and online learning will be designed for the next offering. The best approach to the orientation is to have a training session with the site coordinators first, and have them, in turn, conduct an orientation with the learners. This strategy allows first-language assistance with the technology. Because of the variation in institutional resources, subsequent online offerings will include computing helpdesk access, which will be provided by the institution that is most experienced in online delivery of services.

Although it was expected that the up-front preparation by the curriculum developers, Web designers, and the instructor would be substantial, the workload for the instructor was excessive. This was partly because the volume of the learner postings was larger than expected. In addition, more of the learner activities could have been built into the course materials themselves.

A surprising outcome was the extent to which learners for whom English was not the first language felt quite comfortable participating. The concern that the sessions would be dominated by learners for whom English was a first language, was not borne out. The participating institutions had ensured that the learners had a sufficient command of the English language before registering them.

Attempts to incorporate traditional knowledge into the course materials were a challenge because of the large number of Aboriginal groups around the circumpolar world. In the end, this issue was best addressed by having students share information with colleagues. The result was somewhat serendipitous, but this strategy may be preferable to something more structured.

Attempts to ensure that all of the students had broad access to online library resources across all institutions were not successful, largely because of the language issue. It may be that in cases where such geographically and linguistically diverse groups are brought together, the provision of learner support in areas such as library, counseling, and so forth are best left to the “home” institution. This suggestion assumes that learners will inevitably be tied to an institutional setting. More investigation is required as these kinds of initiatives develop.


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As the learning environment becomes a global community of learning, the cognitive sciences are merging with computing and telecommunications technologies to form what distance educators refer to as “knowledge media” (the term is attributed to Marc Eisenstadt of the Knowledge Media Institute, http://kmi.open.ac.uk/home-f.cfm). The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recognizes that these trends can provide more equitable access to higher education, and hence more social equity, as campus-bound and distance-education paradigms merge and complement each other.

There is an ongoing discussion about new terminology that should replace “distance education,” but at the same time be more inclusive than “online education.” Terms such as “distributed learning,” “technology mediated learning,” and “telematics” are often used in North America. Elsewhere, other terms are being used, such as “resource based learning” and “flexible learning” (Moran & Myringer, 1999). This discussion exemplifies the role that technology can play in placing the focus on making resources available for the individual learner.

Whatever we call it, however, online learning only enhances a focus on the learner as an individual within a community of learning if individual differences are acknowledged and addressed in the design of learner support services.


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Athabasca University. (2003). Services to Students. Retrieved May 5, 2004, from http://www.athabascau.ca/main/studserv.htm

Daniel, J. S. (1996). Mega-universities and the knowledge media: Technology strategies for higher education. London: Kogan Page.

Daniel, J. S. (2000). At the end of now—global trends and their regional impacts. In V. Reddy & S. Manjulika (Eds.), The world of open and distance learning (pp. 451-461). New Delhi: Viva Books.

Deakin University. (2003). Deakin learning toolkit 2003. Retrieved May 5, 2004, from http://www.deakin.edu.au/dlt

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Moran, L., & Myringer, B. (1999) Flexible learning and university change. In H. Keith (Ed.), Higher education through open and distance learning (pp. 57-71). London: Routledge.

Open University (UK). (2003). Home page. Retrieved May 5, 2004, from http://www.open.ac.uk

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. (1996). Adult learning in a new technological era. Paris: OECD Publications.

University of Puget Sound, Collins Memorial Library. (2003). Academic honesty: Recognizing plagiarism. Retrieved May 5, 2004, from http://

University of the Arctic. (2001). Arctic learning environment. Rovaniemi, Finland: University of the Arctic Coordination Office, University of Lapland.

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