Addressing The Needs Of The Online Learner
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Who Is The Learner?

In my last article, I spoke about the benefit of developing rapport with online students. There’s much to be gained when common ground is established and a level of mutual respect is developed; these foster not only a strong academic relationship but also strong academic performance. The idea of having one’s work valued leads to wanting to produce more valuable work; it works in both directions, the student desires to produce a better-quality academic product and, in turn, the instructor seeks to deliver a more interactive and elevated learning experience. In order for rapport development to be successful, an instructor needs to learn about the student: what drives their desire to learn, how do they best learn, and how can you adapt the online learning environment to meet the needs of a diverse set of learners?

What Drives The Desire To Learn?

Getting to know a student online doesn’t necessarily feel organic. Like what happens often in online dating, a student may offer a short bio and a picture, but the instructor may wonder if there is some aspect of the person that might be useful to know but isn’t being offered. It is important to try to make online learning feel more natural and welcoming as if the students were taking the class in-person.

How does an instructor in an introduction section of a course find out what makes their students tick? Start by asking questions that are open-ended or introspective:

  • What is your family's make up and how do they feel about your academic pursuits?
  • When did you first discover that you wanted to study this subject matter?
  • Do you enjoy reading or listening to books? Why?
  • How many previous online courses have you taken and in what subject areas?
  • What kind of work do you do and will this course be useful to your career? How?

Gaining these little insights may help to better motivate students because now the instructor can evaluate their level of interest, whether they have support at home and if they see value in taking the course for career advancement or personal growth. Keep in mind that a lengthy essay is not the goal here, just an overview; it can be helpful to set a word limit for each question. Just make sure that once an answer is received, take the time to read and respond to each student and then use this information to enhance instruction to fit the students’ motivations.

How Does The Student Learn Best?

So, do students like reading or listening to books? Have any taken online courses before? In finding out this information, an instructor can provide materials which match students’ learning needs. When designing the content for courses, instructors should keep in mind that some students prefer, and even learn better, when they listen to lecture materials or watch a video clip of instruction; others prefer to read the materials and write out their notes. Still others would like to be more interactive with the materials and would appreciate a tangible experience if possible. This could be a demonstration that they can repeat or a quiz or survey within the lecture materials. To meet the needs of the student, a creative instructor will look at ways to incorporate all these different modalities to offer a well-rounded delivery of course content.

Diversity Of Learners

Once an instructor has a sense of what motivates the students and has adapted the content to make the learning environment more dynamic, it is time to look at each students’ unique needs. An effective online instructor, in getting to know the students, will be able to predict and react quickly to a student who needs help. No two students are alike, whether their differences lie in just basic level of online learning experience or whether their differences are related to social/economic/cultural issues.

An instructor needs to be sensitive to how these factors come into play within diverse student populations, especially online where communication doesn’t often come with the benefit of inflection, facial expression, or tone. Providing a comfortable and proactive learning environment that meets the students’ individual needs as well as the needs of the entire learning community will encourage sensitivity and a sense of relationship among the students. This will serve to improve the experience that each student will receive in a course and will further enhance learning.

When all these factors are given the attention they deserve, students will not only get through their coursework, they will thrive.