Helping Online Learners Succeed (Part 1)

Helping Online Learners Succeed
Summary: How can we help online learners successfully complete a course of study? The first of two blog posts by Mary Burns focuses on strategies, the first of which is to figure out who should be an online learner. The next post, will offer strategies for promoting retention in online courses.

Assess Students’ Readiness to be Online Learners

Many universities assume that because their students are part of the Facebook and Instagram generation, that they have the skills to be automatically successful online learners. This is a dangerous assumption as the high rates of attrition in online courses and MOOCs (as high as 90 percent in some cases) attest. Education institutions also assume that because students are eager online learners that they will understand and accept the new models of instruction and ways of working online or in blended environments. This is also dangerous assumption. Many students, though they may appear to be eager online learners, will often resist new models of teaching and learning and the increased responsibility they will need to be pushed and supported to learn differently. And many university students will take online courses because of the perception that it is easier, and they will need to be pushed and supported to work harder (especially when they see that an online course often involves more work than a face-to-face course.)

The next two posts in this series will focus on supporting online learners. The first step in this support is to diagnostically assess students’ readiness to be an online learner.

Not every learner should be an online learner. Research on successful online learners demonstrates that successful online learners are highly motivated, self-directed, and comfortable with technology and have good time-management skills. These are clearly the types of learners that online programs should attempt to reach. Many other students simply may not have the skills or disposition or desire to learn online.  These dispositions and skills can often be measured through an assessment of online readiness that looks at students’ technology fluency, ability to work alone, self-directedness, etc.

This is not to suggest that students who lack the skills to be successful online learners should be screened out of online education opportunities, since research also demonstrates that these skills can be cultivated in an online learning environment. Rather, it means that institutions must diagnostically assess a student’s readiness to participate fully in online courses via learning skills and interest inventories. In so doing, it can embark on four courses of action:

  1. Build its online program by starting with learners who have skills to do well in an online course
  2. Develop the skills of “weak” online learners by offering “mini-courses” that give learners a taste of learning in an online world
  3. Make sure to offer multiple structure and supports in online courses (such as mentors, frequent office hours, and virtual “face time”) so all types of learners can be successful.
  4. Choose learning management systems with strong analytics that allow instructors to track student progress and implement a commensurate course of interventions should students begin to fall behind.

Next month’s post will offer more suggestions on helping students successfully complete online learning programs.

Would you be interested to know how to help Online Learners complete an Online Program? You may find valuable the article 10 Strategies To Help Online Learners Complete An Online Program.


Burns, M. (2011). Distance education for teacher training: Modes, models and methods, pp. 185-188. Available: