Understanding the Building Blocks of Online Learning: Part 4

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Understanding the Building Blocks of Online Learning: How Faculty Can Support Learner Success

How Faculty Can Support Learner Success

Through the writings and research of pre-eminent online learning expert, Dr. Tony Bates

For almost 50 years, Tony Bates has been a consistent, persistent and influential voice for the reform of teaching and learning in post-secondary education, notably through the effective use of emerging technologies. Author of 11 books and 350 research papers in the field of online learning and distance education, Tony Bates is also an advisor to over 40 organizations in 25 countries, and publisher of what is arguably the most influential blog on online learning with over 20,000 visits a month. A Contact North | Contact Nord Research Associate, Dr. Bates has helped educators, academic administrators and policy makers grasp key concepts, trends and challenges in online learning. This posting is one of a series that looks at Tony’s perspectives and advice on key issues in online learning.

This series was researched and developed by Contact North | Contact Nord Research Associates,
Dr. Jane Brindley and Dr. Ross Paul.

This consideration of Bates’ work focuses on supporting online learners, an area sometimes overlooked, but which research has shown is essential to creating quality programs that provide the best opportunity for success.

What is learner support?

Learner support activities are all the interactive processes and services that colleges and universities offer to help students navigate institutional systems and develop the knowledge and skills they need in order to become lifelong, independent and collaborative learners.

Bates recommends a comprehensive institutional plan for technology integration that recognizes that the accessibility of online learning extends to all parts of the student experience, with significant implications for faculty roles, all other areas of learner support, and institutional infrastructure.

Bates identifies the following types of support as being most important for online learners:

  • Marketing/course information
  • Registration and tuition-fee payment
  • Course admission/passwords/technical help
  • Ordering and delivery of materials including library materials
  • Student advising and counselling
  • Online teaching and moderating
  • Student feedback and assessment

Development of comprehensive, high-quality and accessible learner support creates a rich and responsive virtual learning environment, which contributes to a culture of commitment and engagement. Here we focus on the two aspects of learner support, which are provided by individual instructors – online teaching and moderating and student feedback and assessment.

Why learner support?

For Bates, investment in online learner support is important because:

  1. Online learning widens access to education resulting in a more diverse student population, but not everyone has the independent learning skills to meet its unique demands. To be successful, online learners need to take active responsibility for their learning and develop superior skills in written communication, navigating virtual environments, and information literacy skills such as locating, evaluating, and applying information.
  2. Learners who choose online study because of its flexibility are often working adults with multiple responsibilities, which put them at greater risk of dropping out.
  3. Effective learner support, along with quality course design, can mitigate the risk of attrition.
  4. Many learners study online out of necessity and cannot travel to a campus to gain access to support and administrative services.
  5. Campus-based learners, whether or not they are taking online courses, increasingly expect to conduct all other transactions with their institution online, including use of support services.
  6. Educational institutions offering online study can distinguish themselves in a competitive market by offering accessible and comprehensive online support.

An additional perspective is provided in Tony’s blog post in which he advises learners about the importance of the support services they are offered when they are studying online.

Implications for faculty

For learners who do not come to campus, faculty will often be the main point of contact with the educational institution. Their expectations may extend beyond your teaching role to advice about course choice, financial aid, and technical problems. If your institution has a comprehensive approach to online learning, these services will be accessible online and your role will be limited to making appropriate referrals. Otherwise, the lack of other forms of accessible support can place extra demands on you.

The Essential Roles of Faculty in Supporting Learners

Bates identifies the primary source of support for online learners as the instructor who guides, mentors, moderates, and provides student feedback and assessment.

Online Teaching and Moderating

In stressing that the pedagogical advantage of online learning is the ability of students to interact with teachers and each other over time and distance, Bates offers the following advice to faculty:

  1. Course design: Start with a well-designed course that sets out clear learning objectives, learning activities, and assessment methods, and clearly states expectations for students and you as instructor.
  2. Online class organization: Manage your time by establishing how and when you can be contacted, and your response turnaround time. Create a well-organized classroom that is easy for students to navigate and includes information most frequently requested.
  3. Focus on interaction: Invest your time more in interaction with students, and less in delivering content. The primary focus is students’ individual and collaborative learning processes, but you should be active and visible as guide, observer and facilitator.
  4. Introductory activity: Welcome students individually at the beginning of the course and set a task that helps them to get to know the classroom and each other.
  5. Setting the tone: Establish a tone and culture of trust and openness that fosters participation. Model critical, but constructive feedback and exchange of ideas, showing how to agree but take an idea farther and how to respectfully disagree based on evidence. Encourage students to ask questions, take risks with sharing ideas and opinions, and to exchange with and support each other in the learning process. Foster a learner-led classroom, but set clear expectations and boundaries, and be prepared to intervene and react quickly to help students stay on track and be constructive.
  6. Goal setting for discussions: Set explicit goals for online discussions so that interaction is more than an exchange of opinions and leads to deeper learning (e.g. deepening or personalizing understanding, developing critical and analytical thinking skills, problem-solving, knowledge construction, and applying experience to new situations). Moderate discussions based on the expressed goals, and help students develop the skills to participate.
  7. Knowledge construction and academic skill building: Use class and small group discussions and projects to model and engage students in academic discourse, teaching skills, such as constructing evidence-based arguments. Through focused discussion, students can build new ideas, re-consider the meaning of their experience, develop theories and frameworks, and consider implications of application of new knowledge.
  8. Learning objectives: Match discussion topics to learning objectives, thus helping students in completing assignments through better understanding of concepts and their application to a current issue.
  9. Asynchronous communication and critical thinking: Asynchronous discussions lend themselves well to development of critical thinking. Model thoughtful questioning and response that moves a conversation farther and deeper; help students to use the wait time between postings for reflection; provide clarification without ending the conversation; and encourage students to develop and test their own meaning of concepts and ideas.
  10. Group activities: Use small group projects to help students build online cooperative and collaborative learning skills including sharing experience, using complementary strengths, and testing and developing ideas. Students who have chosen online learning for its flexibility may be reluctant to engage in group activity. As an instructor, you can guide the process positively by providing criteria for self-selection for group formation, ensuring that students are clear about the task, monitoring discussions and progress toward goals, providing frequent feedback and encouragement, troubleshooting when groups get off track, and defining the assessment process and criteria.
  11. Individual participation: Encourage participation in a variety of ways through ensuring discussions are meaningful and relevant to learning objectives and learner experience, setting tasks that require reporting, and engaging in peer critique. Check in by private e-mail with non-participants to find ways to support them and with those who dominate discussions to ensure that their participation is focused, meaningful, and does not discourage others.
  12. Adjusting for differences: Be aware of cultural, epistemological, and language differences. Students used to a didactic model of teaching may not immediately thrive in a virtual classroom until they learn to challenge their teacher’s and peers’ ideas and to articulate their own with confidence. Students learning in a second language may need time to adjust to an environment where reading and writing are the main forms of communication. However, asynchronous communication gives them time to absorb meaning and compose responses.

Tony’s blog post on management of communication between instructor and students provides additional insight into this topic.

Student Feedback and Assessment

Good teaching involves continual and effective feedback that helps students become better learners. Particularly in online environments where students can feel isolated, your continuous feedback is essential to supporting their learning.

  1. Continuous feedback: Provide informal feedback in a variety of forms including monitoring class and small group discussions and projects and modeling desired skills and behaviours. Feedback at mid-term helps students know where they stand relative to stated objectives. Individual feedback by private e-mail is valuable when a student needs extra help and encouragement.
  2. Learning objectives: Match formal assessment methods to stated learning objectives. If the objective is to enable learners to develop specific skills such as seeking, finding, analyzing and interpreting information or collaborative problem-solving, these abilities need to be assessed along with comprehension of the subject matter, a task made easier by choosing the right technology (#4 below).
  3. Transparency: Be transparent with formal assessments. Include grading rubrics for each assignment as part of the course information. This not only contributes to learning and a sense of control for students, it should save you time in responding to individual e-mail queries.
  4. Choose the best technology: Use the capacities of available technologies to their best advantage when designing assessment methods and tools. The online environment can accommodate multiple-choice examinations, writing assignments, collaborative projects, and demonstration projects such as e-portfolios that may include work samples, a learning journal, collected learning resources, and multimedia artifacts such as a self-produced video.
  5. Detailed feedback: Include sufficient comments on formal assessments that help students understand their grade, strengths, and areas for improvement. Written detailed feedback takes time but for online learners who do not have the opportunity to meet with you, it is essential for evaluating their own performance including what they are doing well and how they can improve.
  6. Assessing participation: If you decide to assess participation in class discussions, set criteria based on the quality of posts and their link to stated learning objectives and publish these for students. As much as possible, avoid grading for quantity of posts and put the focus on learning through meaningful and relevant discussion and effective moderating.
  7. Plagiarism: Help students understand the meaning of cheating within the context of academic standards. Post expectations with regard to original work and citing, and model desired behaviour. If you use plagiarism detection software, make it available to students so that they can evaluate and correct their own work first. Run all assignments and papers through plagiarism detection programs as part of the grading process, and be consistent in taking action when there are infractions.

Bates’ essential message about supporting learners through quality teaching, moderating, feedback, and assessment is that you can use these activities in purposeful ways to develop active approaches to learning that encourage learners to participate, analyze and criticize, offer alternative solutions and approaches, and take risks. By providing effective learner support in rich online learning spaces, you can develop lifelong and independent learners well-prepared for the knowledge-based society of the 21st century.


If you are fairly new to online teaching, you might want to read the series of 10 posts on Quality Online Learning on Tony’s Blog, which cover designing, teaching, and evaluating online courses in some detail. If you start with the last one, you will find links to all the previous ones. A condensed version covering all the main posts in the series can be found here. Experienced instructors might be interested in reading Designing online learning for the 21st century.

Whether new or experienced, you will find much value in reviewing How to Prepare and Moderate Online Discussions for Online Learning for a more detailed discussion of best practices.

Bates, A.W. (2004). The Promise and Myths of E-Learning in Post-Secondary Education. in Castells, M. (ed.) The Network Society: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Cheltenham, UK/Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

Bates, A.W. (2005). Technology, e-learning and distance education. (2nd ed). London, UK/New York, NY: Routledge.

Bates, A.W. and Poole, Gary. (2003). Effective Teaching with Technology in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, John Wiley and Sons.

Tony Bates’ website (www.tonybates.ca)