Editor's Note: This resource has been compiled
into one page. Many of the references have suffered link rot due to
age. For a printer friendly version of this document, view the PDF.
One obstacle to successfully facilitating an online course is the need
to adequately promote online learning skills in those students who do not
fit the profile of a "successful" online student. Not every student
is the "ideal" student whether you are in a face-to-face or an
online environment. In fact, this ideal student is probably in the minority
in any class. Therefore, the online course facilitator is charged with
the task of developing the skills of these non-ideal students while creating
a learning environment suitable to various needs, preferences, and abilities.
This somewhat daunting task can be made simpler by first considering the
traits common to successful online students. Numerous authors have addressed
this issue (ref. 1-8). Six key elements appear
in one form or another throughout these works. Students need time management
skills, discipline and motivation, a sense of community ("people" skills),
communication skills, computer/online familiarity and comfort, and access.
However, if we were to limit the online learning environment to only those
students possessing all of these skills or abilities, we would quickly
run out of students to fill online classes. Furthermore, some campuses
are now requiring that every student take at least one online course or
a course with an online component. Clearly, all of the students in such
a situation would not fit the ideal.
Therefore, an online instructor in conjunction with an institution's online
support program need to reduce the need for key online learning traits
or provide mentoring in these key traits or skills. Techniques for overcoming
these needs may not always be obvious. This article presents several methods
instructors can utilize to better facilitate their courses for the "non-ideal" student.
These techniques are organized by the trait they address. Some techniques
address more than one trait and thus may appear more than once.
The trait categories discussed herein are:
- Time Management Skills
- Discipline and Motivation
- Synergy and the Online Learning Community
- Communication Skills
Time Management Skills
Independent of whether a course is self-paced, cohort-paced, or instructor-paced,
time-management skills are a key to the success of an online student due
to the nature of the online classroom (1-2,4,6-7).
There is usually no set time for class to meet (except when a specific
online office hour is used), and often, the lack of large amounts of free
time is a contributing factor to an individual opting to enroll in an online
course. But every student does not innately possess the ability to schedule
his/her time within a self-paced environment, especially if that student
is new to the world of online education. To properly facilitate the learning
experiences of these students, an online instructor and/or online support
staff should structure a course to minimize the necessity of advanced time-management
skills among students. The following suggestions attempt to help an instructor
complete this task.
1. Lesson Length
Make the chunks or pieces of information small enough to appeal to and
be processed by those who have only 15 to 30 minutes a day to log in. These
small pieces of information can quickly be processed by the student who
can then return later to finish other assignments. There can be more than
one chunk of information per unit or module, but the unit itself should
be broke into manageable chunks.
Related to lesson length is the length of pieces of information that are
displayed on screen. In general, there is a 3 click rule in instructional
design for the Web. The 3 click rule specifies than any piece of information
should be viewable by no more than 3 clicks of the mouse on the browsers
scroll bar on a screen at 640x480 resolution when appropriate. Placing
more information on the page may cause the viewer to lose interest or the
information to lose its cohesiveness. Of course, when information maintains
a context and cannot be separated in a pedagogically effective manner,
this rule can be circumvented. The rule can also be ignored when producing
printer friendly pages, since the information can be taken out of the scrolling
context of the Web.
2. Taking the Lesson With Them
Make the Web pages printable (or make a printable form of the pages) so
that the student can take the information along when he/she is offline.
Then, the necessity of the computer is temporarily removed from the course
and the student can continue to learn while offline and away from a computer.
Printer friendly pages can also be friendly to the student's eyes when
there are a lot of readings in a course. Always remember, although many
of today's authors choose to ignore this fact, printed materials and books
have always provided anywhere anytime learning.
3. The Effective Syllabus
An effective online syllabus (or any syllabus) includes more than simply
descriptions, contacts, and the like. An online syllabus should also contain
information relating to the length of time a given assignment is anticipated
to take for the average student. With this information, a student can schedule
the activity into his/her available time.
4. Make Suggestions
At the beginning of the course, if not before, make suggestions to the
students concerning how they can manage and make the best possible use
of the time they devote to the course. These suggestions can include: setting
a specified time (or times) each week to logon to the course and collect
information, creating a schedule for when to complete assignments based
upon the student's availability rather than only on the specified assignment
due dates, and composing course posts in a word processor and later cutting
and pasting them into the course's messaging system.
5. Provide Clear Posting Requirements
With an engaging course in which many students are active participants,
the number of messages posted within any course discussion forum can quickly
grow. When such a case presents itself, it is a good idea to give specific
minimum (and maximum if necessary) requirements concerning the number of
posts each student is required to submit. For example, in an ice-breaking
activity, you could require each student to post responses to 2 other student
posts chosen by selecting the student above and below that student in a
listing of students sorted by some criteria such as alphabetically by login.
When minimum requirements and other guidelines are given, students know
how much work is expected of them for the assignment, ensuring that they
will allocate enough time to do an adequate job and enabling them able
to prioritize their time. Even an active student can have a busy week in
which he/she must schedule time to properly meet this minimum requirement.
Discipline and Motivation Skills
Unlike a face-to-face classroom, the distance student does not have an
instructor on hand to recognize lack of motivation or to immediately prompt
a student to participate. For the most part, distance education courses
rely on an individual's intrinsic motivation based upon interest in the
course materials or desire to receive credit in the course. Student discipline
and motivation levels are bound to vary on a per student and even a per
day basis. Even a normally disciplined and motivated student can fall behind
or lose interest in a course over time. Thus, it is important for the student
and instructor to recognize that with the freedom and flexibility of the
online classroom comes responsibility.
Therefore, an online facilitator/instructor needs to enliven the course
and provide motivation whenever possible while giving the students tips
to aid them in maintaining a positive work ethic. The following suggestions
offer several methods by which an instructor can begin to address this
1. Motivation Beyond the Grade
Not every student takes a course because the material interests him/her.
Sometimes there are degree requirements, inability to attend a face-to-face
class, or other circumstance leading to the student's enrollment. The instructor
needs to help the student realize the potential importance of the material
beyond the need for a passing grade. How can this be done?
To begin with, one can relate the course to items of importance to the
students. Examples within the course and assignment questions can be centered
on topics that interest the students or that relate to current events.
Also, many would argue that students (and people in general) have a naturally
inquisitive nature. To bring out this potential in one's students, try
building "discovery" activities into the course. Ask students
to find a new site or pose a question of their own on a weekly basis. Any
activity that involves the students will aid in their motivation.
Finally, reward and encourage students. Without the immediate feedback
of a face-to-face environment, students are unable to see the smile or
nod of an instructor recognizing that the student has submitted a valuable
contribution to the course discussion. While an instructor should limit
the number of "good job" posts within the course forum in order
to reduce the total number of posts that can build up over time, the instructor
can give personal feedback via email or student specific forums so that
the student knows that his/her effort has been acknowledged and is appreciated
by the instructor.
2. Make Your Presence Felt
As stated above, an online student is unable to "see" the instructor.
Facial expressions and other non-verbal queues are not present to relay
an instructor's involvement to the student. Therefore, the online instructor
must employ various other methods to maintain student awareness of the
instructor's presence. How can this be done?
Respond promptly and effectively to student posts. These responses do
not always have to be within the forum. They can be individually directed
to students on a scheduled basis to give the student feedback and to reduce
clutter in the course discussion forums.
When asking questions or posting responses in the course discussion forum,
engage the students in the discussion and prompt higher level thinking.
Redirect comments and pose questions that explore a student's answer.
Use an instructor's page effectively. Give the students an image of yourself
and a short biographical statement so that they can have a mental representation
of the instructor and/or teaching assistants. Not only does this provide
communal aspects to the course, but it gives the student an awareness of
3. Direct Questions
If a student is beginning to lag behind the rest of the course, or the
student is not making the required posts, direct items specifically to
that student. When prompting higher order thinking, provide a list of students
that you would like to respond to the question. Always be sure that such
lists include active students as well to take the pressure off the lagging
student as having to be the first one to post a response.
In addition, don't be afraid to send a student email asking if anything
might be interfering with his/her participation in the course. Be sure
to explain both the importance of participation in the course and your
desire to continue to receive any valuable input that the student may have.
Always be positive in such correspondence understanding that often the
reasons for lagging are mundane and beyond the absolute control of the
4. Other Considerations
Discipline can sometimes be affected by a student's ability to manage
his/her time. Refer to the previous section on time
management for more on this topic.
Avoid interruptions. One possible deterrent to student participation could
be unrelated to motivation, but rather dependent on the student's ability
to find or create a quiet workspace or learning environment conducive to
thought and study. If this is the case, suggest that such students seek
out a particular space and time at which others are aware that they need
to be left undisturbed to work on the course.
Synergy and the Online Learning Community
Palloff and Pratt (8) and Stephen Covey (9)
argue that while the power of the community is great, the power of the
learning community is even greater. Shaffer and Anundsen (10)
relate that there is an innate human yearning for a sense of belonging.
A "Conscious Community" can be created within the online environment
through student participation in discussion about course goals, ethics,
and communication styles or norms. Such a community supports the intellectual
as well as personal growth of all involved. Learning together can create
a sense of "synergy" in which the students feed off of each other's
excitement and motivation. As Covey states, "The total outcome of
knowledge acquired and shared is far greater than what would be generated
through independent, individual engagement with the material." (9)
What one student knows is enhanced by the knowledge and contribution of
other students in the course. The challenge for the instructor is to facilitate
this environment so that every student can become a part of this community.
1. Provide a Course Philosophy
If creation of a community of learners is important for your personal
course philosophy, then let the students know. Provide your philosophy
as part of the course information. In this way, students know what to expect
as the course begins to unfold, and they can relate better to the instructor's
instructional style. Model this philosophy in your attitudes and activities
within the course.
2. Structure Discussion Into the Course
Community is difficult if not impossible to develop without effective
and consistent communication (see communication section)
among the students. Therefore, to establish and maintain community within
the course, structure or build discussion into the course design. Provide
guidelines for student posts (these can be negotiated with the students
to increase their sense of involvement) in content, length, number, etc.
3. Structure the Discussion
If having discussion as part of a course is the first step in creating
an online community, then controlling that discussion is the second step.
This control is exerted, in part, by the structuring of the discussion.
For example, create easy to follow guidelines for where students should
put their posts, organize distinct topics into separate forums to keep
the information manageable and understandable, and in many cases provide
the first post within a forum to give additional guidelines for that chat
space beyond that suggested by the title of the forum.
4. Be Engaging (even funny when appropriate)
Be open minded about sharing life, work, and educational experiences with
the students as part of the learning process. By serving as a model to
the students, the instructor can aid the students in opening up and presenting
their own personal anecdotes and other information that could prove valuable
to the course. An engaging instructor/facilitator can help students feel
at ease and relaxed so that the class as a whole can move on more effectively
to the process of learning.
5. Break the Ice
The best way to begin to develop community is to present the students
with an activity at the beginning of the course so that they may get to
know each other. Although in a traditional face-to-face course such activities
can occur through informal discussion before and after classs, they must
be explicitly built into an online course.
6. Fix Problem Situations Quickly and Effectively
Whatever takes a lifetime to create can be destroyed in an instant. Therefore,
an online course facilitator needs to constantly be on the lookout for
situations that can disrupt the learning community. Palloff and Pratt (8)
and Ko and Rossen (6) both present guidelines
for handling disruptive situations. The most important item an instructor
can keep in mind is that the disruptive student may not realize s/he is
causing a problem. Not all situations are intended to be disruptive or
The table below summarizes possible solutions to different types of student
disruption. As always, be prepared to provide personal contact via email
if the situation is escalating or to make the student aware of your concern.
1. Give him/her the opportunity to "save face"
2. State that while alternative explanations exist, the course will be
following the one that you have presented.
3. If the problem persists, acknowledge the student's valuable input
and knowledge, but to provide comments contructively and non-disruptively
while maintaining focus on the main topic of the discussion.
||1. Note the complaint.
2. Ignore any hostility to maintain your composure.
3. Address the issue.
4. Remove student if absolutely necessary.
|The Lagging Belligerent Student
||1. Although the student may be angered by falling behind,
ignore emotion and be supportive.
2. Offer advice.
|The Attacking Belligerent Student
||See the Mutineer above.
||1. Restate guidelines for all discussion forums as well
as guidelines for student posts.
2. Respond quickly to any posts that might present themselves as the only
answer and ask for alternatives.
3. Pose questions directly to other students.
||1. There can be many reasons why a student's postings
are continually not on time. The first step is to determine the reason(s).
2. Based on these reasons try to come up with a solution that will help
the student to catch up and remain with the course.
|The Must-Have-An-A Student
1. Be firm.
2. Be objective.
||1. Encourage the student.
2. Pose questions directly to other students.
3. Inquire individually about possible reasons (see staller above).
4. Suggest techniques such as managing time and printing messages to help
enable the student to participate.
|The Overloaded Student
||1. If a student is consistently posting, yet for some
reason is receiving little student feedback, prompt for this feedback
through directed questions regarding the student's posts.
|The Concerned or Anxious Student
||1. Determine nature of concern (is it a privacy issue
or anxiety over student feedback).
2. Reassert purpose of classroom discussion.
3. Encourage participation and be supportive.
4. Plug any security leaks if they pose a concern.
5. Suggest helpful techniques to student such as managing time, printing
messages, waiting to absorb materials before composing responses, etc.
7. Foster Effective Communication Among Students
To create and maintain the online community, the students must communicate
effectively with one another and the instructor. The next section of this
article discusses how communication and communication skills can be developed
within the online classroom.
In the online community, virtually all communication is written, so it
is essential that all students have the ability to properly express themselves
in writing. However, the writing ability of online students often vary
greatly. Tact and other communication skills will also vary among online
students. Ealier it was mentioned that effective and consistent communication
is a key to fostering a sense of community and creating synergy among the
students, therefore, it is extremely important for the effective online
facilitator to do whatever is possible to ensure the development and continuation
of effective communication among online students. The following guidelines
are intended to help bring about this end.
1. Be a Model
As the facilitator, one has the ability to take control of certain aspects
of a course, and communication is one of them. By modeling effective communication
and providing guidelines, a facilitator can show students what is expected
of them. Here are some useful tips on how to respond to student posts and
influence the overall tenor and direction of the group discussion:
- Be positive and remove unintended or unnecessary emotion from your
posts, however, do not be afraid to add emotion when it can lead to a
more positive virtual environment.
- Always think twice before posting even mundane responses to student
- Maintain the instructor "presence" in the online course and
remember that the students can not hear or see you think or type, they
can only read your posts (and hear your words if audio transmission is
- When necessary, be prepared to provide individual attention to problem
students or students with special needs.
- As White and Weight (7) put it, do not
react, but respond. Provide a unifying voice for the students and address
issues fairly, quickly, and effectively.
- Respond with clarification or extension when needed.
2. Give Instructions
Provide clear and concise instructions for all activities. The main course
orientation should include general guidelines for contributing to group
discussions, such as requirements regarding content, frequency, and length
when appropriate. Length and content requirements can also be instigated
during a course to allow the course to develop somewhat on its own. For
example, if students are posting messages that are too long, post a maximum
length, and if the posts are incomplete, include minimum content requirements.
In this way, if the students are already performing at or above expections
in the absense of instructor created restraints, they will feel a sense
of control over the environment.
Be sure to explain the necessity that comments be constructive and that
no "flaming" take place. If students maintain a positive attitude
and present comments in a constructive manner, a better community can be
3. Provide for Communication in the Course Requirements and Philosophy
Incorporate communication into the course structure as a requirement make
the reasons for this requirement clear in the course orientation. Help
students to understand the important role communication plays in the development
of the online course community. Furthermore, create a common forum where
students can discuss any topic much as they would before and after a face-to-face
4. Break the Ice
The best way to begin to develop community is to plan on online activity
at the beginning of the course that will help the students to get to know
each other and the course environment. These activities can be through
discussion before and after class during a face-to-face class, but must
be explicitly built into an online course.
5. Provide Motivation and Encouragement
Encourage student posts and discussion and be prepared to encourage those
that are falling behind. When applicable, send individual posts of encouragement
to students or send thank you's and good jobs to students as individual
6. Remedial Efforts
If a student has clear communication difficulties, be understanding. In
the case of disabilities, try to construct ADA compliance into the course.
For students with limited writing ability, which should actually be addressed
prior to beginning an online course, suggest possible remedial efforts
that the student can participate in to improve his/her writing ability.
7. Understand the Forms of Online Talk
There are several forms that online talk can take. Be able to use them
to your benefit and understand when other students are making use of them.
If necessary, provide the students resources explaining special online
languages such as acronyms and emoticons.
- Control Talk - providing guidelines and instructions
- Humor - entertaining and lightening student spirits
- Acronyms - numerous short acronyms such as (IMHO - in my humble opinion,
RFLMAO - rolling on the floor laughing my behind off (Web Design in a
Nutshell by O'Reilly press and numerous other resources contain comprehensive
listings of these and the next item, emoticons.))
- Emoticons - text queues to emotional states ( :> :) :o
- Androgical Approach - attempt to take gender out of online discussion
language unless appropriate to the discussion.
8. Meanings within Meanings
Try to understand the meaning within meanings of student posts. Be able
to recognize subversive hostility or emotional stress within a students
post. This is asking a lot and is a difficult task. Most likely, only clear
examples will be recognized, but recognizing these meanings gives the instructor
the ability to respond to them.
9. Other Techniques Based on Mode of Communication
- Start major topics yourself with explanatory post.
- Narrow topics to smallest units to reduce clutter in the discussion
- Restrict most forum topics to course activites and topics.
- Organize forums so that they correspond to the course flow.
- Be aware of cultural patterns in the manner in which people post.
- Respond frequently, but save "nice job" posts for individual
student forums or emails.
- Limit group size (I've seen viewpoints ranging from 4-12 people as
an optimum. My experience says 5-10 is manageable and effective.)
- If necessary, employ some form of "crowd control" or ask
students to take turns in a specific order of by a given system to minimize
- If possible, use audio for the instructor feed. This allows the discussion
to take place in text while the instructor can still access the auditory
senses of the students.
- Allow some socializing before and after. Possibly have the synchronous
chat room constantly available, but post specific times for course discussion.
- Many online students are online because of schedule restraints. Therefore,
do not expect to be able to have all of your synchronous sessions at
a specific time. Be prepared to stretch sessions out over time with multiple
times for each discussion with students organized into groups based on
- Post an agenda in advance to keep the chat time organized and to give
students a chance to prepare.
- Preface individual responses with to whom it is addressed.
- Always have a backup plan. One can still not count on the reliability
of synchronous systems.
Many people have an aversion to computer use (or at least the modern connotation
of a computer as a desktop processor with keyboard, monitor, and productivity
software since even a calculator is technically a computer.) In many cases,
this aversion will prohibit that person's ability to participate in an
online course. However, some students will take online courses by necessity
and will attempt to place their "technophobia" aside for grander
purposes such as job promotion. Therefore, the online instructor needs
to be willing and able to create a course that will minimize a student's
anxiety. The following techniques are designed to help this process.
1. Pre-Course Orientation
Provide an orientation prior to the online course. If a cohort model is
being used, consider bringing the entire cohort to a face-to-face orientation
prior to beginning the program. This meeting can serve to orient the group
with the technology being used and to provide a greater sense of community
for the group. When it isn't practical or appropriate to bring the group
to campus, provide some form of tutorial on all the technology used.
2. Support Services
Before your course begins, let your students know exactly where to go
or whom to contact in order to get technical assistance, even if it's an
800 number. If multiple support resources are available for your course
(for example, a telephone help desk, online chat-based help, etc.), tell
them which resource is best for specific types of problems. Be sure to
foster a supportive environment by letting students know that you will
do whatever you can to resolve their technical issues.
The best gift you can give to the technologically challenged student is
patience. When possible, try to make concessions to help these students
to keep up or catch up.
Expect the range of access that students have to the Internet to vary
widely among your students. Access includes speed of network connection,
available network connections at home verses work, and disability issues.
Course design must take these access issues into account. The following
discussion outlines steps that an instructor can take to minimize access
1. Disability Accessibility
All online instructors should be make sure that their course materials
are accessible to students with disabilities. To learn more about this
topic, see my November /December 2000 Pointer and Clicker, Accessible Online
I would highly recommend that any instructor be prepared to deal with disability
2. Network Access and Bandwidth
Design the course to take into account the slowest network connection
available to your students. In most cases, this may be as slow as a 28.8
What does this mean? If you must use video content or some other form
of high bandwidth content, provide alternative versions of the information
for students to use and possibly even provide the content on a CDROM that
can be distributed among the students. Also, limit the use of graphics
or provide a low bandwidth version of your course webpages.
Finally, suggest other possible locations where students can try to gain
access, such as local libraries.
The purpose of this article was to enlighten the reader and describe techniques
that an online educator/facilitator can employ to increase the usability
of his/her online course to all students. In any environment, there will
always be individuals of varying ability, and it is important as an educator
to take these varying abilities into account when designing an online course.
When proper care is taken, an instructor can help to insure the success
of all online students.
Resources and References
1. - Illinois Online Network. 2000. What Makes a Successful Online
Student? Available Online: http://www.ion.illinois.edu/resources/onlineoverview/StudentProfile.html (March
2001). (See ION Website to find document)
2. - Terra Community College. 1997. How to Succeed in Distance Learning
Courses. Available Online: http://www.terra.cc.oh.us/detips.html (March
3. - Reid, John E. 2000 What Every Student Should Know About Online
Learning. Available Online: http://www.ion.illinois.edu/online/course1/reid.htm (March
2001). (See ION website to find document)
4. Young, Jeffrey R. 2001. Logging In With Sara Dulaney Gilbert - Time-Management
Skills Are One Key to Success for Online Students. The Chronicle
of Higher Education. Feb. 2, 2001. Available Online: http://chronicle.com/free/2001/02/2001020201u.htm (March
5. Collins, Mauri. 1996. Facilitating Interaction in Computer Mediated
Online Courses. Background paper presented at the FSU/AECT Distance
Education Conference, Tallahasee, FL. June 1996. Available Online: http://www.emoderators.com/moderators/flcc.html.
6. Ko, Susan & Rossen, Steve. 2001. Teaching Online - A Practical
Guide. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston
7. White, Ken & Weight, Bob. 2000. The Online Teaching Guide - A Handbook
of Attitudes, Strategies, and Techniques for the Virtual Classroom. Allyn & Bacon:
8. Palloff, Rena M. & Pratt, Keith. 1999. Building Learning Communities
in Cyberspace - Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom. Jossey-Bass
Publishers: San Francisco.
9. Covey, Stephen. 1989. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:
Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Fireside: New York.
10. Shaffer, C. & Anundsen, K. 1993. Creating Community Anywhere.
Perigee Books: New York
I would also like to acknowledge Susan Manning of Waubonsee Community
College for her input.