Online Learners’ Needs

Last week, I moderated a panel discussion at the 2020 Distance Teaching and Learning (DT&L) Conference. Usually, the DT&L conference is held in Madison, WI but with the pandemic still impacting travel, the conference was moved to a virtual event for the first time. Over 900 educators, instructional designers, librarians and administrators gathered throughout the week to discuss online learning. Needless to say, the rapid move to online instruction was a common topic in many sessions.

During the discussion I moderated, I was joined by several experts who spoke on different aspect of distance learning. The discussion was titled “The ABCs of Distance Education” and was intended to provide an introduction to people who may be new to the concept. One of the experts on the panel was Penny Ralston-Berg, senior instructional designer at Penn State World Campus. Ralston-Berg got the session kicked off by provided a continuum of different distance education delivery modes from face-to-face instruction to the recently popularized Hyflex model. With different institutions use different terminology to describe their online modes of delivery, Ralston-Berg’s discussion helped to situate the overall conversation and provide a common vocabulary for the attendees and presenters.

While the panel covered a lot of territory (Universal Design for Learning, Community of Inquiry, Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction), I found Ralston-Berg’s discussion of the “Top Five Online Learner Needs” to be some of the most beneficial aspects of the session. In some unpublished research she had conducted with her online students, Ralston-Berg found that online students reported the following “needs.”

1. Orientation: Students need to be introduced to their online courses and how the instructional space is going to be used. A short orientation video has been shown to have a significant impact on student success in online classes.

2. Transparent Technology: When courses are online, there’s a tendency to use a lot of technology to support student learning and interaction. In her work, Ralston-Berg reports that students need to clearly understand why specific technologies are being used and what value they add to the learning environment.

3. Clear Expectations: This student need is pretty straightforward. Students need to know how they’ll be assessed, how they can communicate with their instructors and how they’ll receive feedback on their work.

4. Consistent Navigation: As students move from module to module and course to course, they need to interact with consistent navigation and organization. This consistency lowers the barriers for students and helps them dedicate more of their cognitive energy to learning.

5. Alignment: While students interact with individual modules in individual courses, they may not always see the purpose of the work they’re doing. Providing instructional alignment across the courses within a program helps students to see the value each course contributes.

While these “learning needs” may reflect the work found in some other documents (QM standards and OSCQR, for example), I found the outline to be a good reminder of the ways to design online courses for student success.

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