Supporting the online learner 1: Open all hours?

campus closed

Online and distance learning often brings in students from a wider range of backgrounds than conventional education…their support needs may be somewhat different from ‘average’ students (Simpson, 2013, p207)

These days customer service and convenience is paramount.  Your favourite restaurant will now send anything off their menu to you via courier, you can have your parcels delivered to the corner shop for collection by tea time and have your prescription teleported to your local pharmacy.  Our customer service expectations are high.  So this week I was surprised by two services which were only available 9 – 5 Monday to Friday which are exactly the times I am at work and unable to access them.

One of them, predictably enough, was a delivery company to whom I paid £10 for their ‘service’.  To receive my item I’ll need to be at home during office hours.  Why would a delivery company design a service which couldn’t deliver items to the hands of the people receiving them?  They’re delivering items to people, not buildings.

The other has been my online Master’s course.  The only time I can engage with the course properly is at the weekends (I started studying at 7.30 this morning, and am still going at 3.30 despite the spring-like weather outside).  The flexibility to study as and when I can is the reason I chose this course, and it’s excellent that universities provide such opportunities.   However, the support for non-academic matters (e.g. lost content – which needs swift resolution to facilitate efficient study) is based on the model for students attending campus, whereas the online course is designed for people with varied attendance patterns and in any time-zone.  So at 7.30 on Saturday morning when I found that a resource I needed wasn’t available I knew I would need to wait 7 days until I was able to pick up on it again.  The course is wonderfully flexible, but the arrangements for swift support hasn’t caught up. 24/7 course, 9-5 support.

You’ve got to accept the fact that you are basically not teaching a subject, you are teaching people. (Madeline L’Engle)

The course tutors have expertly crafted an engaging and effective course modelling heaps of good practice (I have to say that, right?  But it’s true, I don’t know how they achieve this balancing act), but I wanted to use this opportunity to reflect on what online distance learners need and what they can reasonably expect in terms of support from their university which is staffed by human beings who have busy lives outside of work, too.

What support do online learners need?

Previously I believed that online tutor availability definitely needn’t be 24/7, but that in order to help both tutor and student to manage their workloads and have reasonable expectations they should:

  1. Agree as a course team what support they can give to their online cohort (supported by the university)
  2. State this clearly in the course information, including response times and ‘office hours’.

I still believe this is a sensible approach, and Paloff and Pratt (2013) agree that it’s the tutor’s role to create realistic expectations of their online presence.  However, until now I hadn’t appreciated that with flexible online learning comes flexible support requirements.

open 24 hours

It’s important to point out that many issues don’t need a quick response directly from an academic tutor; in my Master’s there is a variety of support mechanism and our tutors have developed a really strong self-help culture within the cohort which is something students definitely need.  However, there are things which are beyond the cohort’s ability to resolve and this is when a member of staff needs to be on-hand.

Online students tend to be more demanding than their on-campus counterparts (Rossen and Ko, 2010, p317) and are likely to study around the clock.  To facilitate this, help should be provided as quickly as possible, but not necessarily immediately.  In my case a response within 12-24 hours would have been a huge help so I could continue working during the weekend.  Gilbert (2007) found similar expectations, where students hoped the tutor would be available at least once per day, and instructors in the Open University of Catalonia monitor group discussion areas and respond at least once every 48 hours (Rossen and Ko, 2010).

Whatever the arrangements, students need access to an effective communication mechanism designed to support the study habits encouraged by flexible online courses; a system monitored by a member of staff within clearly agreed time frames.  Campus-based hours are not enough.

In part 2 of this post, I’ll move on to exploring how high levels of student support can be provided without staff workloads spiraling our of control, and why responsive support matters.


Paloff, R. M., and Pratt, K. (2013) Lessons from the virtual classroom : the realities of online teaching (2nd ed.) Jossey Bass

Rossen, S., and Ko, S. (2010) Teaching Online: A Practical Guide (3 ed.) Taylor and Francis

Simpson, O. (2013) Supporting Students for Success in Online and Distance Education: Routledge

Image credits

Open 24 Hours by

Brighton College closed, 1968. Photograph submitted for public use on University of Brighton alumni web pages


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