Supporting the online learner 2: Give me a break!


In my last post I reflected on my own experience of what support an online learner needs and whether the round-the-clock study patterns enabled by online courses were properly supported by universities that provide support only during campus-based office hours.  My feeling was that online learners really need a staff response to some problems within 12-24 hours.

Why does it matter?

My own experience demonstrated the disruption to study caused when there’s a long gap in asynchronous communication.  This type of snag could be the last straw for some learners who are experiencing other difficulties. The HEA Framework for Student Access, Retention, Attainment and Progression in Higher Education (2016)  states that in order for students to succeed in higher education there needs to be a culture which promotes equitable participation of all students.  So what can universities do to support this?  Rovai’s composite persistence model (2003), below, outlines factors influencing student persistence in online courses. The educating institution in particular is able to influence the internal factors affecting student persistence, and this is important because, according to Tinto (1993, cited in  Hovdhaugen, Frølich & Aamodt, 2013)  student persistence is determined more by what happens at the higher education institution than by students background.  Universities can do a lot to encourage their students to succeed.  The Rovai model shows how accessibility to services and responsive support is a vital link in the chain supporting student success.

Rovai (2003)
Rovai (2003)

How can appropriate levels support be provided without staff workloads spiraling out of control?

Because elearning extends choice, interaction, movement, it is an onerous teaching responsibility (Garrison & Anderson, 2003)

Certainly, one person cannot be expected to provide support for 24 hours, every day.  Many issues can be resolved by the cohort themselves, or through reference material and FAQs.  Other issues require a member of staff to take swift action.  Below are approaches that I’ve used and some new ideas to take back to my own practice.

Teaching approaches

1. Rossen and Ko’s division of labor model (2010)  This approach ensures a fair workload and offers good support:  tutors divide the work and each have a different responsibility.  A team of academic tutors supported by teaching assistants (or similar role) can offer out-of-traditional-hours support whilst ensuring staff workloads remain manageable.  Whilst teaching assistants is not a common resource in UK universities, the formal splitting of work makes sense and is something I’m planning to try

2. A rota:  Staff needn’t be available 24 hours.  When delivering our online seminar, we published our availability and made it workable by devising a rota to ensure the course was monitored and help was available during specified hours, plus a back up person to help if required.  With the luxury of a team of four, we were individually ‘on call’ just a few times a week where we checked the module email and Help forum a few times a day.  Not too onerous.  Learners never waited for more than 12 hours for a response.  This requires a team of staff to make it work.



3. Additional staff and students support roles: An approach more common in the USA than the UK is to have a teaching team comprising academic tutors and teaching assistants of some kind.  A the University of Illinois in Springfield student persistence was a challenge so they devised a support network of online programme coordinators (academic staff) and student peer mentors (students with experience of online learning) to keep in touch with online learners for various purposes throughout their study (Boles et al, 2010).  Rossen & Ko (2010) suggest a teaching assistant : student ratio of 1:25 to increase the level of instructor facilitation.  At many universities an adaptation if this model could include using research students and peers to monitor support.

4. Names and addresses?  Not one I favour, but Rovai (2003) suggests sharing names, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers of online instructors, advisers, and technicians.  Great for students, but I don’t think this is a workable approach. Staff need time off as much as students, and such high levels of support do not necessarily lead to higher student learning outcomes (Rossen & Ko). In addition, it may result in inefficiencies as staff answer the same question multiple times. In my view, a dedicated forum with a rapid response mechanism can be much more efficient.

Understanding of online learning

Workload issues are one of the main concerns for staff new to online teaching (Rossen & Ko, 2010), so support for e-teachers needs to be ongoing and multifaceted (McNaught, 2010).  In organisations offering online courses leaders, managers and planners need to understand and support the requirements of online learning and teaching in order to make arrangements to support the online learner, for example

  • alignment of working hours and workloads to support the needs of online learners; it shouldn’t be reliant of staff goodwill to work outside regular ‘campus’ hours.
  • adjusting the staff-student ratio, staff contracts and working arrangements.  Rossen and Ko (2010) report that in campus-based courses a tutor can teach around 35-50 students whereas to provide the same level of tutor interaction online, the number is more like 15-30 students (or lower).
  • Expectations on individual staff need to be realistic and workloads need to be explicitly negotiated in any proposal for change (McNaught, 2003)

This discussion shows that offering good quality support for online learners is very different to on-campus students, but that this doesn’t need to be at the expense of the online instructor.  There are simple practical approaches that can be taken to increase the quality and effectiveness of support, and of staff work-life balance.


Boles, E., Cass, B., Levin, C., Schroeder, R. E., and McCurdy Smith, S. (2010) Sustaining Students: Retention Strategies in an Online Program. Available from [Accessed 18 March 2016].

Garrison, D. R., and Anderson, T. (2003) E-learning in the 21st Century : A Framework for Research and Practice. London: Routledge.

Higher Education Academy (2016) Framework for Student Access, Retention, Attainment and Progression in Higher Education. Available from [Accessed 20 March 2016].

Hovdhaugen, E., Frølich, N., & Aamodt, P. O. (2013) Informing Institutional Management: institutional strategies and student retention. European Journal of Education, 48(1), 165–177 Available from doi:10.1111/ejed.12002 [Accessed 18 March 2016]

McNaught, C. (2003) Supporting the global e-teacher. International Journal of Training and Development, 7(4), 287–302 Available from: doi:10.1046/j.1360-3736.2003.00187.x [Accessed 20 March 2016]

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

Rovai, A. P. (2003). In Search of Higher Persistence Rates in Distance Education Online Programs. Internet and Higher Education, 6(1), 1-16 Available from: doi:10.1016/S1096-7516(02)00158-6


Image credits

Clocking off by



1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s