Online learning students need new support mechanisms, and different ones to campus-based learners. Your institution may find it challenging to meet these different needs while still maintaining an equitable service for both groups of students. However, campus-based students may sometimes also be online students.
While they will sometimes need the same support, how an institution provides this support may vary considerably. It’s likely that support will be required outside normal working hours, and will have to be offered using online technologies rather than in person.
Online learning also creates new support needs. Even something as straightforward as accessing the same online sources may require very different procedures for those accessing off campus.
Course activities and spaces
It's important that online students feel well connected to teaching staff and other students. If they're not encouraged to feel part of your institution, they may drop out.
Well-designed course activities can make them feel involved, but it’s useful to provide additional online social spaces, such as dedicated discussion forums or regular live chat sessions, to encourage interaction. This also provides an opportunity for students to feed back about the course and their learning experience.
Regular communication with students by email or text can help maintain links with them and encourage them to participate in virtual institutional activities.
Your institution will already offer campus-based student support services from various departments and buildings. As technologies are introduced, it’s likely that some services will be duplicated as the roles and boundaries between departments become less clear.
Seemingly straightforward requirements, such as managing and updating student records, can present problems where departments operate different administrative and database systems. Online students can be put at a disadvantage if administrative systems do not link up.
There needs to be some way of recording if a student accesses support, and ensuring that either their needs are met or they are referred to other support. A teacher may have no information about which support mechanisms a campus-based student has accessed, but this may be different for online students.
Your institution should adopt a coherent approach to make sure online students have equitable access to all kinds of support: learning, technical, administrative and pastoral. Teaching staff tend to be on the front line of online student support as they may be the first point of contact.
If there aren’t appropriate mechanisms to provide online support, students may have to rely on teaching staff or other students for support. This will place an extra burden on teaching staff, and learners might not get the support they should have.
Digital skills and communication
Students need help with technical and digital skills to become active learners online but also need support to develop confidence as an independent and lifelong learners. It’s highly likely that they will need to be competent online communicators in their future professional lives, working collaboratively and sharing content and ideas.
Students as co-creators
Students can become co-creators of learning activity design, content development and curation, assessment banks, peer review and feedback. By including students in this way, your institution can help them become creative and innovative professionals.
It’s feasible for students to develop a professional digital presence, networks, portfolios and even businesses during their course; these enable them to explore possible future pathways and leave the institution with a strong professional identity.
|Barriers||What you can do|
|Lack of understanding of what support online students need||Engage with past, present and future students to find out what support they need|
|Gather intelligence from external sources|
|Allocating and managing staff support for different needs can be difficult||Consider alternative mechanisms to support students in different time zones|
|Offer staff guidance on roles and boundaries|
|Provide staff training and support|
|Lack of joined up systems to track where students have accessed support (and been referred onwards if needed)||Develop institution-wide policies about student tracking activities and data management|