Supporting Students’ Success in Online Courses: Insights and Implications

Jacqueline ZweigJacqueline Zweig (at left) and Erin Stafford (at right) lead research that deepens understanding Erin Staffordof the role of online learning in K–12 students’ academic experiences and provides insight into factors that may influence students' success in online courses. In their work for the REL Northeast & Islands at EDC and the REL Midwest Virtual Education Research Alliance, Jacqueline and Erin specialized in designing instruments to gather information on key stakeholders’ experiences with online learning. In 2016, Jacqueline and Erin joined other leading researchers from across the country in serving as Fellows for the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute. In this post, Jacqueline and Erin share some of the findings from their research and consider implications for future research.

Our recent online learning research at EDC has focused on the professional experiences of online teachers and the school-based staff supporting students who take online courses in brick-and-mortar schools. We are particularly interested in the interplay between students’ outcomes in these courses and the structures in place to optimize students’ engagement, learning, and course completion. As online learning has surged into use nationwide, this interplay has gone understudied by the research community. This can present obstacles to providing effective learning experiences and achieving goals for students.

Over two million students are enrolled in online courses across the country, and five states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, and Virginia) require that high school students complete an online course or online learning “experience” before they can graduate (Gemin, Cape, Bashaw, & Watson, 2015). Yet lower completion rates and test scores for students in online courses compared to face-to-face courses (Barbour, 2015; Freidhoff, DeBruler, & Kennedy 2015; Heppen et al., 2016; Miron, Gulosino, & Horvitz, 2015; Stallings et al., 2016) suggest that online students may need additional supports to ensure their success in the online classroom.

In traditional forms of classroom learning, students primarily rely on their teacher to support their learning through discussions of course progress, clarification of assignments, and real-time feedback. In contrast, most students in online courses have a more distributed support system. This system can include:

  • An online instructor, who may be responsible for conveying course content, answering questions, and providing feedback on assignments.
  • An on-site monitor—a staff member in students’ school building—who may be responsible for ensuring students’ enrollment, encouraging a student to complete assignments, and monitoring their progress.
  • An underlying level of support that may be provided by online learning programs in the form of guidance on best practices, providing orientations to online learning, and ensuring student protections in the online environment.

To understand these different support systems, we have collaborated with online learning practitioners to develop survey instruments that gather information on schools that use online courses, online teachers, and on-site monitors. These surveys were developed in partnership with Virtual Education Research Alliance in REL Midwest, with the Northeast Rural Districts Research Alliance in REL Northeast & Islands, and with Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) and have been used in Iowa, Michigan, New York, and Wisconsin.

Recently, we wrote two articles based on this work that focused on the professional training of online instructors and that have been published in the Journal of Online Learning Research (“Training for Online Teachers to Support Student Success”) and by the Regional Educational Laboratory at Institute of Education Sciences (“Professional Experiences of Online Teachers in Wisconsin“). In these articles, we present several important findings that have implications for online learning policymaking and programs:

  • Teacher Preparation: The online teachers were primarily receiving training while they were teaching online, rather than during pre-service education or prior to teaching online.
  • Shared Challenges: The most frequently reported challenges that teachers identified were related to supporting student engagement and perseverance in their online courses.
  • Professional Development Needs: Teachers indicated that they preferred ongoing, job-embedded forms of professional development, such as mentoring—rather than courses or workshops—to help them learn strategies to address these challenges.

The results from these surveys suggest that online teachers may need additional training in multiple areas in order to best support their students. Combined with findings from our previous research on online learning issues and trends, these results help create a fuller picture of the landscape of online learning. Most recently, as MVLRI Fellows, we have sought to better understand how on-site monitors are being prepared for and evaluated in their online student support roles. We have developed a survey instrument with MVLRI that gathers feedback directly from on-site monitors, and we continue to work with MVLRI as Fellows as they seek to understand how online programs across Michigan are supporting students. 

Although we are gaining some important insights into online learning research from these studies, more rigorous research is needed to determine the online instructional practices that improve student engagement, perseverance, and performance as well as the support systems that foster student success. We are excited to continue to learn, collaborate and contribute to this research field as it grows, particularly as online learning becomes entrenched in more students’ education experiences.  


Thursday, February 9, 2017 - 8:45am