7. Supporting online students

“I think the safe environment is really vital because we all. I know that I would worry if I posted some random thing that I began thinking. I would worry about how that might be perceived. Is it going to sound stupid? Is it going to sound unacademic? Is it going to sound… I think you get what I’m trying to say. There’s a certain fear of asking the question. Especially if you don’t feel that you’re in your safe space because you don’t want to feel like you’re making a fool of yourself” (Student quoted in Farrell et al., 2019, p. 17)

So far, in this book, we have examined the importance of establishing social presence, explored how to create interactive online classrooms, and considered how to use effective collaborative activities. We have focused primarily on the challenges faced by online educators. But students new to online learning will also face many obstacles. It is very important that online educators know how to support these students in achieving their goals. In this chapter, we will look at strategies that can be used to support online students.

What does the literature say?

Effective and holistic student support plays an important role in online student engagement and successful study completion. The literature indicates that online students are more vulnerable to attrition and have typically lower course completion (Woodley & Simpson, 2014). First year is the most vulnerable period, when students are most likely to withdraw (Jones, 2008). Therefore an important element in the structures of student support is a strategic approach to the orientation of new students (Brunton, Brown, Costello, Farrell, & Mahon 2017; Brunton, Brown, Costello, & Farrell, 2018; Brunton, Brown, Costello, & Farrell, 2019).

An engaged student is typically a successful student. Online student engagement is a complex phenomenon which is influenced by socio-cultural, structural, and psychosocial factors (Kahu, 2013). Student engagement is influenced by psychosocial factors such as peer community, an engaging online teacher, and confidence and by structural factors such as lifeload and course design (Farrell & Brunton, 2020). Further, feeling that they belong to a community has an impact on the learning experiences of online students (Buck, 2016; O’ Shea et al., 2015). Establishing social presence and strong levels of course interaction support the development of a sense of community and belonging in students (Buck, 2016; Veletsianos & Navarrete, 2012).

In DCU Connected’s online courses, the following approach to supporting online student engagement is taken, as outlined in Farrell & Brunton (2020):

  • Open access admission policy
  • Flexible progression routes
  • Student chooses credit load to align to lifeload
Strategic approach to transition
  • Pre-entry: Online socialisation courses, welcome emails and phone calls
  • On-entry: On campus and/or online orientation: including introduction to their programme, socialisation with staff and students, campus tour, overview of university support services, etc.
  • New student mentor
  • Programme team support- Check-in emails and phone calls to identify at-risk students, programme support hub on VLE
  • Module tutor support- synchronous online seminars (evenings and weekends), asynchronous discussion forums, email and phone support
  • Institutional supports-library, student services, careers
Skills development
  • Online training on the use of the VLE, online classrooms, online library resources
  • Study skills instruction embedded in year one modules
  • Additional study skills online seminars throughout the year
Learning design
  • Modules designed for online delivery, following the ABC and Quality Matters approaches (Young & Perović, 2018; Quality Matters, 2019)
  • Interactive learning resources, multimedia which are informed by usability and accessibility standards
  • Teacher presence established through welcome video, photo, approach to facilitation
  • Synchronous and asynchronous interaction
  • Programmatic approach to assessment and feedback, aligned to learning outcomes and learning resources
  • Consist approach to presentation of detailed assignment briefs
  • Three week turnaround on assignment feedback using consistent, detailed feedback forms
  • Variety of assessment approaches
  • Group work to facilitate sense of belonging



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