What Makes A Great Online Learner? Two Keys to Online Success

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Darryl L. Sink and Associates, Inc. (DSA) helps organizations design and develop learning and performance solutions that get results. DSA works cooperatively with organizations to:

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DSA would like to thank Dr. Lori Hubbard Welsh for her insights on online learning. She is the online instructor for instructional design courses at Indiana University and for DSA's online class "The Course Developer Workshop."

Like most other tasks in your learner’s lives, taking an online course can either be a great experience or – unfortunately – somewhere on the other side of the spectrum. What can a learner do to make it better?

There are several strategies for increasing the chances that their experiences will be positive. Two key practices are to encourage both good communication and time management. Let’s take a look at them separately:


We hear this all the time – be a good communicator. What does this mean, though, for an online learner?

Being a good communicator in an online learning environment means to be both proactive and assertive in communications with the instructor and other class participants. For example, standards should be determined for “checking in” with the course. Should this be done on a daily or weekly basis? Once the learners are aware of these types of expectations, they should check in as often as needed to see if there are any new developments in the class.

Learners should be encouraged to ask for clarification early in the process – for example, if something is not quite clear to them or if they are having trouble understanding something. Since the instructor is not receiving the non-verbal cues that might be obvious in a face-to-face class, it’s difficult to realize there is a problem unless the learners seek clarification until the issue is solved. If their question wasn’t quite answered or if things are still a bit fuzzy, the learner shouldn’t be afraid to be politely persistent with their questions and concerns. Online instructors get many, many requests and unfortunately sometimes a learner’s particular issue may slip through the cracks. Sometimes the instructor may feel that a particular issue has been covered when the learner actually requires additional, elaborative information.

Time Management

Practicing good time management is a must for online learning. Online courses often require more work than traditional face-to-face classes. For example, it usually takes longer to read something from a computer compared to traditional text. Learners may also need to spend time getting used to the technology or downloading reading materials.

Learners cannot procrastinate when tackling the course assignments. They should be encouraged to organize their time and materials just as they would for a job-related task – and to allow for the wiggle room for the inevitable glitch (i.e. I went to upload my assignment and found out that a storm knocked out the DSL!). Last, but not least, most distance learners are employed full time while they are taking online classes. They should be aware of the time commitments for the course – and be confident that they can truly commit to the time that is needed to get the most out of it.

These two tips can make a BIG difference in how the online experience goes. Share these suggestions with your learners to ensure that they have the best experience in your online course.

See you next time,