Online learners with ready access to personalized support and resources are more likely to succeed in their courses. While providing direct support from instructional staff might be feasible in small private courses or blended programs, this can be more difficult to provide in larger online courses with several hundreds or thousands of learners. So how can those online courses be scaled successfully, while still achieving great results? One powerful way to do that is to empower learners to become self-sufficient and to personalize their own learning experiences. This will change the learner’s mindset from feeling like a small fish in a huge pond, to being an agile fish that can navigate the waterways of your course to best fit their needs.

Here are key steps to help get your learners on the path to becoming more self-sufficient in online course environments:

1. Establish clear directions & learning objectives

Learners who start an online class may not be certain what to expect, or know how much time they should be spending on various activities in the course. Having clear guidance on the estimated time required for activities, readings, and projects can be very helpful at the beginning of the course. It is critical to lay out clear initial directions on what they should be doing in the course. This will decrease any anxiety about embarking upon a new virtual learning experience. Here are two different examples of time reference guides:

It is also important to establish the learning objectives of the course so that learners can see how the course will benefit them. This will allow learners to set or calibrate their own goals with what they will learn from the course. Studies show that good learning objectives, conveyed up-front can help students self-select learning targets, self-monitor their progress, and self-assess their development (Glaser & Brunstein, 2007).

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2. Create multiple easy access points to support resources

When a learner encounters an issue or becomes confused at some point, the last thing you want is for them to give up, switch to reading CNN.com, and possibly never return to your course because it becomes associated with irritation or frustration. You want the the process of asking for help to be available, easy, and quick.

You should offer multiple channels of assistance, because depending on the issue and the learner, some forms of help are more desirable than others. Sometimes a quick FAQ is desirable, other times a discussion board forum is most comfortable, and sometimes a personal email to a course facilitator is best. Thus, it is best to provide multiple options in multiple places. For example, a course homepage could include additional resources, from readings, content, to a direct link for help and assistance.
 
Additionally, when onboarding new learners to the course (perhaps in a Welcome Week prior to the official course start), you can guide them through the course resources so they become familiar with them. You can include Instructor bios, links to discussion forums, ways to contact the teaching team, criteria for course completion, FAQs, etc. Here are a few examples of NovoEd course homepage widgets that provide learners with support resources:

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3. Foster groups to learn together and provide peer support

The more you can design and facilitate the course to encourage social interaction between learners, the more that they can learn together and provide support to each other when they have questions or run into difficulties. A common example of such interaction are discussion boards which can be a rich source of interactions between learners.

In courses designed on the NovoEd platform, there are several other opportunities to foster group collaboration besides standard discussion boards:

  • Team Assignments – we generally recommend having learners for into teams of 4-7 members and work on team assignments together, using the NovoEd Team Workspace to collaborate. Much of the preliminary activity in working in teams is related to clarifying instructions and objectives. Team projects help create a sense of Felt Accountability, which helps people feel responsible for bringing their teammates along the learning journey.
  • Interest Groups – if you allow organic interest groups to be generated in your NovoEd course, this can be a great channel for individuals who share a common interest (perhaps a specific geographic area or specialty area within the course topic) to gather and exchange information. People can be a part of multiple interest groups and they require very little commitment, so these can be a nice complement to project groups in bringing learners together.
  • Submission Comments – When assignments are submitted by individuals or teams, they can be made visible to the whole course for social feedback in the form of ‘likes’ and comments. This allows for peer support and feedback that can help learners feel encouraged and gain information from the comments. There is also the beneficial effect of browsing other assignments and seeing the feedback posted there–it provides an additional learning channel for your learners.

Thus, it is possible for online learners to become self-sufficient and prosper in your course without having a huge instructional team–in other words, for achieving scale. It is a win-win scenario because learners benefit from taking learning into their own hands, are able to personalize their experience, and benefit from peer learning and social interaction. This is fitting because in a networked world we are increasingly learning from networks rather individual experts.