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Helping Online Students Be Successful: Student Perceptions of Online Teacher and On-site Mentor Instructional Support

Written By:
Jered Borup, George Mason University
Chawanna Bethany Chambers, George Mason University
Rebecca Stimson, Michigan Virtual

Suggested Citation

Borup, J., Chambers, C. B, & Stimson, R. (2018). Helping online students be successful: Student perceptions of online teacher and on-site mentor instructional support. Lansing, MI: Michigan Virtual University. Retrieved from https://mvlri.org/research/publications/helping-online-students-be-successful-student-perceptions-of-online-teacher-and-on-site-mentor-instructional-support/

In the United States, K-12 online course enrollments have grown dramatically in the past 20 years. Although online courses provide students access to flexible learning options that are unavailable in their brick-and-mortar school, the flexibility inherent in online learning also makes it difficult for students to complete their courses. In an attempt to better support their students and reduce online course attrition rates, some brick-and-mortar schools provide their online students with an on-site mentor who helps to facilitate student learning. In fact, Michigan brick-and-mortar schools are required by legislation to provide their students who are enrolled in an online course with an on-site mentor. However, little is known about how students perceive the support provided by their onsite mentor and online teacher. For this report we conducted eight focus groups with 51 students and asked students in the focus groups to share their perceptions and experiences regarding their online teachers’ and on-site mentors’ efforts and interactions with them.

In this report, we share and discuss student perceptions related to online teachers and on-site mentors’ instructional responsibilities that required knowledge of the online program and course content: (1) advising students regarding course enrollments, (2) orienting students to online learning procedures and expectations, and (3) instructing students regarding the course content. In the accompanying report, Helping Online Students Be Successful: Student Perceptions of Online Teacher and On-site Mentor Facilitation Support (embed link to report), we focus on findings related to on-site mentors and online teachers’ facilitating efforts that required interpersonal and management skills: (1) facilitating interactions, (2) developing caring relationships, (3) motivating students to more fully engage in learning activities, and (4) organizing and managing student learning.

This report is being published simultaneously with another: Helping Online Students Be Successful: Student Perceptions of Online Teacher and On-site Mentor Facilitation Support.  While we had originally planned on publishing a single report, we found that the report was too long and covered too much. As a result, we decided to publish two reports so we could maintain the level of rich description that we believe will help readers to understand students’ experiences and perceptions better. This report focuses on on-site mentors’ and online teachers’ instructional efforts. These efforts required specific knowledge of the course content, online program, and course procedures. In contrast, the accompanying report focuses on on-site mentors’ and online teachers’ facilitating support that required more interpersonal and management skills and a general understanding of online learning.

Both reports start with nearly identical introductions, literature reviews, and method sections. However, the subsequent sections are unique for each report. In the Findings section, we provide a detailed, rich description of student perceptions and experiences with frequent direct quotes from students. In the Discussion and Recommendations section, we provide more concise summaries of the major findings followed by recommendations that are based on those findings.

Introduction

This report is being published simultaneously with another: Helping Online Students Be Successful: Student Perceptions of Online Teacher and On-site Mentor Facilitation Support. Both reports start with nearly identical introductions, literature reviews, and method sections. However, the subsequent sections are unique for each report. In the Findings section, we provide a detailed, rich description of student perceptions and experiences with frequent direct quotes from students. In the Discussion and Recommendations section, we provide more concise summaries of the major findings followed by recommendations that are based on those findings.

K-12 online learning has seen tremendous growth over the past two decades. The majority of online enrollments are used to supplement students’ face-to-face courses for a variety of reasons, such as to recover previously failed course credits, access advanced placement or elective courses not offered at their school (especially in rural areas), resolve scheduling conflicts, and maintain a level of consistency in their learning that is not possible in a face-to-face environment due to health or personal safety issues.

Regardless of students’ motivations for enrolling, online courses should provide each student with a challenging learning experience that is within their “regime of competence” (Gee, 2004, p. 19).  However, too often online students are asked to perform tasks without the level of support they require to be successful. These students can become frustrated to the point of giving up. Lowes and Lin (2015) explained that online students “not only need to learn a subject online but need to learn how to learn online” (p. 18). There are three common challenges to learning to learn online.

  1. High degree of flexibility. Typically, online students are provided more flexibility in when and where they work than what they have previously experienced in their traditional schooling. This flexibility can be especially problematic for adolescent students who tend to lack the metacognitive abilities to recognize and use effective learning strategies or the self-regulation skills needed to set and meet goals (Kereluik, 2013). Somewhat ironically, the very reason why many students enroll in online courses (the need for flexibility) also proves to be a major obstacle to successfully completing the course.
  2. Online communication.Although students may be accustomed to communicating socially with their friends online, they can feel uncomfortable communicating online with teachers and adults (Hendrex & Degner, 2016). Communicating online for academic purposes also requires students to follow a different set of norms or netiquette which can prove to be a barrier to interacting and collaborating with peers online. The lack of non-verbal cues in most online communication can also cause students to misinterpret messages from their online teacher and develop a sense of isolation (Murphy & Rodríguez-Manzanares, 2008; Borup, West, Thomas, & Graham, 2014).
  3. Technological competence. Online learning requires a level of technological competence that face-to-face courses do not. For instance, face-to-face students do not need to be taught how to open the classroom door and walk into their classroom, but online students will likely need instructions for logging in and gaining access to their online course. Hillman, Willis, and Gunawardena (1994) explained that students’ inability to use technology might prohibit them from successfully participating in online learning activities.

These obstacles can appear especially insurmountable when online students lack the necessary support. Some online programs rely heavily on parents to play an active supportive role in their students’ learning. However, parents commonly misunderstand the rigors of online learning – similar to their students – and have other time commitments that may prevent them from providing the level of support that students require (Hasler Waters, Borup, & Menchaca, 2018).

Some supplemental online programs – in Michigan, for instance – now require that each student be assigned an on-site mentor who works with the student in their brick-and-mortar school. On-site mentors are not meant to replace the online teacher but to enhance and support the work that online teachers are currently doing. On-site mentors’ physical presence also allows them to provide types of support that are difficult for online teachers. More specifically, as the content experts, teachers are charged primarily with providing content-related support to students. Teachers are also responsible for assessing students’ understanding of the course material and their ability to apply their understanding in authentic ways. On-site mentors are primarily charged with developing relationships with students and motivating them to engage fully in learning activities. Mentors are also charged with helping students develop the communication skills, organizational skills, and study skills to effectively learn online. When working with multiple students, mentors can also promote co-presence and collaboration (Harms, Niederhauser, Davis, Roblyer, & Gilbert, 2006).  Hannum, Irvin, Lei, and Farmer (2008) summarized that a teacher’s primary responsibility is to teach the content, and mentors’ primary responsibilities are to ensure “everything is working smoothly and order is maintained” (p. 213). Harms et al. (2006) also explained that in practice there is “considerable overlap” between online teachers’ and on-site mentors’ facilitating efforts, and on-site facilitators can at times act as teachers and online teachers can act as facilitators.

Previous and Current Research

Unfortunately, little is known regarding how successfully mentors fulfill their responsibilities. In 2017, Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) published a report: Helping Online Students Be Successful: Mentor Responsibilities (Borup & Stimson, 2017).  In that report, we interviewed 12 on-site mentors and 12 online teachers. The on-site mentors were sampled because they had high online student pass rates, and the online teachers were sampled based on the on-site mentors’ recommendations. Each on-site mentor and online teacher then participated in two interviews. The interviewed teachers unanimously agreed that mentors played a critical role in students’ learning but also found that the quality of mentoring varied greatly across schools. Interestingly, of the 12 sampled mentors, 11 worked with all or most of their students daily in a classroom or lab setting supporting previous research that has found a structured learning environment has a positive impact on student performance (Roblyer, Davis, Mills, Marshall, & Pape., 2008). It was also found that these successful mentors adapted their efforts based on student’s individual needs and the time of the semester. More specifically, mentors tended to focus the majority of their efforts on:

  • Orienting students to their online courses and establishing learning expectations.
  • Supplying students with the required technology and materials.
  • Troubleshooting technological issues.
  • Building relationships with students.

Mentors explained that by week 3 or 4, things “really settled down” and they could focus on:

  • Monitoring students’ progress and levels of engagement.
  • Motivating students to more fully engage in learning activities.
  • Facilitating instructional support and collaboration.

Toward the end of the semester, mentors again shifted their focus to:

  • Monitoring student progress closely and “prodding” students to complete the course.
  • Proctoring final exams.
  • Recording students’ final grades.

While this research helped to identify the practices of effective mentors, it did not provide insights into how their students perceived these efforts. As the primary stakeholders, students’ perceptions are particularly important in understanding what works. Furthermore, more attention is needed that focuses both on online teacher and on-site facilitator responsibilities. As a result, in this report we conducted eight focus groups with 51 students at three brick-and-mortar schools.  More specifically, we asked students in the focus groups to share their perceptions and experiences regarding their online teachers’ and on-site mentors’ efforts and interactions with them.

In this report, we share and discuss student perceptions related to the more instructional responsibilities:  (1) advising students regarding course enrollments, (2) orienting students to online learning procedures and expectations, and (3) instructing students regarding the course content. By separating the findings, we are able to describe student perceptions more richly on each topic. However, it is important to note that the topics discussed in this report can lay the foundation for most of the topics discussed in the other report, Helping Online Students Be Successful: Student Perceptions of Online Teacher and On-site Mentor Facilitation Support (embed link to report): (1) facilitating interactions, (2) developing caring relationships, (3) motivating students to more fully engage in learning activities, and (4) organizing and managing student learning. The two reports focus on different types of knowledge and skills; this report also focuses on responsibilities that require specific knowledge of course content and procedures while the accompanying report focuses on more general responsibilities that require an understanding of how to communicate with and motivate others.

Methods

Research was conducted in three Michigan brick-and-mortar schools where a sizable number of students were supplementing their face-to-face course work with online courses offered by Michigan Virtual School (MVS). MVS is a state-run virtual school that enrolled 10,426 students, constituting 22,643 course enrollments during the 2016-17 academic year.  However, Michigan Virtual only constituted 10% and 4% of Michigan’s total number of students and course enrollments respectively. While the online course pass rate in Michigan was only 55%, the pass rate for Michigan Virtual was 81% (Freidhoff, 2018).

Michigan provided an especially interesting context for this research because Section 21f of Michigan Public Act No. 60 (2013) required local schools to provide on-site mentors to their students who are enrolled in online courses. However, Section 21f only stipulates that the on-site mentor “monitors the pupil’s progress” and be “available for assistance to the pupil.” Teachers, on the other hand, are charged with “determining appropriate instructional methods for each pupil, diagnosing learning needs, assessing pupil learning, prescribing intervention strategies and modifying lessons, reporting outcomes, and evaluating the effects of instruction and support strategies” (Michigan Department of Education, 2018-19, 5-O-D-2 & 5-0-D-3). Michigan Virtual teachers were also required to reply to messages and emails with 24 hours (M-F) and grade assignments with 72 hours (M-F) with the exception of English and AP which have a 96 hour response time due to assignment type. Following these directives, on-site mentors and online teachers have great leeway in how they actually work to fulfill their responsibilities. As a result, students can provide important insights into which practices they value most.

Following a previous study where we sampled and interviewed on-site mentors at 12 successful schools (Borup & Stimson, 2017), we sampled three of the 12 schools that had particularly engaged and supportive on-site mentors. We then conducted focus groups with students at each of the schools. Based on our sample, the purpose of this research was not to describe typical students’ typical experiences. Instead, our goal was to learn what was possible, rather than what was typical. For this reason, findings from this research can provide insights, but the findings should not be generalized across different contexts.

Students first responded to a survey where they indicated which type of support they received and who provided them with that support. Survey results indicated that support most frequently came from students’ on-site mentors (see Appendix A). Following the survey, students participated in focus groups so that they could provide a richer description of their experiences and perceptions. Each focus group contained four to nine students and lasted 45-60 minutes. Two focus groups were conducted at two of the schools, and four focus groups were conducted at the third for a total of eight focus groups with 51 student participants: one freshman, seven sophomores, 11 juniors, and 32 seniors. Of the 32 seniors, 18 had taken online courses in previous semesters. Focus group recordings were transcribed and comments were coded into as many different categories as possible. Similar categories were then combined to identify the primary themes that were discussed in the focus groups. Pseudonyms were used when referring to specific students.

 Findings

Advising

Students in four focus groups stated that before courses began, they sought guidance from a knowledgeable adult regarding whether enrolling in an online course was in their best interest, and, if so, which online course they should take. However, some students did not perceive a need to be advised on those issues. One student, Sharron, summarized her thought process to take an online class as, “There’s an online class. Let’s do it.” Courtney added that she “decided all by [her]self” and was “jumping at the opportunity” to take a specific elective course online because it was not offered locally. Other students turned to their local principal or counselor for advising because they “really didn’t know what [they] needed to take or how to fit it all in.” Gina added that she received advising support from both her principal and her parents.

Students in two of the schools commented that their on-site mentor provided them with especially high levels of advising support. These on-site mentors seemed to be particularly helpful because they were familiar with students’ goals and interests. Jason summarized, “He did help me figure it out because he kind of knew what I was already interested in and then just recommended different things that I could try.” Sandy added that it was especially helpful when the on-site mentor “would have another student who took the class already to come and have a conversation with [her] about what to expect.”  In fact, one student, Wyatt, commented that his on-site mentor was “almost…one of the [school] counselors sometimes, which is really nice.” Other students were left to “sort of just guess on what…to take” and would have preferred more detailed information about the available courses so that they could have made more informed decisions.

Orienting and Troubleshooting

Once enrolled in an online course, online teachers and on-site mentors worked to orient students to the online learning environment and course expectations. Students in seven of the eight focus groups stated that they received orienting support from their online teacher and a module in their online course. The semester prior to conducting this research, Michigan Virtual placed a “Unit 0” in each of their online courses that helped students become familiar with the course expectations and LMS. Sandy described the unit as “a slideshow of exactly what to do, how to message [the online teacher], how to access lessons, everything.” Sage added that Unit 0 also had an assessment to “make sure that you can do [tasks] correctly” that students had to pass before they could “actually move on to [their] class content.” The unit also contained course expectations regarding student behavior, effort, and workload. Blake added, “As far as expectations and requirements go – like plagiarism, cheating – they make sure they hammer that point home; that’s not allowed.” While Unit 0 appeared to be helpful, Sage found it to be a “little tedious once you’ve taken multiple classes and you have to do it over and over again.”

Students who had taken online courses in previous years found that Unit 0 reduced their dependency on others to orient them to the course. Kacee stated that before Unit 0, “you kind of had to learn it yourself, or [the on-site mentor] would explain it, and you could really go to him at any point.” However, students still needed orienting support from their online teacher and on-site mentor. For instance, some online teachers created course announcements with more course-specific information and video tutorials. Online teachers also stressed the importance of following the course pacing guide to ensure an on-time completion of the course. While some students found the announcements and video tutorials to be “kind of cool,” Cole admitted that the course homepages “always have a bunch of messages” that he “never read.”

Students also found that teachers were available when they had questions but an online teacher “wasn’t by our side telling us, instructing us how to do it.” For that reason, students tended to turn to their on-site mentor for more immediate assistance. Students in all eight focus groups stated that their on-site mentor provided them with orienting support. In fact, twice as many student comments were coded in relation to their mentor than in relation to their online teacher or online module providing them with orienting support. Students commented that they were able to get assistance from their on-site mentors “right away” because their mentor “always was willing to help.” When asked who he turned to for support, Roger stated, “If I really didn’t know how to do something, I would just ask [my on-site mentor.] He’d just show me right away. I just get it from there.” Stephanie’s on-site mentor actually “went through some of Unit 0” with her. Lastly, students appreciated it when their on-site mentor helped them to secure resources such as ordering books and setting up webcams.

On-site mentors also provided students with whole group support, similar to what was provided in Unit 0. For instance, some on-site mentors created presentations that “went through the expectation of being on time, and coming to class, and if you’re sick or something, maybe doing it at home.” Adam also recalled that “effectively the message was… ‘This is a class that’s really easy to slack off in, and if you do that, you will fail.’” More specifically, on-site mentors stressed the need to follow the pacing guide “because otherwise you’re going to regret it later in the semester.” In fact, Rick explained that his mentor recommended that students “stay a week ahead of the pacing guide…so if there’s something that goes wrong and you have to redo something.” Sandy added that her mentor “encourages printing off the pacing guide” so that students could more easily and frequently check their progress. The on-site mentors also showed students how to use the LMS. Brooke shared, “The first classes, he always explains how [the LMS] works. He goes through everything and shows you the steps to use it.” Beth also explained that her on-site mentor provided her with “a packet of step-by-step how to get online and how to sign in” and placed “this little sticky note on the computer that reminds you what URL to use to get to the website in case you ever forget.”  Sage also shared that it “helped [her] a lot” when her on-site mentor asked “seniors who’d already been in online programs…to help [her] through it.”

Students in six of the eight focus groups stated that they turned to their on-site mentor for technological support – especially at the start of the semester. However, students in three focus groups found that their on-site mentor was ineffective at troubleshooting some of their technological issues. For instance, Sage explained that it “took about a week probably to figure out…[how] to get the cameras to hook up to our computers.” Students tended to turn to the online teacher when they needed technological assistance with online programs outside of the LMS. However, waiting to get technological assistance took frustratingly long. Adam stated,

Because for the students that aren’t as familiar with the systems that we’re using, it would be nice if we could ask questions and have them on the spot answered rather than trying to message my instructor and having to wait a whole day to get a response back. And it’s not her fault that it takes that long, it’s just, I’m sure she answers as quickly as she can. It’s just, the fact still remains it takes all day. It just would be nice if we could have a little bit more on the spot tech help because a tech issue can shut you down for the entire day.

Instructing

Students commonly required support while working on assignments. Blake explained,

[Online teachers] definitely offer their help. It’s definitely there if you need it. I’ve emailed my teacher several times, turning something in, have an issue with something, they always offer their help but I think it’s just a matter of if you need it.

Cynthia was enrolled in a sign language course and found that the teacher did “a good job of explaining things” and “would change her directions to make them more clear for [her students].” Another student in the sign language course, Sage, recalled feeling “awkward at first signing in front of people” and appreciated the direction from her online teacher to “pretend they’re not there.” However, few students actually shared times when they received personalized instructional support prior to submitting an assignment. Kacee found that in online courses “you can’t really ask those questions…. You can’t get the information you want.”  Similarly, Raymond who was enrolled in a pre-calculus course, found it difficult to ask the online teacher specific questions in an email about “how to solve x equation” so his “first course of action would either be to look up a YouTube video on how to solve the equation, maybe ask a peer…or go ask one of the math teachers down the hallway.” Lisa also recalled that a friend enrolled in a language course had “to look up different apps to learn the language” because “the guides that [the online teacher] give them does not really help.” At the time, Lisa remembered thinking to herself, “Um, I’m pretty sure the instructor is supposed to do that [for you].”

The majority of teachers’ instructional support appeared to have come in the form of feedback from the students’ point of view. Nolan explained that the feedback he received was especially helpful because it helped him to “know what to work on for [his] next assignment.” Similarly, Alexis found that when she would submit “really detailed” papers, the online teacher gave her “really specific instructions on how to do better and how to include information in a different way.” Rick added that the critical feedback he received was still delivered in a “really positive” manner, “It’s not, ‘You did this wrong, fix it immediately.’ It’s more of, ‘Here’s how you did it wrong. I can see what you were going for and how that works, but it works better this way.’” Some teachers went as far as providing students with feedback via audio or video recordings. Brooke shared, “For my sign language course, she leaves video comments and tells me what to fix, and that’s really helpful so I know how to do it better.”

While most of the students’ comments regarding teacher feedback was positive, students in half of the focus groups also found that there was great disparity among teachers and the quality and quantity of the feedback that they provided. Angela stated,

I feel like each class is different because with one of my classes my teacher says to me, “You did good on this, but you can work on this for your next assignment,” but then my other class, they don’t give you anything, so you don’t know what to improve upon.

Brooke also expressed frustration because she “didn’t get anything back [on her] writing assignments so [she] didn’t know if they were good or bad.” Other students found that they received high or perfect scores and generic “Good job!” comments on work they actually put very little effort into completing, making them question how closely teachers actually read their work. For instance, Alexis’s teacher told her “Great job!” and gave her “100%” on papers she believed she “did terrible on” because she “was just restating the same facts over and over just to reach the length requirement.” Holly summarized, “There’s definitely big extremes between the feedback.”

While they are not content experts, students in two focus groups stated that on-site mentors occasionally assisted them on projects.  For instance, Madalyn’s on-site mentor would review her work in a Mathematics of Finance course to “make sure [she would] have the answers right” before she turned them in.  Beth described witnessing her peer who “struggles with math all the time” receive regular support from their on-site mentor, which resulted in her “getting [a] 100%” because of their mentor’s assistance. A couple of students stated that their reasons for asking on-site mentors for help dealt more with having better access to their mentors, as well as having a closer relationship with them. Angela said, “I will email my instructor…it just takes days,” so she seeks out her on-site mentor as well because “he usually helps me until we figure out a solution.” Similarly, John believed that his “prevalent relationship” with his mentor influenced his choice to ask for assistance. Despite a few instances, the students did not report receiving consistent instructional assistance from on-site mentors, which reflects the fact that instruction is not their role.

Discussion and Recommendations

The methods used and the relatively few student participants prevent these findings from being generalized to all settings. For instance, these mentors were specifically sampled because they were highly successful, and they are not likely representative of the typical mentoring that occurs in brick-and-mortar schools across Michigan or elsewhere. As a result, a more inclusive method of sampling would likely result in different findings. The findings from this research help to show what is possible while also identifying areas for improvement. In that spirit, in this section we will discuss the findings from this research and make recommendations that may help these and other schools ensure that students are receiving the support they need to be successful online.

Advising

Finding summary: When deciding whether they should enroll in an online course and, if so, which online course they should take, some students explained they did not turn to a mentor or counselor for assistance. In fact, some students did not appear to put much thought into their decisions at all. For instance, Sharron explained that her only thought process was, “There’s an online class. Let’s do it.”

Recommendation: While some students’ confidence stems from actual ability, other students may misjudge the rigors of learning online and their ability to be successful. We recommend online providers create online advising platforms that (1) help students understand the rigors of online learning and (2) walk them through the process of selecting an online course that matches their goals and needs. To Michigan Virtual’s credit, they have created the Online Learning Orientation Tool (OLOT) that includes four sections, one entitled “Knowing What to Expect.” Michigan Virtual also provides students with the Online Learner Readiness Rubric that rates students’ readiness on eight skills and attributes. However, students did not mention these tools in the focus group, and the resources may have more use if they were displayed more prominently on the Michigan Virtual website. Furthermore, neither tools supported students in deciding which specific online course they should take.

Finding summary: When considering if they should take an online course, students in two of the three schools reported that they received a high level of support from either their on-site mentor, counselor, or administrator. Furthermore, these adults helped students make decisions regarding specific course enrollments. This type of support appeared especially valuable because these adults commonly were already aware of students’ interests and academic needs. Furthermore, one on-site mentor facilitated discussions between students who were new to online learning and experienced online students to help students make more informed decisions.

Recommendation: While providing students with advising tools and resources is important, in some cases they should not replace actual in-person meetings with advisors, such as on-site mentors, counselors, and administrators. As highlighted in a previous report (Borup, Chambers, & Stimson, 2017), parents can also provide important support. Whoever advises students, they should have a solid understanding of the rigors of online learning and the skills and supports required for students to be successful. The advisor should also work to understand students’ interests and aptitude to successfully learn online. Tools such as OLOT and the Online Learner Readiness Rubric can aid advisors in fulfilling their responsibilities. Advisors should also be given the space and time to advise individual students.

Orienting and Troubleshooting

Finding summary: All students were required to complete “Unit 0” that was placed at the start of all courses. “Unit 0” required students to perform tasks that were intended to ensure they could perform essential tasks in the LMS. It also helped them understand the challenges of learning online and meet those challenges more effectively. Students found “Unit 0” to be helpful and believed that it reduced their dependency on their online teacher and on-site mentor. The only drawback was that it became “a little tedious once you’ve taken multiple classes and you have to do it over and over again.”

Recommendation: Online providers should consider creating and requiring online orientations similar to “Unit 0.” Providers may consider adopting a digital badging system that awards students with a badge or other credential that shows they have successfully completed “Unit 0.” With a badging system in place, students would not have to go through the “tedious” process of completing the same unit “over and over again.” Instead, they could simply present their badge to certify they had successfully completed the unit previously and start the actual course units. Furthermore, digital badges can be issued with an expiration date so programs can require students to retake the orientation unit if there has been a lapse in their online learning.

Finding summary: While “Unit 0” helped to orient students to the online learning platform and expectations, students still found online teacher and on-site mentor orientation efforts helpful. Specifically, most students appreciated teacher announcements and orientation videos that discussed unique aspects of their specific course and/or specific units. Students also appreciated it when their on-site mentor demonstrated specific aspects of the LMS in person.

Recommendation: While orientation modules can prove helpful to students, they are not sufficient to orient all students to all courses. Rather than relying on a “one-size-fits-all” orienting approach, online teachers and on-site mentors should still work to orient individual students who need additional support.

Finding summary: Students commonly encountered technological issues at the start of the semester and were frustrated at how long it took to resolve them. Students found that they had to turn to their online teacher for help with most issues which could take “a whole day to get a response back.”

Recommendation: Especially at the start of the semester, “more on-the-spot tech help” could help students be successful. This could come from the local school but also from the online course provider.

Instructing

Finding summary: The majority of instruction that students received came from online teachers in the form of assignment feedback. The students also perceived a great disparity in the quality of feedback they received from online teachers. Students were frustrated when they would only receive simple “Good work!” comments on projects that took considerable effort to complete.

Recommendation: Teachers should recognize the importance of feedback and work to ensure that students’ efforts are specifically recognized and corrected, when necessary, in ways that allow students to improve their performance. Teachers should be offered professional development that helps them provide students with effective feedback more efficiently – especially on projects that require considerable student effort and cannot be assessed by an automated grading system. What constitutes effective feedback is surprisingly under researched. Eraut (2006) summarized, “we need more feedback on feedback” (p. 118). Hattie (2009) also found that “some types of feedback are more powerful than others” (p. 174). As a result, simply increasing the amount of feedback is not enough. If they are going to have an impact on students’ learning, teachers must increase the right kinds of feedback that they provide to students. Defining quality feedback can be difficult but our review of the literature identified three attributes of quality feedback:

  • Content: the feedback needs to be specific and grounded in the student’s performance. Specifically, it needs to recognize what students did well as well as how the student’s performance can improve.
  • Delivery: feedback should be provided in a way that is respectful and motivates students to improve. In fact, feedback is “an important component for building a strong student-instructor connection” (Boling et al., 2012, p. 121).
  • Timing: students tend to ignore feedback when it is not prompt.

Some research has also found that online teachers can efficiently provide students with highly detailed feedback using audio or video feedback recordings (West, Jay, Armstrong, & Borup, 2017). Online program administrators should also work to observe and evaluate the feedback that teachers offer students. Feedback is understandably time consuming and difficult to do well but can have a major impact on students’ learning.

Finding summary: When students needed instructional support while completing assignments, they found it difficult to obtain immediate support from their teachers. It was also a challenge to ask teachers some questions via email – students’ primary mode of communication with their teacher.  As a result, students tended to turn to their on-site mentors for assistance, even though they were not content experts. One student summarized that it is “just easier to ask someone in person.” Other students searched for online resources, including videos, that would help them complete assignments.

Recommendation: Online programs should explore cost-effective options that would make content experts more readily available during the regular school hours. Supplemental programs can rely heavily on part-time online teachers who teach face-to-face during the day, preventing  them from being accessible during school hours when many students are working and need their assistance the most. In high need courses such as math, supplemental programs may consider employing on-call content experts who may not be the students’ teacher but who can assist with student inquiries and refer questions to the actual course teacher when they are unable to assist.

Conclusion

As online learning continues to expand, it is important that we carefully examine the types of supports that students require. Rose, Smith, Johnson, and Glick (2015) stated, “Rather than ‘Is online learning right for me?’ students [and other stakeholders] should be asked, ‘What support systems do [students] need to be successful in online learning?’” (p. 75). The student focus group participants agreed that their online teacher and on-site mentor each had important support roles. As a result, online teachers and on-site mentors should be provided the time and professional development that will help ensure they are able to support students successfully. It is important for online and brick-and-mortar administrators to remember that successful online teachers and on-site mentors are “made not born” (Roblyer, 2006).

Online teachers and on-site mentors both have important instructional and facilitating responsibilities. In this report we focused on instructional responsibilities; the accompanying report (Helping Online Students Be Successful: Student Perceptions of Online Teacher and On-site Mentor Facilitation Support (embed link to report)), focused on facilitating responsibilities. Instructional responsibilities can be even greater in online courses because, as Lowes and Lin (2015) explained, “students not only need to learn a subject online but need to learn how to learn online” (p. 18). Students relied most heavily on their online teachers to provide them with feedback and instructional support in order to learn the course subject; whereas, students relied on their on-site mentors to share their expertise in how to learn online by advising students on course enrollments and orienting them to online learning expectations and the LMS. Recognizing the importance of orienting students to the online environment, Michigan Virtual recently added “Unit 0” to all of their online courses and required that students perform specific tasks in the LMS. “Unit 0” helped to alleviate some orienting responsibilities, but on-site mentors still worked to orient students to the LMS both in large groups and one-on-one. Students also turned to online teachers for support in learning the content. However, they perceived that many teachers were unable to provide them with immediate or even timely assistance. As a result, students tended to ask their on-site mentors for instructional support or would search for online resources. Similarly, when students encountered technological issues, they turned to their online teacher for assistance which could take frustratingly long to receive. As a result, we recommend that online programs seek strategies that would provide students with more immediate content and technological support.

References

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Appendix A

On the survey students first reported if they received specific support indicators. Once they selected the support indicators that they received, students reported if the support came from their online teacher and/or on-site mentor.

Support Indicators Total
(n=)
Mentor
(n=)
Teacher
(n=)
Checked in with you to make sure you were working hard to complete assignments. 61 51 22
Checked your grades/progress regularly. 59 49 27
Gave you course materials. 56 49 19
Explained things to you when you had questions. 55 37 41
Showed you how to use Blackboard. 52 39 28
Reviewed the policies and expectations for learning online. 45 31 35
Helped you if you were having computer or internet problems. 45 36 12
Motivated you to complete assignments. 44 36 22
Provided you with feedback on your assignments (before or after they were submitted). 44 11 40
Made sure that you had a place to study. 43 37 9
Helped you to gain the skills you needed to successfully learn online. 41 32 29
Helped you set goals for completing assignments. 40 25 29
Helped you learn how to communicate with others online 32 10 30
Helped you decide which online course(s) to enroll in. 31 30 7
Helped you create a study schedule. 24 10 18
Helped you to work with other students on assignments. 23 15 13
Total: 498 381

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