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Assessing Student Readiness for the Online Learning Environment

Recent studies have suggested that generally online students are more dissatisfied with online learning compared to traditional classroom satisfaction levels. Student dissatisfaction not only affects the student’s success, it also affects attrition rates and institutional funding so it is important to define the qualities that are necessary for student success in an online learning environment.

Students who are ready to successfully interact in an online environment have excellent time management skills, are personally motivated to succeed and have incorporated their respective learning style into the online learning experience. In addition, “qualities that may explain individual differences in academic achievement, completion rates and levels of satisfaction with online learning, fall into the categories of technical skills, computer self-efficacy, learning preferences and attitudes towards computers” (Hitendra Pillay)

So, how do we assess a student’s readiness for online learning based on these four principles: technical skills, computer self-efficacy, learning preferences and attitudes towards computers? Pillay, Irving and Tone suggest “The Tertiary students’ readiness for online learning survey (TSROL)” which is an attempt to consolidate several diagnostic tools into a single, more inclusive mechanism of assessing the student’s alacrity to engage in online classes.

Traditional online student preparation ranges from testing to a certain proficiency skill level to allowing any student who has Internet access to register for an online class. In the paper “Coming and Going in all Directions: Preparing Students for Online Learning”, Lujean Baab suggests that we adapt a sort of “treasure hunt”, in which the instructor sets “a list of required tasks that must be completed by a date prior to the start of the class” (Baab) These tasks can include interacting with a listserv item, sending emails with an attachment, participate in a chat room session, answer technical specification questions about their computer using an online form, or have the student simply organize their email messages by creating folders and sending the screenshot as an attachment in an email. Realistically, if the student can perform these simple technical tasks, they should be computer literate enough to successfully navigate through an online class.

According to Martinez, Torres and Giesel, while many educational institutions recognize the need to assess technical skills as a prerequisite to participating in online classes, “the need at this point in the development and expansion of online instruction is for identification of best practices in determining student readiness and in facilitating student success in an online environment. “ (Martinez, Torres and Giesel) There is a plethora of Best Practice information on the Online Student Support’s “Determining Student Readiness” web site.

The University of Minnesota’s Technology Enhanced Learning at the University of Minnesota blog hosts several interesting articles about assessing student readiness and enhancing online curriculum. The blog “More dropout in online classes: What should we do?” which refers to the results of the Online and Hybrid Course Enrollment and Performance in Washington State Community and Technical Colleges study that tracked enrollment patterns and academic outcomes in online, hybrid, and face-to-face courses for nearly five years.

Three main insights came from that study according to Hwang:

• Online students carry more pressure from outside obligations
• High drop-out rate is a results of poor online curriculum design
• Increased amount of self-discipline is required for an online student

Three action items are needed to reduce online class drop out rates:

  • Faculty Training
  • Assess Student Readiness
  • Additional Student Support

In addition, a few Minnesota colleges are using a tool called SmarterMeasure to assess student’s readiness for the online learning environment with great success. The SmarterMeasure web site has a Research page that shares results of research results, assessment details, item reliability, usage patterns and case studies. The 2011 Student Readiness Report showed three-year trending analysis to help online programs understand what makes a successful online learner. The white paper released with Noel-Levtiz showed a direct correlation between measured areas of SmarterMeasure and student retention. (SmarterMeasure)

No matter the tool(s) we use, it is imperative to provide a means for students to assess whether or not they are prepared to participate in an online class and succeed. “The dynamic nature of the online environment precludes any final word on the subject. The only definite word at this point is that institutions must continue to assess student readiness for learning in the online environment in order to develop appropriate and timely strategies to promote student success.” (Martinez, Torres and Giesel)

Works Cited
Baab, Lujean. “Coming and Going in all Directions: Preparing Students for Online Learning.” 00 04 1999. Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference. 02 07 2012 <;.
Hitendra Pillay, Kym Irving and Megan Tones. “Validation of the diagnostic tool for assessing Tertiary students’ readiness for online learning.” 00 06 2007. Higher Education Research & Development Vol. 26, No. 2. 03 07 2012 <;.
Hwang, Seogjoo. More dropout in online classes: What should we do? 08 09 2011. 03 07 2012 <;.
Martinez, Helen Torres and Giesel. Determining Student Readiness for Online Instruction. 00 00 2006. 03 07 2012 <;.
SmarterMeasure. SmarterMeasure Research. <;.


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Instructional Design for Self-Learning in Distance Education

Traditional curriculum development starts with the defining the information that the teacher wants to disseminate to the student and designing the supporting materials. This is considered a “Content Approach” in which the curriculum is a list of knowledge that the learners are required to absorb, synthesize and reiterate.  A subject matter expert, a trainer, or a curriculum advisory group can create the knowledge list. The instructor receives very little guidance on how to facilitate the learning process and successfully impart the content. When delivering the content in a traditional classroom setting, the instructor can monitor and adjust the successful communication of the material by reading participant’s physical cues of engagement and understanding.

However, in distance education the instructor does not necessarily have the immediate student feedback nor do they have control over the student’s learning environment or the inherent distractions of said environment. As David Murphy states “I perceive instructional design as the art and science of crafting effective learning environments” (Murphy).  Instructional design is a science and every project has its own intrinsic issues. Therefore, the instructional designer must take the planning stage very seriously so all possible scenarios can be addressed up front before a single word of the curriculum is written.

When designing long distance curriculum modules the challenges can be numerous but Murphy dedicates the majority of this article to the planning stage, which in my humble opinion, is the most important design stage.  “All instructional designers agree on the need for effective planning of the design and development process. The success of this process largely depends on the preparation of a document, often called a plan or a blueprint, with essential elements such as clear indications of what will be done, who will do it and by when. “ (Murphy) During the instructional design planning stage it is important to identify the audience, the goals, the aims and objectives (in other words how you meet those goals), the content outline, the learning environment, interaction and learning activities to be utilized, assessment tools and evaluation methods. Proper planning eliminates the majority of rework and interactivity issues.

Effective planning of the design and development process is vital to the success of the instructional design process. In addition, taking the time to define the audience and interactivity needs of that particular audience helps the designing team define key interface and interactivity components. As instructors we tend to focus on the assessment and evaluation pieces but if the teacher does not present the learning materials in a concise, logical and engaging manner the student will not be engrossed enough to absorb the key concepts the long distance module is trying to bring across.

Many instructors expect technology to compensate for the lack of structure and content in their online course. The instructional designer will need to retain the user’s attention and including specific information that will describe the curriculum material in an exciting manner can do this.  Technology has to be used appropriately in distance education instructional design and should enhance the content. An educator should use online technology applicably where it can enhance the learning process by providing opportunities for discussion, submission of assignments and immediate test results.

Murphy reminds us that in there are no concise or foolproof methods of designing long distance curriculum. “fundamentally it is about people. This is why no neat prescriptive system can ever hope to cope with all the complexities of course development in distance education.” (Murphy) Each subject has inherent immersion issues. It is the job of the instructional design to turn these challenges into opportunities for students to learn.

Works Cited:
Murphy, David. “Knowledge Series: Instructional Design for Self-Learning in Distance Education.” Educational Resources Information Center.


Filed under Assessment