Top 5 Critical Dimensions of Learner Support
14 January 2020

In recent years, open, distance and e-learning (ODeL) approaches have been mainstreamed with growing demand from non-traditional students, who are seeking more flexible ways to engage in lifelong learning opportunities. However, while ODeL approaches have demonstrably served to open access, its increase does not always translate into a reasonable chance of success. To move from access to success, many students require support before, during and after their learning journey. Abundant literature exists on learner support in ODeL provision, and while different theorists and practitioners emphasise different facets in different contexts, there are a few recurring key considerations. (See, for example, this lecture from The OUSL Distinguished Lecture Series).

1. Support built into flexible learning resources shared as OER

Some theorists would argue that learner support is concerned with issues that fall outside of course materials (see, for example, this Pressbook publication on teaching in a digital age and this compilation from the University of Arkansas). However, growing digitisation and the ability to embed interactive feedback into activity-based resources means that many learning challenges can be anticipated, pre-empted and individualised in the way that course content is constructed and mediated from the start. Sharing such resources as OER makes it possible for learners to tailor the content to their personal needs or to follow alternative learning pathways that fit best with their own desired learning goals.

2. Authentic assessment and feedback

Students need valid, reliable and timely feedback at critical stages on their learning journey. A clear link between the learning purpose, the intended learning outcomes and authentic assessment activities as well as timely, clear and constructive feedback are critical for success. Feedback can take varied forms including self-assessment and peer-assessment against carefully designed rubrics. At critical moments, it can also include feedback from more capable ‘others’, whether these are senior peers, tutors or institutional faculty. Assessment feedback may take the form of badges, digital credentials and formative informal commentaries through to formal constructive narratives. (See, for example, this article on assessment in ODL).

3. Social support

Although students spend a lot of their time studying independently, it is important that they have a social support network to engage with as needed. This might include family and friends, other students, potential employers as well as institutional part-time and full-time faculty. Creating tools for such engagement is critical to overcoming the sense of isolation that students may otherwise feel. (See, for example, this article on the role of social media in providing support to students).

4. Institutional and academic support

Not all students need the same level of support at the same time. It is important to provide access to guidelines and feedback that is available on demand, for example ICT support, digital library services and accurate fee and assessment information. In addition, if we accept that academic study in particular may well be an unfamiliar activity for many students, it is possible to pre-emptively provide guidelines for academic tasks, such as copyright, plagiarism and referencing, construction of arguments, proposals and portfolios as well as skills, such as academic writing and review, which can all be accessed as needed. (See, for example, this resource from Contact North).

5. Targeted support

As the student population becomes more diverse, so do the learner and learning support needs. For working students, institutions may need to explore ways to increase flexibility as to when key tasks need to be submitted. Thought must also be given to the integration of appropriate assistive technology to enable students with various learning challenges to engage with the content and learning process, for example, the use of screen-readers for learners with visual impairment and text-based transcripts for learners with hearing impairment. (See, for example, this COL presentation on the role of technology in making ODL inclusive).

Learner and learning support are critical for success and need to be planned for during the design and development of any new learning programme. It is an essential aspect of the design rather than an afterthought or a component that can be discarded when finances are constrained. Integrated learner and learning support can be instrumental in improving retention, pass rates and progression, as learners receive more guidance and feedback throughout the learning process and are able to make more informed decisions about their learning journey.

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