The growth of online education has been steady over the past decade, with more and more colleges offering online learning for both traditional and nontraditional students. However, since online learning is still relatively new, professors and administrators are still working out how to measure and establish its success. What is it that makes one student succeed in an online setting when another fails? How can educators design online courses and programs to ensure success for the highest number of students, such that students not only report being satisfied with their learning experience, but recommend it to others, and even go on to be promoters of online education as they pursue success in their chosen fields. The positive outcomes that online programs aim to affect, such as job placement, high scores on relevant certification exams, and overall satisfying career trajectories, can have a measurable positive impact on those programs as well as the students they graduate.
Although online learning is still developing, having been around for only a fraction of the time that more established teaching methods have, it is possible to look at existing data to get a better sense of the answers to these questions. Luckily there are a number of researchers and academics who have taken the time to look at existing online courses and programs, and determine what makes one more successful than another.
While online institutions and administrators have yet to come to a complete consensus about which indicators will predict student success in an online environment, it has been a topic of discussion. Dr. Susan Aldridge, President of Drexel University Online, recently offered a list of four key indicators of success as follows:
Dr. Aldridge has found that when these factors align for students, they are more likely to experience “greater academic and professional success.”
Persistence and satisfaction are two indicators that have earned traction in different institutions. The rate at which students continue to enroll in more courses, coupled with their overall satisfaction with the experience, can be essential factors in predicting whether those students will have the short and long term outcomes for which these institutions strive.
The nature of the institution itself can also influence how success is measured. Online program administrators at community colleges, for example, will likely place high importance on the rates at which students enroll in four-year colleges or universities, while those four-year institutions will have success metrics that are more focused on graduation and employment.
The following experts have all established themselves as important voices in online education research, either through academic publication or other available research. We have chosen to highlight these particular individuals for their work in determining what makes an online course — and the students that enroll in it — ultimately successful.
Kimberly Parke Director of Admissions, Harvard Extension School
As the Director of Admissions at Harvard Extension School, Kimberly Parke has a tremendous amount of experience in the success of online learning programs. In a recent piece on Harvard Extension website, Parke offers some insight into what makes an online student successful and states that in her experience, it comes down to determination. Says Parke, “It’s sticking with your plan day in and day out, not just for the week or for the month, but for years, and working hard to make your future a reality.” This degree of persistence, Parke notes, has been called “grit” by psychologist Angela Duckworth. Without the internal drive to complete an online program, students will have a tremendous amount of difficulty succeeding in, or even finishing, the program. Parke indicates that grit is perhaps even more important for nontraditional students who may need to expend effort not just to understand the course materials, but to understand the online learning technology itself.
In addition to grit, Parke has found that it is important for online students to engage with their learning community, which can take more effort in the online setting than it would on campus. Students who make it a point to reach out to faculty, in particular, and develop those important relationships will be more successful in their programs in the long run.
While it may come as no surprise that online learning takes a bit more perseverance and self-discipline than a traditional classroom experience, these insights from the Director of a top online program are certainly worth bearing in mind.
Tools & Strategies for Succeeding as an Online Student
Debbie Morrison Digital Education Consultant, Online Learning Insights
Debbie Morrison is the founder of Online Learning Insights, which acts as a compendium of information on the process of online learning and curriculum development. Prior to founding the site, Morrison was the Lead Curriculum Developer for Online Learning at Master’s University, giving her a unique perspective on what it means to create a course in which students can succeed. In her post Five-step Strategy for Student Success with Online Learning, Morrison sheds light on what a student can do to structure and channel the grit that can be so important in online learning success. The success factors that Morrison outlines include simple but essential pieces of the learning process, such as reading the course syllabus to familiarize oneself with due dates, setting aside specific time each week to study and complete assignments, and feeling empowered to ask questions when something isn’t clear. While these types of things may seem obvious, for online students that have never attended college and have never had to be self-directed, these organizational and learning skills can provide a structure for success.
Five-step Strategy for Student Success with Online Learning
Sean Eom, Ph.D. Professor of MIS, Dept. of Accounting, Harrison College of Business, Southeast Missouri State University
In his paper, Dr. Sean Eom from Missouri State University, addresses the persistent question of how much self-motivation influences learning outcomes for online students. The results of his study, which assessed the experience of 372 students who had taken at least one online course, found that “intrinsic motivation” was a key influencing factor towards student success in online learning. On the other hand, “extrinsic student motivation” had no relationship with learning outcomes. What this means is that in order to find success in an online environment, it is much more important for a student to derive internal psychological satisfaction from doing their coursework and participating in class than it is for the course to provide external recognition for that work.
This particular paper was accepted as part of the SIGED: IAIM Conference at AIS Electronic Library (AISeL).
Prior to joining the faculty at Southeast Missouri State University, Dr. Eom was an Associate Professor at Middle Tennessee State University and an Assistant Professor at Auburn University. Dr. Eom earned his PhD in Management Science from the University of Nebraska.
The Effects of Student Motivation and Self Regulated Learning Strategies on Student’ s Perceived E-learning Outcomes and Satisfaction
Shanna Smith Jaggars Director of Student Success Research for the Office of Distance Education and E-Learning at The Ohio State University
Di Xu Assistant Professor at UC Irvine
Dr. Shanna Smith Jaggars and Dr. Di Xu combined their online learning expertise for the Computers & Education article How do online course design features influence student performance?. In this article, the pair collaborate on an online course design assessment rubric that includes four areas. Overall, much like other studies, this article indicates that student-instructor relationships hold an important key to the success of an online course. Building again off of the idea of student commitment, this study finds that “frequent and effective student–instructor interaction creates an online environment that encourages students to commit themselves to the course and perform at a stronger academic level.”
How do online course design features influence student performance?
Kenneth C. Green Founding Director of the Campus Computing Project
Ellen Wagner Partner and Senior Analyst for Sage Road Solutions, LLC
For the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, Kenneth C. Green and Ellen Wagner write about online learning success metrics specifically as they relate to college boards. The intent of this piece is to help boards to decide when and how to best invest in online learning for optimal student and institutional results, urging boards not to rush into online programming without thoroughly considering the options available and the reasoning behind it. Green and Wagner understand that “launching and supporting effective online courses and programs involves more than simply migrating old course syllabi to the Internet.” It is only with the thoughtful creation of online courses that are designed with an online learner in mind that these types of programs can actually thrive.
Online Education: Where Is It Going? What Should Boards Know?
Thierry Volery Chair of Entrepreneurship and Head of the Marketing Discipline, University of Western Australia
In his paper, Critical Success Factors in Online Education, Dr. Thierry Volery along with co-author Deborah Lord, identify three such factors: technology, the instructor, and the previous use of the technology from a student’s perspective.
It is important to note that there has been substantial growth in online learning since the initial publication of this paper in 2000, but that has not necessarily changed the findings. Indeed, the technology used and the instructor remain critical to student success in online learning. However, now many colleges are coming to understand that their online learning programs must be delivered to students using technology with which they are intimately familiar: their mobile phones and tablets.
Prior to joining the faculty at the University of Western Australia, Dr. Volery was the Professor and Director of the Swiss Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship at the Universität St. Gallen for more than 13 years.
Critical Success Factors in Online Education
Michael P. Menchaca, Ed.D. Professor & Program Coordinator, Learning Design & Technology, University of Hawaii
Teklu Abate Bekele, Ph.D. Senior Lecturer, University of Oslo
Drs. Michael Menchaca and Teklu Abate Bekele undertook a study to supplement existing research on distance learning. At the time of their study, which is older than those cited above, most available data was related to older methods of distance learning, including mail-based correspondence courses, but for their paper, Menchaca and Bekele collected online learning data from multiple sources and multiple stakeholders.
Upon reviewing their data to see which online student success factors were most frequently mentioned as important by students, faculty, and administrators across five cohorts spanning multiple years, Drs. Menchaca and Abate Bekele reached the following conclusions:
- the availability of multiple tools added flexibility to the learning environment, particularly tools that provided different ways for students to communicate with faculty and other students (chat, face-to-face/f2f, group interaction, peer feedback, email, forums for ‘reflective’ communication), so having access to multiple tools was cited as highly important, although no particular tool was singled out;
- technology tools that appealed to multiple learning styles were frequently mentioned as important value-adds; some mentioned online collaboration, web publishing, and electronic communication tools as important means for otherwise reserved students to contribute and learn;
- collaboration, reflection, and building a learning community were important strategies supported by multiple tools; so-called “social learning” was cited often by respondents as an important success factor, and one student when asked to identify critical program success factors responded simply, “community, community, community” ;
- faculty responsiveness and administrative involvement helped ensure programmatic success
Dr. Menchaca earned a doctorate in Educational Technology from Pepperdine University while Dr. Bekele holds a PhD in Education from the University of Oslo.
Learner and instructor identified success factors in distance education