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Nurturing Online Learning Environments: Introduction

Nurturing Online Learning Environments: Introduction
There are a number of key elements that must work in concert with one-another to create a truly nurturing online learning environment for non-traditional students.
We are all familiar with the profusion of online courses and opportunities to learn specific skills or complex ideas due to a significant demand, and the relative ease to provide a range of learning modules. Such online modules are provided for employee training, or as part of structured courses, or for informal learning opportunities (often yielding badges or certificates for those who successfully complete specific modules).

We also learn from media that there are students who do not complete online courses, or whose experiences with online courses reveal that anticipated learning outcomes were not realized. Some students provide anecdotes of how face-to-face courses are not translating well to the online setting. What characteristics and elements of online course design and implementation yield desirable outcomes? Findings from educational technology researchers’ examinations of online learning have revealed the importance of several key elements or factors:

  1. Frequency, type and quality of communication;
  2. Creation and maintenance of a community of inquiry (see Garrison, Anderson & Archer’s work at the University of Alberta in the 1990s);
  3. Design and structure of the online course and related materials or resources;
  4. Integration of self-regulatory strategies to support student engagement in online course activities.

At another influential level, higher education is undergoing a paradigm shift, as described in the recently released “Horizon Report” by the New Media Consortium, to remain relevant and meet societal expectations. Educators have recognized the need to refine instructor or standard-defined lessons to incorporate student-centered instructional activities. Successful provision of student-centered learning depends on students’ increasing level of personal responsibility for learning. We have considerable evidence that learning (at all ages, and of all kinds of knowledge and skill) is a developmental process, that impacts instructors’ and learners’ expectations and how activities are designed and implemented, and how student progress is assessed. Historically, apprenticeships and mentoring provided highly effective vehicles for learning, especially of the kinds of knowledge highly valued in the 21st century. Societal and economic realities, rapid and innovative change and easy access to communication networks and digital devices all have the potential to support lifelong learning, delivered traditionally or via online courses.

The remaining sections of this series will focus on the key factors of communication, the atmosphere created within online courses, course design and structure and integration of self-regulation strategies so online courses become vehicles of thriving networks of lifelong learning.

This is the first of a five-part series on the online learning environment by Susan Farber. To read other articles in the series, please click below: