top of page
  • Writer's pictureTheresa Capra

First-Time Online Learners: the Ones to Watch!

First-time online learners are at-risk for non-completion regardless of their academic abilities. This semester there will be more first-time online learners than ever before. How can instructors and institutions support them?


Distance education is hardly new, yet the majority of college students acquired minimal, if any, experience with it before the pandemic. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2018 about 34% of undergraduate students participated in some form of flexible, distance learning. Welcome to 2020--the year that is smashing all sorts of records. It’s safe to say that 100% of the students who choose to continue their studies during the pandemic will engage in distance learning, and many of those courses will be fully online.

What does this mean for instructors? It means that there will be numerous first-time online learners in our courses--more than ever before. Research has demonstrated that first-time online learners need additional support to persevere. In response, here are a few strategies that can help first-time online learners reach success.

Fear not!

People fear the unknown. Our brains are hardwired for this as a defense mechanism--how can we avoid danger if we don’t know where to find it, so best to assume the worst when turning a new corner. Of course humans have become adept at trying to predict the unknown by relying on our past experiences. This is precisely what new online learners do. The problem is that traditional instruction is completely different from online learning rendering past experiences useless.

Nevertheless, first-time online learners begin with preconceived notions and expectations about the learning environment, especially the role of the instructor. Traditional instruction is based on the sage on the stage, whereas online learning is akin to the guide on the side. As a result, a limited understanding of the unconventional role of an online instructor increases preliminary disorientation.

Many first-time online learners immediately struggle because they do not perceive instructional presence even when an instructor has done everything right (i.e. smooth course design, inviting introduction, detailed directions).

This can be averted by increasing instructional presence during the crucial first days beyond the industry standards of welcome videos and introductory boards. There are a variety of ways to accomplish this, but evidence suggests that an early face-to-face meeting with web-conferencing tools can go a long way. As you plan your course schedule, add a special synchronous session for first-time online learners. Send the syllabus and course schedule to the roster in advance encouraging first-timers to reach out.

Under normal circumstances, synchronous sessions contradict the asynchronicity fully online students prefer. But this year will be different--online learning is choosing its students, even if they are not choosing it back. With a pre-established date and time, anxious first timers may be more inclined to plan accordingly. Smartphone applications also make participation on the go much easier. Holding a targeted orientation can help dispel erroneous preconceptions while allaying first-time jitters.

Where is everyone?

Another aspect of fully online courses that new learners have difficulty adjusting to are the unique social interactions with peers. Social expectations are derived from past experiences of sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in classrooms. Although it’s passive, a quiet classroom is perceived as social due to years of experience with traditional instruction. In fully online classes, students must actively participate in the course in order to connect. Well-crafted discussion boards can lay the groundwork, and peer-to-peer engagement can end up quite high, but because it staggers over time, it can be a shock to first-time online students who expect instant interaction.

Try to temper this right away by making introductions more personalized. Swap text-based boards for pictorial forums. Ask students to upload a favorite picture (not a selfie) with brief captions instead of the typical getting to know you paragraph. Students should be prompted to ask for more information about a classmate's image, which elicits discussion not merely replies. You can also do this with videos. Use an application such as FlipGrid that allows students to record and upload short videos on a thread. Encourage them to hold up a pet or share a favorite place. These simple tweaks can help induce positive social interactions immediately.

Institutions, take notice!

Experienced online learners are an untapped resource. Institutional support for online learners is usually based upon orientations focused on technology and best practices. However, research shows that long-term support, especially for new online students who are at-risk for noncompletion regardless of academic ability, is an overlooked strategy.

Peer mentoring programs for at-risk and underprepared learners in general is an effective mechanism to increase retention. Therefore, creating a mentoring program for first-time online learners might be a solution. Experienced students could be incentivized to mentor first-time learners. Such a program could meet two goals: provide long-term support, and harness the power of positive peer relationships for academic success.

Support for online students at all levels and stages must keep pace with the rapid expansion of distance learning in order to ensure retention.

6 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page