Creating a Supportive Learning Environment for Online Students: Communication is Key

illustration of communication in the online environment
What does a supportive online learning environment look like? Administrators, parents, mentors, and teachers must work together and communicate effectively. While overlap in responsibilities is inevitable, each has a defined role in shaping an online learning environment conducive to student success.

In our Success in Online Learning blog series, we covered many topics such as setting up online learners for success, commonalities between successful K-12 online programs, and the hidden heroes of successful online courses among others. We discussed supporting online students through enrichment, orientation modules, and the triangle of student success

We explored eLearning days, communities of practice, and communication and engagement in an online classroom. And we insisted that online teachers need support from their instructional leaders and ongoing professional development

We conclude this series by discussing how an online learning program can create a supportive learning environment for online students. 

Below, we highlight some best practices and advice in terms of effectively managing relationships and maintaining regular and meaningful communications between administrators, students, parents, mentors, and teachers, all with the intent of creating a supportive learning environment for online students. 

What does a supportive online learning environment look like?

According to the standard of “learner and parent/guardian support” found in the National Standards for Quality Online Programs, establishing standards for teacher communications with learners and parents/guardians is a key component to a supportive online program. 

Examples of this may include some form of monthly communication to parents and students, weekly pacing charts, a Student Information System that provides parents with access to student data, and/or communication regarding course pacing guides. 

On-site mentors usually help to facilitate some of the communication between teachers, parents/guardians, and students. However, it is important to note that a supportive partnership between online teachers, parents, and students will not look the same in each online learning environment. 

Relationship management, responsibilities, and communication

In order to create a supportive online learning environment for students, administrators, mentors, teachers, and parents must work together. Relationships amongst these key stakeholders must be nurtured and are essential to ensuring students receive the support they need, when they need it. 

Administrators: Be involved

Being involved in the online learning program is one of the most important ways in which an administrator can help to create a supportive online learning environment for students. Administrators can encourage parent involvement by letting them know how they can get involved—making sure they know pacing guides exist, communicating deadlines and expectations, and sharing student course data points. 

Administrators should understand the opportunities that online learning affords students and the reasons why students may want to take an online course. It is up to an administrator to provide the structure for an online learning program and to be flexible enough to adapt and change that structure as needed. 

Administrators must also be willing to address the challenges that mentors face and provide them with the support they need. Establishing clear expectations and defining responsibilities for mentors will set the framework for a supportive online learning environment. 

Mentors: Build relationships

As mentors are typically the face-to-face support students receive when working in their online course during school hours, building relationships with students is the most impactful way in which they can create a supportive learning environment. 

Mentors should establish routines and meet regularly with students, discussing progress on course pacing guides as well as tracking grades and assignment completion. Being available for students when they have questions and need support is a key responsibility of a mentor; however, support may be needed outside of typical school hours.  

In creating a supportive online learning environment, the mentor can play a significant role in helping to bridge communication gaps between students, parents, and online instructors. 

Teachers: Focus on communication

The most important way in which an online instructor can create a supportive learning environment is to communicate frequently and in a timely manner with both students and mentors. When students have to wait too long for a response to their question, issue, or for feedback, they begin to feel unimportant and frustrated. 

Getting to know their students, and at the same time, making sure students know their online instructor is a real person who genuinely cares about their success are crucial components of a supportive online learning environment. 

Monitoring student progress and motivating students as they advance through their course are additional ways teachers can ensure students feel supported. Teachers should consider reaching out to both the student and the mentor to communicate issues and concerns as they arise. 

Online teachers should provide structure within their courses, communicating deadlines and expectations clearly and up front. Consider copying parents on emails to students and communicating behavior policies (for example, anti-bullying policies) to both parents and students, as well. 

Parents: Be present

Just as the mentor is the face-to-face support for students when completing online coursework in a school setting, parents are the face-to-face support when students complete online coursework outside of school or at home. 

Educational support at home from parents is important in any online course, but especially when learning remotely due to the current pandemic. 

It is important that parents understand the differences and similarities between online and traditional face-to-face courses. Know what makes a successful online student and understand the challenges that online courses present. 

While online courses can be convenient in terms of scheduling, some students find themselves unprepared for the reality of online learning. Because online courses require students to be more responsible in terms of managing their time and completing assignments, it is crucial that parents understand what is expected of students, both from their online instructor and their mentor. 

Final Thoughts

Hopefully it is evident that a supportive learning environment for online students requires school administrators, online instructors, mentors, and parents to work together. 

Each stakeholder is responsible for different aspects of support, but there is clearly a lot of overlap between the roles. These individuals who support students in their online coursework must not only communicate with the student, but communicate with each other. 

Most importantly, there should be unified expectations in terms of assignment completion, quality of work, behavior, and academic integrity that are communicated not only to the students, but to all parties involved. 

The more cohesively that school administrators, online instructors, mentors, and parents communicate and work together, the more supported students will feel and the more successful they will be in their online courses. 

In what capacity will you serve to create and shape a supportive learning environment for online learners? 

Additional resources

Success in Online Learning blog series

In our Success in Online Learning blog series, we discuss all things K-12 online learning in Michigan and across the nation. Our hope with this series is to provide a primer on K-12 online learning, cover established and emerging topics, and provide relevant research and resources. Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!

About the Authors 

Christa Green

Christa received her master’s in Curriculum and Instruction from Kent State University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. She taught middle school language arts and social studies for seven years before coming to work for Michigan Virtual in 2018. As a research specialist with the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, Christa enjoys using her passion for education, curriculum, research, and writing to share and shape best practices in online and blended learning with other educators within and beyond Michigan. 

Kristen DeBruler

Dr. DeBruler is the Research Manager at Michigan Virtual. She has been in the field of K-12 online education for nearly a decade and joined Michigan Virtual in 2012. During that time, she conducted research on preparing K-12 online teachers and supporting K-12 students. Some of that work focused specifically on K-12 online teacher preparation, K-12 online learner demographics and success at several state virtual schools, and learning trajectories in K-12 online mathematics courses. Dr. DeBruler received her doctorate in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology from Michigan State University and has experience teaching at the Master’s level, both face-to-face and online.

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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