Student Guide to Online Learning

Student Guide to Online Learning

Table of Contents

About this Guide

This guide has been prepared by Michigan Virtual™, through its Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute® (MVLRI), with the insight of experienced students, mentors, instructors, administrators, and customer service representatives from Michigan Virtual. It is intended for students, parents, guardians, counselors, and others who guide students in their decision about whether online courses are a good option for their personal circumstance. Its focus is on middle and high school students. In this guide, you will find:

  • Questions to help you decide if online learning is right for you,
  • Characteristics of successful online learners,
  • Suggestions for how to prepare for learning online, and
  • Comments and advice from students about their experience with virtual classes.

This guide is one of a family of Guides to Online Learning that details the world of online learning from the perspective of the people integral to creating a positive learning experience. Each guide outlines key definitions, research and resources, and practical strategies that paint a picture of what kind of preparations and support systems are necessary to ensure students succeed in their online courses.

Introduction to Online Learning

Online learning is a great option for many students and can be a very effective way to learn. Because taking virtual courses is quite different from taking face-to-face courses at school, it’s very important you know what you’re getting into and what kind of support you’ll need to be successful before classes start. Research shows that students who are well prepared and well supported for this new experience do better in their classes.

It was in 2006 that the Michigan Legislature adopted a policy that Michigan students have an online learning experience as a high school graduation requirement. This policy was the first of its kind in the nation. In 2013, the Michigan Legislature expanded student access to digital learning options through Section 21f of the State School Aid Act. This Virtual Learning Infographic was developed to provide a visual representation of the law and includes the denial reasons.

Michigan’s Online Course Catalog

Michigan’s Online Course Catalog contains syllabi information (such as state academic standards, prerequisites, instructor contact time expectations, available academic support, and outcomes and objectives) as well as enrollment and course dates for online courses made available by Michigan school districts and Michigan Virtual. All courses in the catalog include results of a quality assurance review using nationally recognized standards. The information in these reviews will assist parents, students, and school personnel in making the best possible choices for students.

There are many different providers of online courses, so each course and your experience in that course environment may be very different. Start and end dates and when and how you need to be present online for class may differ, too. To see what your options are, look at a course in the catalog where you can see:

  • the syllabus,
  • the course description,
  • course outcomes,
  • how the course is structured,
  • the prerequisites,
  • required assessments, and
  • the academic support available to you.

Because online learning is still new to many school staff and students, it is common for there to be misunderstandings about online courses — specifically how it compares to a student’s face-to-face experience. A primary example is that people often believe that online courses are easier. When done well, an online course is as robust as the same course delivered face-to-face. The blog Are online courses “easier” than face-to-face courses? discusses five important reasons behind why they should not be easier. 

In reality, particularly when new to an online course, the student has to learn the same content knowledge but has to do so in an unfamiliar learning environment. Students have to develop skills for navigating the online course, self-regulation strategies for staying on pace to complete the course, and new ways of asking for help when they have a question, all without being in the same physical location as their online teacher. The learning platform used may be unique to the online school or program, but the technology and learning applications are often familiar to students.

Why Do Students Choose Online Learning?

Students want to learn online for a variety of reasons. The Foundation for Blended and Online Learning (2017) published a report on why students choose blended and online schools. The report authors used surveys, focus groups, and interviews with students, along with other data to create the report. The report identified three broad reasons students pursue online and blended learning:

  • academics; 
  • social-emotional health and safety; and 
  • interests and life circumstances.

Students may be:

  • full-time learners – taking all of their courses virtually; 
  • part-time learners – adding online courses to what they take at school; or
  • summer learners – enriching, recovering, or advancing learning during summer months.

A student’s ultimate goal for completing a course significantly impacts their choices. Attention to a student’s motivation for enrolling in an online course can go a long way toward eventual success. Students are most successful when there is a genuine desire to succeed; i.e., if I pass this course, I will reach my goal of graduation, acceptance to a particular college, a desired occupation, etc. Conversely, students are more likely to fail an online course when there is little motivation; i.e., my counselor made me take this course; I don’t need this credit to graduate; it doesn’t matter if I pass or fail, so who cares?

From the student’s point of view, online learning is attractive because it is:

  1. Personalized to my needs and learning goals. When students select their courses, they take greater ownership.
  2. Flexible so that I can try different ways to learn. Online learning allows scheduling to accommodate health, athletic, job and family circumstances.
  3. Interactive and engaging to draw me in. Students meet people outside their community in a safe environment, and multimedia used in online learning provides different ways of learning.
  4. Relevant to the life I’d like to lead. Students gain more experience using the 21st century technology tools used in college and in the workplace.
  5. Paced by my own progress measured against goals I understand. Students can move faster or slower through assignments and track their own progress toward their goals.
  6. Constantly informed by different ways of demonstrating and measuring my progress. Educational technology can measure and share student progress quickly.
  7. Collaborative with faculty, peers, and others, unlimited by proximity. Students can access learning materials and resources – including local, state, and national experts – using online communication tools.
  8. Responsive and supportive when I need extra help. Communicating outside the typical school day is supported by the online learning culture. Many students – and teachers – report they spend more time interacting online than in the face-to-face classroom.
  9. Challenging but achievable, with opportunities to become an expert in an area of interest. Online learning reinforces lifelong learning skills and promotes information literacy and communication skills as well as thinking and problem-solving skills.
  10. Available to me as much as it is to every other student. Online learning can direct the talents of some of the most skilled educators to the most underserved populations. A zip code does not have to determine learning options any more.

List based on previous work of Next Generation Learning Challenges

Profile of a Successful Online Learner

Instructors with years of online teaching experience agree that students who have a successful, satisfying experience learning online share several critical characteristics. Review these characteristics and answer these questions.

  • Good Time Management: Can you create and maintain a study schedule throughout the semester without face-to-face interaction with a teacher?
  • Effective Communication: Can you ask for help, make contact with other students and the instructor online, and describe any problems you have with learning materials using email, text messaging, and/or the telephone?
  • Independent Study Habits: Can you study and complete assignments without direct supervision and maintain the self-discipline to stick to a schedule?
  • Self-Motivation: Do you have a strong desire to learn skills, acquire knowledge, and fulfill assignments in online courses because of an educational goal? Can you maintain focus on that goal?
  • Academic Readiness: Do you have the basic reading, writing, math, and computer literacy skills to succeed in the class?
  • Technologically Prepared: Are you prepared to use constantly evolving technology to learn? The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) published a set of Standards for Students designed to empower student voice and ensure that learning is a student-driven process.

A Special Note About Time Commitment

Experienced mentors and online instructors agree that time management is one of the skills most critical to success. Students who cannot manage time and assignments without direct supervision usually struggle to be successful learners online. Students should expect and be able to spend five to 10 hours a week per course.

Student Comments

Below are comments from Michigan students after completing their online course that reinforce the value of the critical characteristics above.

I liked how easy it was to navigate the course and how I could work on it at home and school.”

This is too much work compared to regular school classes.

“I enjoyed the scrapbook assignments that made us use current news to apply our course knowledge in an explanation of the environmental issue at hand.

“It is difficult for many students to complete these labs if they do not have access to all the materials or a computer at home.”

I like that even though I have actually never seen my teacher, I know she’s there because she comments on all of my work telling me what I did good on or what I need to improve on.

I wish I had used my time wisely and used the pacing guide more. It helped me set specific due dates. I just didn’t work on my class as hard as I should have.

“I liked how different the experience was. It was not like my usual classes!

I really enjoyed doing the listening and speaking activities in my Japanese class. I felt like in a regular class I wouldn’t get to listen to such a fluent speaker so many times. I can literally just click the repeat button and keep speaking after the speaker. In class, they only say it one to two times.

This class was really hard for me. I would not recommend this to somebody that has a hard time learning by themselves or somebody who needs a class full of people to help them.

I really enjoyed everything in this class. I was able to learn everything that I have struggled with before.

I enjoyed the interaction with classmates in the form of discussion board posts that allowed us to debate and discuss our ideas. It allowed me to share my opinions with my peers and see different sides of situations.

Assessing Student Readiness for Online Learning

Learning online is different and takes some additional skills, but virtual courses are just as important as any other course. Your online course grades are part of your permanent school record. Talk with your parents or guardian and guidance counselor about why you are interested in online learning. 

Not all students are well prepared for online learning. Use this one-page rubric created by Michigan Virtual to help you understand what is required of a successful online learner: Online Learner Readiness Rubric. Be honest and identify those areas you think could be a problem. The rubric asks you to evaluate your basic skills and competencies in the following areas:

  • Technology Skills
  • Work & Study Habits
  • Learning Style
  • Technology/Connectivity
  • Time Management
  • Interest/Motivation
  • Reading/Writing Skills
  • Support Services

Strategies for Online Success is an orientation to learning online aimed at preparing students for the transition from taking courses in-person to taking them online. It consists of three modules that include interactive components, such as videos, self-checks, and resources you can download:

  • Online Learning Basics
  • Skills for Online Learning
  • Online Learning Technology

Mentor/Online Teacher

Any pace, any place, any time learning sounds great, and it is for some students. Most students like the flexibility of being able to study when and where it is convenient for them. However, any pace can be a problem. Some courses don’t have specific due dates for every assignment, quiz, or test. Many students comment in their end-of-semester surveys that they would like specific deadlines for assignments so they cannot put things off and get behind so easily. Remember that you have to take full responsibility for your time management and complete and submit assignments and assessments on time.

Considerations Before You Decide

Your decision about which course you take online is an important one. The class and grade you receive go on your permanent record, just like your other courses. Ask yourself these questions and discuss your options with your parents/guardians and counselor before you decide what course(s) you want to take:

  • Is the course content something that interests you?
  • How will you balance the 1-2 hours a day per course to work on assignments with your other commitments and life in general? 
  • Where will you work on your course — in a designated space at school (classroom or lab, for instance) or outside class hours at home or another location.
  • How many online courses will you take? 
  • What prerequisites do you need?
  • What kind of assignments will you have?
  • What software is required?
  • How much contact will you have with the teacher and other students?
  • Do you have any special needs that require adaptive technology to take the class online?

Schedule an appointment for you and your parent/guardian with your guidance counselor, or the person at your school who registers students for classes. If you are homeschooled, in some cases, you may need to be enrolled through a school.

The Online Learning Agreement is meant to acknowledge acceptance of the identified roles and responsibilities for students and parents that request online courses under Section 21f of the State School Aid Act.

Mentor/Online Teacher

If you’re an athlete, remember to see that the course you want to take meets NCAA guidelines.

Mentor/Online Teacher

Talk with other students who have taken virtual courses. They can tell you about their ups and downs and may spark some questions you’d like to ask your school support person before you commit to an online course.

What Kind Of Support Will You Have? 

When you take a class in school, your teacher and other students are in the room with you if you have questions. You have a place to sit and books and materials to work with close by. Maybe a laptop or tablet, too. When you learn virtually, your school may have another place for you to work on your course (for example, the library/media center or a special lab), but you may be responsible for creating your own space both at school and at home.

If you have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a 504 Plan through your school, ensure that this information has been shared with your online course provider. Make sure to communicate your specific learning needs with both your online teacher and your mentor. This will help to ensure everyone is on the same page regarding accommodations and what is expected of you. Make sure to advocate for yourself if your learning needs are not being adequately met.

You also need to know how to contact and ask for help from the people involved in your online learning:

Course Instructor: The person who is teaching your virtual course is the first one to go to when you have questions about assignments or resources.

Mentor: Michigan law requires that students learning online have a person assigned by your school to support you in your online learning experience. If you are homeschooled, this may be your parent or guardian.

Technology Staff: Most schools have people who oversee the computer labs and learning technology and may be able to help with any technology questions or problems you have.

Help Desk: Some online providers have a contact email or phone number in case you have issues with the course that your mentor, parent, or instructor can’t resolve.

Parent/Guardian: Your parents or guardians may have access to your course, too. It is best if they check in with you regularly to be sure you are keeping up and help maintain the space identified for you to use as a study area. If you are homeschooled, your parent or guardian is probably your mentor.

Peers: Friends who have taken virtual courses can encourage you and be a big help in troubleshooting. Classmates in your online course can also show or tell you about course features or assignments. 

Others: Some schools have additional staff who support online learners, for example, counselors or the librarian or media center staff.

Mentor/Online Teacher

You must be willing and able to contact your online instructor. Many students are afraid to do this, but your success depends on it.

Mentor/Online Teacher

We know students do best when they spend time on their online course every day. How full is your schedule with your face-to-face classes, employment, extracurricular and other activities? Do you have time during the evenings and on weekends to work on your course?

After careful consideration, if you decide you are not quite ready for online learning, you can prepare to take a course in the future.

  • Build online fluencies and talk about what you are ready for and what areas need some work. Use the online learning readiness rubric to decide where to focus your efforts.
  • Look at course provider websites for webinars and resources directed at parents and students. 
  • Talk with the person at school who is most familiar with online learning – your school’s mentor, curriculum specialist or counselor – and ask what materials or suggestions they have to help.
  • Consider enrolling in an enrichment course during summer so you can gain confidence in learning online.


Many students are finding success incorporating online courses into their academic and career goals. Fully online programs, early college opportunities and other innovative education models are expanding possibilities at a much more rapid pace than ever before. Schools and parents recognize that students must influence what and how they learn in the 21st century based on their long-term academic and career aspirations.

Whether you are a teacher, mentor, parent, student, counselor, administrator, school board member, or someone else who has an interest in online learning, we welcome your feedback and questions and invite you to email us at [email protected].  

Research and Resources for Online Learning Programs

Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report, produced annually, reflects continued growth in K-12 online enrollments in Michigan. The report provides school districts with the opportunity to benchmark their own virtual learning programs against their peers in the state. This opportunity should be an important step in a program’s continuous quality improvement activities. The report is organized into several sections. The first section looks at schools as the unit of analysis. The next section focuses on the virtual courses taken. The third section focuses on students. The fourth section captures performance on statewide assessments. There is also a brief section containing maps of virtual use. Each section is meant to capture the essential findings without being overly data intensive; however, data tables have been included in the appendices to provide those interested with more in-depth information.

For additional information and insights for developing and supporting your online and blended learning program, please visit the following web pages on the Michigan Virtual website:

  • Michigan’s Online Course Catalog contains syllabi information (such as state academic standards, prerequisites, instructor contact time expectations, available academic support, and outcomes and objectives) as well as enrollment and course dates for online courses made available by Michigan school districts and Michigan Virtual.
  • The Digital Backpack blog that shares findings and expertise related to K-12 online and blended learning from both a state and national perspective.
  • Michigan schools are obligated to address the learning needs of students of all abilities so everyone has equitable access to education. When students have the tools to learn according to their abilities, everyone wins. By learning more about accommodations, accessibility, and inclusive pedagogy, educators can apply best practices in meeting the needs of all students in their classrooms.
  • Research Publications that provide a foundation to examine, engage, and explore educational practices in the industry.
  • Research Clearinghouse contains references to important research and publications in the field of K-12 online and blended learning.
  • Michigan’s Online Learning Law page is dedicated to information on Michigan’s Section 21f legislation. It includes resources and samples developed by and for schools.
  • A family of Guides to Online Learning details the world of online learning from the perspective of the people integral to creating a positive learning experience. Each guide outlines key definitions, research and resources, and practical strategies that paint a picture of what kind of preparations and support systems are necessary to ensure students succeed in their online courses.
  • A page dedicated to Mentors, developed in partnership with school leaders and mentors, links educators to a professional learning community where they can ask questions, problem solve, and share ideas and resources with other mentors around the state including sample forms.
  • The set of national standards for quality online programs, teaching, and courses have been a benchmark for online learning for more than a decade. All three sets of standards were updated and published in 2019 by Quality Matters and the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance.
  • The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) published  Standards to provide a framework for innovation in education and help educators and education leaders worldwide prepare learners to thrive in work and life.