To prep or not to prep: supporting newcomers to online learning

Studying an Open University module by nature is situated within a group of learners and tutors, this naturally evolves into learning community.

The success of such a community is dependant on the group dynamics such as how the forum activities lend themselves to discourse, how the tutor draws out discussion and the ability and confidence learners have to engage with such discourse.

Personally, the benefits if learning within a community is sharing knowledge/experience with fellow learners and making sense of course material, literature and new concepts from shared perspectives. Learning alone would cancel out the shared understanding and reduce the richness of my learning journey significantly. There is also the peer-supporting element of the community, getting help and advice from co-learners helps to build a stronger sense of community and this bonds learner more closely.

The Ludwig-Hardman and Dunlap 2003 model is far too supportive of learners and does not provide the authentic learning environment learners really experience when arriving in a new environment and discovering new forms of communication. I would also argue taking learners along such a supportive route is stifling their own pursuit of experiential learning, as McLoughlin states ‘To foster effective learning, it is important to make sure that the learners are not just exposed to inert facts and information, but they are afforded an experience that enables them to plan, act and reflect’ (2002pp.157). Doing this within the course environment and at point of need then becomes meaningful and relevant. Salmon also supports this view by stating ‘offering face-to-face sessions to try and instruct new participants in all the features of the platform and then to expect them to be able to take part successfully is not a good idea’ (Salmon 2002 pp. 14).

Having the resources to help students at point of need is a matter the course team should build in (or link to) by default at the start of each online course. The course tutor should ensure such resources are used by students who are less confident, while at the same time allowing the more confident learners to help with this support. Thus, such a model helps to support the notion of community and learning happens in a far more evolving manner.


Ludwig-hardman, S., & Dunlap, J. (2003). Learner Support Services for Online Students: Scaffolding for success. The International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, vol. 4, issue 1. Retrieved from

McLoughlin, C. (2002) ‘Learner support in distance and networked learning environments: ten dimensions for successful design’, Distance Education, vol.23, no.2, pp.149–62.

Salmon, G. (2002) E-tivities: The Key to Active Online Learning, London, RoutledgeFalmer.


2 thoughts on “To prep or not to prep: supporting newcomers to online learning

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Maria. It’s really interesting that you detect issues with (1) the orientation activities to the online environment and (2) the one-on-one advising (resulting in weekly calls between the student and mentor), which I’m guessing are what you mean when you mention the “Ludwig-Hardman and Dunlap 2003 model is far too supportive of learners”? Whilst, I can see that the overhead on the institution in running such activities must be enormous, I would have thought that they would be a benefit for students, particularly more novice learners. I wonder if there can ever be such a thing as too much support, when it comes to distance learner?

    Also, I hadn’t been aware of Salmon’s comments about face-to-face induction sessions being a needless activity. Such sessions are the norm for most distance learning courses at our campus.

    I need to mull over your thoughts more, but they certainly represent a new viewpoint for me.

  2. Thanks for your comment Fiona, I guess the point I’m trying to make from literature and more importantly my own experience is learners learn better from other learners over any orientation process to the online learning experience delivered by support departments and derived from the pre-enrolment Learning Orientation Questionnaire Ludwig-Hardman and Dunlap refer to in their report.

    Students learn from doing and without the authentic experience of doing (and doing with their co-learners on side) they have no real concept of the live environment and how they would cope. Therefore getting learners to complete questionnaires which try to determine how well they would cope, manage, plan etc. in an online course would not serve to build a thriving online community, more so, it would encourage a more dependant model whereby students look to the education system for support instead of a more self-directed and independent learner. I would be far happier with support given at point-of-need, should the learner need it – or provide a self-help resource where tutors can direct learners.

    I also believe the bonding that takes place with learners supporting each other has far more richness and worth in creating a meaningful and supportive community. This community then becomes one that learners feel they have helped establish and nurture – thus transferring more empowerment, ownership and control to the learner – something the OU seem to do a lot in PG study.

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