Supporting Student Success in Online Courses

The first post in The Best in Online Teaching Series

Woman sitting at table with laptop, teaching online

Whether you’re a seasoned online instructor or just getting started in the world of online teaching, all of us have the same goal: student success. Three key practices can support student success in your online course: clear and structured course design, visible instructor presence, and effective communication. 

Key Practice 1: Make It Easy to Find Stuff

When a student signs up for an online English course, she probably expects to spend most of her time learning about concepts related to English, not learning about how to navigate the learning environment itself. Of course, with any new learning environment, there will be a learning curve. However, instructors can reduce stress and learning roadblocks by making courses as intuitive as possible for students to navigate. This is where course design and organization comes into play. 

  • Clear, consistent structure helps students navigate a new course more intuitively. 
  • Labeling of course elements helps students quickly locate what they need. 
  • Many online courses are divided into modules, and it helps the learner immensely when the modules are laid out consistently. Each module should have a similar structure, with the module’s overview, learning outcomes, resources, tasks, and assignments in the same order and format. (For more guidance on this, check out Quality Matters and the Online Learning Consortium, both of which offer rubrics to help guide online course design.)

Key Practice 2: Show Up for Class

Some people may be under the impression that online courses “teach themselves.” We, of course, know this is not true! The effective online classroom requires the instructor to be an active participant: not only are you a teacher of content, but you’re also the guide to the class structure and the facilitator of online communication. Research suggests that student persistence is correlated with instructor engagement. 

If a course has been well-designed, then the instructor can focus on interacting with students:

  • Be present through interaction, such as regularly participating in online discussions, answering questions about course content, providing timely feedback on student work, and guiding students to additional resources. 
  • Log in frequently (look at those recent discussion posts, check for assignment submissions, grade student work, etc.) to identify when you may need to reach out to a student.
  • Create a Course Questions discussion thread and check it at least every other day, if not daily. Encourage students to post questions about the course in this thread instead of emailing you individually.

Key Practice 3: Be a Person, Not a Robot

The instructor’s communication style is critical. Some online instructors have been surprised and discomfited to discover that many online students seem to expect a response to emails or messages immediately, at any time of day or night. Letting students know a reasonable response time for communication and grading is key to setting students’ expectations at the beginning of the class. 

Communication style can also play a large part in how students feel about their courses. Creating a video in which you introduce yourself to the class or explain a concept is a great way to connect with students since text on a page can’t fully convey tone or your excitement for a topic. When posting in online discussions, using a respectful and conversational tone will model for your students the type of interaction you expect from them. If you were teaching face-to-face, you’d likely be reminding students about upcoming deadlines, making small talk, and connecting with your students on a personal level. Any of this you can bring to the online classroom will help students develop a connection with you.

Suggested Actions

Students do better in classes when they feel engaged. Clear, structured, easy-to-navigate online courses with instructors who communicate with students frequently and warmly are more likely to result in student success. Consider trying one or more of the following suggested items to make a difference in your courses right now: 

  • Use “student view” to experience the flow of your course, or ask a couple of students to tell you about their experience navigating the course.
  • Let students know early what your response times will be for communication and grading (The syllabus is a great place to put this information.)
  • As a general rule, schedule two hours for every one credit hour you are teaching. Use this time for facilitating discussions, answering emails, proactively reaching out to students, and providing meaningful feedback. 

For further research, check out: 


Eli Collins-Brown is the director of the Coulter Faculty Commons at Western Carolina University. She has served in leadership positions at multiple institutions and is an instructional designer, instructional technologist at heart. She has served in various leadership positions in the PODNetwork and is currently the Communication Officer for the UNC System Faculty and Academic Developers Consortium. Eli has been teaching online since 2003, currently in the Learning Design and Technology masters degree at the University of Maryland Global College. She has an Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from Illinois State University.

Erin McCully is the E-Learning Specialist at Southwestern Community College, where she has worked for five years. She holds a Masters of Instructional Systems Technology as well as degrees in Music Education and taught K-12 music for 12 years. 

Recent Scholarship Projects/Publications

cover photo of matrix booklett This year I had the honor and privilege to collaborate with a number of well-known researchers in the area of faculty/educational development on two different projects:

DEFINING WHAT MATTERS: Guidelines for Comprehensive Center forTeaching and Learning (CTL) Evaluation – a collaboration of 15 members of the POD Network

A Center for Teaching and Learning Matrix – a collaboration between ACE and POD Network.  We worked to revise the first matrix that was released in 2017.

Both of these collaborations focused on ways that institutions and their associated teaching/learning/faculty development units can evaluate their impact on the institution in ways that makes sense and are transparent to anyone. In the spirit of educational development, both of these publications are inspirational, assessing where the unit is and where they would like or need to be.

Digital Literacy or Fluency?

I’m at the AdobeMAX conference in Los Angeles. Yesterday, on a Sunday no less, I spent a day with 280 other folks from higher education institutions learning and sharing about digital literacy.  But one of the presenters challenged us to think about what the difference is between literacy and fluency.

Let’s take a look at the definitions of literate and fluent:


  1. able to read and write.
  2. having or showing knowledge of literature, writing, etc.; literary; well-read.
  3. characterized by skill, lucidity, polish, or the like


  1. spoken or written with ease
  2. able to speak or write smoothly, easily, or readily
  3. asy, graceful

You could have literacy in another language; understand the grammatical structure and able to write, but still not be able to speak it. If you are fluent, you are able to speak in that language with ease.  

Applying this to hot topic of digital literacy, we may want to push for digital fluency for our students. That they will be able to consume and create digital assets easily or with fluency.  

Will this make a difference in how we immerse our content into digital?  

Digital Literacy

graphic for digital literacy

Digital literacy is the updated version of information literacy.  Around the turn of the century, information literacy skills included how to turn on a computer, save a file, open a program, as well as finding information and using it to support research.  With the creation of smartphones, social media, and mobile everything, these have morphed into digital literacy skills.

Whereas in the past, we were consumers of information, technology allows us to all be creators of content, sharing our creations with just a few select individuals or the world.  We increasingly consume information in sound bytes, through media, sound clips and infographics. Creating these pieces of content to convey our message is not an easy thing to do.  It takes information literacy skills, pared with critical thinking, written communication and media creation skills to create content that can be accessible and meaningful to our audiences.

It’s no wonder then that the National Associate of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE) Job Outlook 2018 survey respondents rated Digital Technology as 6th in a list of essential career readiness competencies and 2nd on their list of graduate readiness (NACE, 2018).

Additionally, Ventimiglia & Pullman state that “Students can be more successful after graduation if they are digitally literate—having learned how to identify and create digital solutions, adapt to new tools, and discover more effective and efficient ways of doing things in their fields” (2016).

And 5th on EDUCAUSE’s 2018 Key Issues in Teaching & Learning list is digital and information literacies.

So how do we teach our students digital literacy when we as professors and teachers are not literate ourselves?

We focus on faculty development that maps how we can take existing assignments in our courses and turn them into digital assignments.  Instead of having the student write an essay about something they’ve researched, ask them to create an Adobe Spark page, or a digital story, or a video, or… The majority of students in our classes today have a smartphone with more  computing power than we had in our first PCs in the 1990s. Additionally, most phone cameras are capable of taking high-definition photos and recording quality video. They grew up with YouTube, Vine videos, Snapchat, and Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter; all hosting small consumable products on every topic imaginable.  We can leverage their comfort with this type of media and information to help them leap ahead with their digital literacy skills.

The end product?  They will be more competitive in the job market when they graduate and more agile in their careers.


2018 Key Issues in Teaching and Learning, EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative,

From Written to Digital : The New Literacy, Phillip Ventimiglia and George Pullman, March 7, 2016 EDUCAUSE Review.

Employers Rate Career Competencies, New Hire Proficiency, Job Outlook 2018 Survey, National Association of Colleges and Employers.

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Courses Taught or Teaching



  • IMAT639 – Internet Multimedia Applications, Masters of Information Science, University of Maryland University College


  • EDT5410 – Introduction to Educational Technology, Educational Leadership, Research, and Technology, Western Michigan University (WMU)
  • EDT6420 – Design and Development for Learning, Educational Leadership, Research, and Technology, Western Michigan University (WMU)
  • EDT6430 – Fundamentals of Online Learning, Educational Leadership, Research, and Technology, Western Michigan University (WMU)
  • EDLD6850 – Facilities and Technology for Learning, Educational Leadership, Research, and Technology, Western Michigan University (WMU)
  • EDT6460 – Creating Online Courses, Educational Leadership, Research, and Technology, Western Michigan University (WMU)
  • IMAT639 – Internet Multimedia Applications, Masters of Information Science, University of Maryland University College
  • DETC630 – Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning Systems in Distance Education & E-learning, Masters of Distance Education, University of Maryland University College
  • OMDE603 – Technology in Distance Education & E-learning, Masters of Distance Education, University of Maryland University College
  • OMDE670 – Portfolio and Research Project in Distance Education & E-learning, Masters of Distance Education, University of Maryland University College
  • EDTC560 – Applications of Multimedia and Web Page Design, Masters in Adult Education and Training, University of Phoenix
  • EDTC590 – Capstone Course, Masters in Adult Education and Training, University of Phoenix
  • AET515 – Instructional Design, Masters in Adult Education and Training
  • AET520 – Instructional Strategies in Adult Education and Training, Masters in Adult Education and Training
  • AET525 – Technology for the Adult Learner, Masters in Adult Education and Training



  • N311 – Transitions to Baccalaureate Nursing (2 credit hours of Learning To Be A Successful Online Learner), Methodist College of Nursing, RNBSN
  • HS200 – Informatics in Healthcare, Methodist College of Nursing, Accelerated 2nd Degree BSN, 4 yr. BSN, RN-BSN