Unit 4 Learner Support

Overview and Objectives | Required Activities | Commentary | Study Questions | References

Overview and Objectives

Learner support is necessary in all online courses and especially so for undergraduate courses in an open university such as Athabasca, which accepts students at all levels of preparation. Learner support should be available to allow learners to fill any gaps in their preparation and to give prepared students the resources they need to successfully complete the course activities. Learner supports might be

  • diagnostic tests.
  • links to high-quality online resources.
  • a list of works cited which may have live links to journal articles or other online resources.
  • just-in-time help (examples, tutorials).
  • glossaries of key terms and concepts created by the course author.
  • self-tests with immediate feedback for both correct and incorrect responses.
  • study questions that focus students’ attention on key topics, theories, concepts, and discussions. These follow the instruction and should prepare students to write any examinations and/or successfully complete assignments for credit.

This unit will prepare you to

  • assess the skills and knowledge that students will need coming into your course.
  • work with your course team to design learner support.
  • write content for a glossary of key terms and concepts if needed.
  • write questions and rich feedback for self-tests if needed.
  • write questions for diagnostic self-tests if needed.

Required Activities

As you complete the required activities for Unit 4, consider the following questions (you may want to write about your ideas in your blog for this course; please share any links to academic, information,and scientific literacy standards or learner supports you have found useful).

  1. Considering the academic level (1000, 2000, 3000, or 4000) of my course, if it had prerequisites, what would they be?
  2. What specific skills (e.g., using APA format, basic algebra) will students likely need to successfully complete the activities and assessments for this course?
  3. Is any requisite skill or knowledge so important to student success that a diagnostic test should be included so that the student can do any needed remedial work?
  4. Can I include any of the information literacy standards for my discipline as part of the learner activities or assessments?



Adult Learners

Educators have been studying learners for centuries, and many educators would say that the following principles hold true for most learners in most learning environments:

  • Learning should proceed from the known to the unknown.
  • Clear objectives make the learning process efficient.
  • Learners are motivated by relevant content.
  • Learners are motivated by relevant feedback.
  • Learners like to have choices.

In addition, AU students are generally adult learners who, we assume, have a specific set of characteristics that you must take into consideration as you design your course.

  • Learners are not all at the same level of readiness.
  • The maturing learner is increasingly self-directed.
  • The adult learner is task or problem oriented.
  • The learner’s experience is a rich resource for learning.
  • Motivation for the adult learner is derived from internal incentives such as curiosity, satisfaction, and the desire to achieve or grow.

The Digital Native

With respect to moving your courses online, you have probably been warned that the digital natives are coming, and they expect to see their favorite Web 2.0 features in all their online learning experiences. This may be true, but as an educator, you will want to give each possible feature close scrutiny. Does a given online activity support the learning trajectory proposed for your course? Are tutors for this course prepared for the marking practices required by these activities?

That said, games, virtual worlds, social software, and learner-generated content are all areas to keep in mind as having the potential to engage all learners in meaningful learning; as AU moves forward with online instruction, these will certainly be explored. Your interest in using any innovative learning strategy is welcome; together we can evaluate it for learning potential and ease of application, and if possible, we will help you add it to your course or build your course around it. We encourage you to explore these possibilities with your course team members.

Spanning the Decades

AU Institutional Studies tells us that, as of 2007, about 50 per cent our learners are digital natives. The rest are later bloomers and life-long learners born as early as 1918! While the learning design will evolve with each generation, AU as a distance learning institution will probably always serve a multigenerational student body.

Accessibility experts point out that the affordances that make life viable for some also make it better for the rest of the population. A good example is the wheelchair-accessible curb that is also better for bikes, strollers, and skateboards.

That’s a good way to think of a course website—but going in both directions. The multimedia learning tools that engage digital natives should also enrich the course for older learners; the clear instructions and course navigation that make it easier for older learners to succeed also make it easier for young learners.

Remedial Help


Some students will need to refresh required skills or even make up for gaps in their knowledge before they are ready to tackle your course. If, for example, students need basic algebra skills, a diagnostic self-test would be appropriate. Your course team can find or create just-in-time help (examples, tutorials) to support students where the diagnostic test reveals weaknesses. Sometimes links to resources will be sufficient, for example, the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University or Athabasca University’ s Write Site or Library Help Centre.

Practice with Feedback

Learners need the opportunity to practice the skills being taught and to get feedback that directs their efforts toward achieving established learning objectives. The built-in feedback that Moodle quizzes allow means that you will need to write feedback for incorrect answers in multiple choice or matching questions. Think of this as a conversation with the learners who will be taking your courses. Ask your learning designer or IMA to set up pratice quizzes for your course and show you how to enter feedback.

Academic, Information, and Scientific Literacy

Educators are increasingly aware of the need to help students in higher education develop a basic set of skills to negotiate their formal studies and become effective lifelong learners and informed citizens. A number of resources are available that provide help in identifying and integrating academic, information, and literacy skills into university-level courses. Your course team can help you design instruction, learner support, and assessment that furthers these important literacies.

The YouTube video embedded below is a talk given by Dr. Michael Wesch at the University of Manitoba on media literacy and new ways to teach and learn. He talks about how we can create meaningful connections in the surfeit of information and how we can create students who can create meaningful connections.

Study Questions

  1. What kinds of support might learners need coming into my course?
  2. What resources can be provided for learner support?
  3. What kind(s) of literacy skills is it appropriate to support in my course?


Anderson, P. (2007). What is Web 2.0? Ideas, technologies and implications for education. Joint Information Systems Committee Technology & Standards Watch. Retrieved December 27, 2008, from http://www.jisc.org.uk/media/documents/techwatch/tsw0701b.pdf

Foley, G. (Ed.). (2004). Dimensions of adult learning: Adult education and training in a global era. Berkshire, UK: Open University Press.

Prensky, M. (2004). The emerging online life of the digital native: What they do differently because of technology and how they do it. Retrieved December 27, 2008, from http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky-The_Emerging_Online_Life_of_the_Digital_Native-03.pdf

Wesch, M. (2008). A portal to media literacy. Digital Ethnography at Kansas State University. Retrieved December 27, 2008, from http://ca.youtube.com/watch?v=J4yApagnr0s


Last modified: Wednesday, 10 October 2012, 1:18 PM MDT