Preparing Students for Online Learning: Steps for the Classroom

Today’s education environment is evolving more rapidly than at any other time in history. Technology is playing a critical role in this metamorphosis. As schools race to keep pace with the growth of new technologies and the resultant changing expectations of stakeholders, one of the most rapidly growing applications is in the area on online courses, or e-learning. According to a survey of 1,600 post-secondary schools conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics, about 2/3 of the schools now offer dimdimcourses that are either completely or partially web-based and over 11,000 programs that entirely used distance learning (Parsad, 2008). Schools that participated in the study cited reasons for offering such courses as offering students greater flexibility in course scheduling, providing access to students who would otherwise not be able to attend the schools, increasing the number/types of courses available, and increasing overall enrollment.

Karl Kapp cites some interesting economic figures regarding e-learning in his blog. According to one study he shared, e-learning was a $20 billion global industry in 2008, and it is projected to be at over $52 billion by next year. “Online tutoring” is a $4 billion industry, with expected growth rates of 10-15% per year.

So, what are some implications for k-12 schools? This increase in participation in online learning has had a great impact on the k-12 landscape. Students are enrolling in growing numbers in an ever-increasing variety of online courses and for a variety of reasons, including convenience, availability of subjects, need to balance work/family/school schedules, suitability to their learning styles, etc.

The question that we should ask is whether or not we are doing enough in our traditional classrooms to prepare students for success in a learning environment that is becoming such a significant part of the post-secondary and business environments. Despite the growing popularity of such offerings, there have been several studies that have revealed that many students struggle with or drop out of online courses. Studies claim attrition rates ranging from 20-80% in online courses (Tyler-Smith, 2006). It seems likely that many students enter the online classroom ill-prepared for success.

The inclusion of relevant technologies does not need to be a full-immersion experience. A 7th grade math teacher would likely find little success if she suddenly decided to take her course curriculum completely online. The skills students will need to master to better ensure success in online learning include familiarity with technology tools, practice with communicating and collaborating with a diverse audience, metacognition and self-motivation, writing skills, and organization skills. While it is obvious that many of these skills are key components of everyday instruction (writing, organization, metacognition), others would be less likely to be addressed in a traditional curriculum. The skills that students need can begin to be addressed and developed by some simple classroom applications that utilize relevant, abundant, and free technologies.

The 2009 Horizon Report describes several technologies that can be classified as either synchronous (real-time interaction) or asynchronous learning tools. When used in a traditional classroom, these tools have a great deal of potential for developing the skills students will need for success in the eLearning environment. Tools include:

I would add to the list student email, as email is a vital communication tool not only in the business and home environment, but in the online learning environment, as well.

The classroom teacher can integrate many of these tools seamlessly into the existing curriculum. The key is to offer a wide range of opportunities for students to use the technologies. Students should be allowed to participate in collaboration opportunities with students from other classes or other locations, to engage in real-time discussions of subject matter, to share ideas and resources, to put forth questions for further class consideration, to reflect on learning, and to assist in the planning of such opportunities. The goal is for the learning curve associated with the types of technology and interaction in an online environment to be reduced or eliminated, so that students can instead focus on course content.



Parsad, B. & Lewis, L. (2008). Distance Education at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions:  2006–07. Retrieved April 17, 2009, from

Tyler-Smith, K. (2006). Early attrition among first time eLearners: A review of factors that contribute to drop-out, withdrawal, and non-completion rates of adult learners undertaking eLearning programmes. Retrieved April 16, 2009, from


  1. Randy, I think you are the first to ask if we are doing enough in our regular classes to prepare students for an increasingly online environment, both for work and for learning. I think the future will see more of both online and face to face in a variety of models. One I think we will begin to see more of immediately is the 3D model that incorporates an online environment in conjunction with face to face.

  2. Hi, Peggy,

    I think you’re right on. The online model, and the virtual world model, in particular, are going to become increasingly popular. This will be especially true as the technology continues to improve and become better able to utilize the tools. It will be a challenge for us, as educators, to incorporate in our curriculum the new types of skills, literacies, and ethics our students will need to master for success.

  3. Randy,

    Do you think that students are becoming more familiar with the tools, but are not as familiar with the academic application of the tools? I am just curious with an increasing number of online schools, there must be some familiarity with the tools, but the academic application might be more difficult.


    • Jon,

      Exactly. I often find that students have difficulty making a connection between the tools they use and the very same type of tool, when it is applied in an academic manner. Blogging vs. MySpace, for instance. Also, they tend to use the technologies in a more unstructured, informal manner, and they need to learn how they should be appropriately applied in academia.

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