Promoting Student Success and Engagement and Informal Learning through an Online Learning Community

Author Information
Stacy Southerland, PhD
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
University of Central Oklahoma
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

This effective practice was developed primarily to address an academic department’s need to provide tutoring for students in entry-level online and self-paced online Spanish courses comparable to campus-based tutoring it had long provided for students enrolled in face-to-face sections of the same courses. These support services needed to offer the same any time, any place accessibility as the online courses in which the students were enrolled. Another goal of this effective practice was to create a space, a virtual learning community, where any student enrolled in an online or face-to-face section of the university’s beginning level Spanish courses could engage in collaborative learning and explore personalized, informal learning pathways to complement and support their formal—classroom-based--learning experiences. Although faculty for the online Spanish courses held online office hours and provided access to supplemental instructional resources, they found that their students still reported a need for additional tutoring just as face-to-face students did. However, online students could rarely make use of on-campus tutoring and the department did not offer online assistance even though online Elementary Spanish I and II offerings had increased from 1 section to 13 in a few short years and comprised approximately 35% of the department’s first-year course offerings as of fall 2013. Given that online students have the same or greater need for tutoring and have fewer opportunities to engage in collaborative learning than their on-campus peers, it was clear that the need for tutoring options for eLearning students was essential and an effective strategy developed to meet that need. At the same time, traditional students have come to expect and need the same flexibility and access to any time, any place learning support services as online students. Therefore, the idea to create a community comprised of every student enrolled in an Elementary I or II Spanish course—online or face-to-face--at the university was implemented with the goal of providing increased engagement for all learners and faculty in addition to online tutoring services. To meet this need, a “course” site to house diverse tutorial materials, discussion boards, and chat rooms was created using the university’s learning management system and approximately 900 students were enrolled in it.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

The need for online tutoring services for students enrolled in online Spanish courses was a demonstrated need that was not being met at the institution where this effective practice was developed. This practice was developed by a faculty member with a background in Spanish language instruction and curriculum development and in designing, teaching, and coordinating online Spanish courses. The focus of this project was not only to provide online tutoring that both online and face-to-face students could benefit from, but also to create a community of learning to promote increased student and faculty engagement and foster informal learning experiences that would complement and support the department’s formal Spanish curriculum. An online community, a “course”, was developed to offer diverse, reliable resources for students to choose from when exploring content relevant to them as they forged their own learning pathways. Among the features the center offered were synchronous tutoring with a department tutor or faculty member through chat or online rooms, discussion boards on a variety of course content topics, print-based and multimedia grammar tutorials, and links to Internet-based tutorials and sites for exploring the Hispanic world. Some faculty members contributed time to working with students in the site, which allowed students to benefit from the expertise and perspective of multiple faculty members. Students could also chat with each other, help each other with questions about course content, assignments, and technology, suggest useful internet sites, and more. In this virtual community, learning could meet students where they were in terms of their skill level and provide them with the information they needed when they needed it.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

This program was developed as a response to the need to provide tutoring to online and self-paced online students in Elementary Spanish I and II in a university setting. Second language acquisition is challenging for adult learners and the pace of university-level courses renders it even more so with the result being that students often report that Modern Language courses are among the most challenging they take. The online setting with its increased time commitment and need for effective supplemental study materials further increases the need for tutoring assistance. Online faculty reported the need for tutoring services for their students who often could not travel to campus for tutoring, which their course fees supported, and online students also expressed an interest in tutoring. The unofficial pilot of this practice--launched with limited promotion and no faculty compensation beyond being able to count it toward contributions in the area of teaching in faculty reviews--took place in the spring of 2013. Almost 900 students were enrolled in the community and approximately 15% of those students used its resources. The official pilot was approved for the summer and fall of 2013 and is currently underway with additional support and features. The faculty member that developed the site received teaching credit for managing it, increased participation was seen by campus-based and online faculty who volunteered as tutors, Intermediate Spanish I & II students were included in the community, and on-demand mobile tutoring was added to supplement regular tutor hours in the community’s chat and online rooms. The faculty member who developed the site is providing feedback on the time commitment required to maintain the project and on site participation in order to inform administration about the logistics of applying this effective practice in other departments as a way to improve retention, recruitment and learning outcomes. In addition, the practice was a central component of a portfolio that was recently recognized with an award for exceptional initiative in support of community and leadership awarded by the university president. An overview of the concept and considerations for its development and implementation have been shared at both university-wide and national venues such as university faculty enhancement sessions and a national eLearning conference hosted by the institution. The practice has also been submitted for an upcoming D2L Ignite regional conference. Presenting this effective practice will increase awareness of one of its primary advantages, which is the ability to replicate it with minimal required resources in other departments and institutions.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

This effective practice has Learning Effectiveness as it relates to community building and communications at its core, but also relates to the pillars of Student and Faculty Satisfaction, Scale and Access. At the institution where it was developed, this practice created a virtual community for collaborative learning experiences and facilitated connections and interaction between online and on-campus students and faculty. Students and instructors could participate actively in tutoring and discussion boards or vicariously by browsing information shared publicly by others who posted and responded to questions and participated in chats that were archived for access at any time by members of the learning community. The content presented diverse resources for students to select from based on their learning style, background in the discipline, current study needs, and personal interests. Tutorials and other resources related to the formal curriculum were selected by a faculty expert with knowledge of that program. Students could then choose resources based on their individual needs to create personalized informal learning pathways to complement and support their formal learning experiences and improve their learning outcomes. Both students and faculty benefitted from the advantages of increased opportunities for engagement with content and other learners and all students benefitted from access to the online tutoring services. Faculty teaching experiences are also enhanced as they can draw on the contributions of a network of faculty to assist students. Many campus faculty lack the expertise to design and deliver online-based learning experiences even though their students would benefit from eLearning enhanced learning and the advantages of flexibility and accessibility eLearning concepts offer. With this effective practice, faculty could simply direct their students to the resource that others built and they could also contribute to the site without the need for extensive of knowledge of technology by posting replies to discussions or participating in chat rooms, concepts with which most faculty were familiar.
This practice also addresses the pillar of Scale as it was developed using systems already in place at the university, rendering it very cost effective. Moreover, all components, resources, and training (for tutors) could be delivered or accessed online at one’s convenience, thereby reducing expenses related to the use of facilities for housing tutor offices and related to demands on faculty and staff time for training. Course fees to support tutoring services were already in place at the institution, but had not been utilized to provide online tutoring services for this department.
By facilitating online, customized, informal learning experiences to support formal course curriculum, this practice addresses Access with the anytime, anywhere and timely availability of study resources. Also, resources were continually evaluated and new ones added to ensure that they reflected learner interests and needs. These improvements and additions were based on input from students and faculty regarding their needs based on their teaching and learning experiences in formal settings. The many resources housed in the virtual learning addressed diverse learning styles and include asynchronous and synchronous options so as to further address learner access. In addition, student surveys and comparisons of learning outcomes for students that make use of the site and those that do not could assist institutions in future efforts to assess student learning.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

This practice was implemented by creating a portal much like an online course site in the university’s learning management system, Desire2Learn. Qualtrics, an online survey delivery system already in use at the university, was utilized to create student and faculty surveys to assess usage and effectiveness.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

This effective practice can be developed and maintained at no or few additional costs beyond those already incurred to meet the technology infrastructure needs for other uses at many institutions. The learning management system used as a portal for the center, the survey assessment system, and faculty and student tutor wages are the primary potential expenses. However, many institutions already use a learning management system that can be utilized for this practice. Many survey systems like the one used for assessing site effectiveness are also already available at many institutions or a learning management system’s survey tool or other free survey programs could be used for the same purposes for no additional costs. Faculty and student tutor wages are the primary potential additional expense, and even those can be lowered or even eliminated through creative solutions. For example, the faculty member that conceived of this community of learning, designed its layout, and maintained and facilitated it during its first semester donated time to the project, but was able to benefit by counting the activity as evidence of required service to the department. Student tutor wages can be eliminated or reduced by replacing or supplementing student tutors with the faculty chat options that already form part of the community. Faculty engagement in discussions and chat to encourage student-faculty interaction and create a larger community of contributors—was piloted in a summer session and was found to be sufficient to fulfill the live tutoring needs of the site. Those faculty members can use time volunteered as evidence of service to the department for review purposes. No cost tutoring can also be provided by way of a practicum in which a student serves as a tutor and receives course credit rather than hourly wages. Again, faculty who supervise practicums are often not paid additional wages but can use the activity as evidence of teaching effectiveness and engagement, student mentoring, or service. When it is determined that it is preferable to pay faculty and tutors wages, the institution found the minimal expense of 1 hour teaching credit for the faculty and an hourly wage for the tutor to be minimal and worth the investment to provide strategies to promote students success and transformative learning experiences. In addition, many institutions have provisions for using a portion of student fees to provide tutoring services.

References, supporting documents: 

•Slideshow tour of the virtual learning community:

•Student site usage survey instrument (URL):

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Stacy Southerland, PhD
Email this contact: