Promoting success in online education… but, what is success?

Harrell II, I. L. (2008). Increasing the success of online students. Inquiry, 13(1), 36–44. Retrieved from

A concise, if not relatively simplistic piece, “Increasing the success of online students” highlights three components that impact student retention in online or distance education programs (2008).  These are student readiness, orientation, and support.  Harrell notes that online or distance education research also demonstrates the importance of “instructor preparation and support” and “course structure” for online student success, but the author sets these aside for this discussion.  In part because online education programs suffer from very high attrition rates, the author focuses on retention as the primary indicator of online student success.


Whereas other studies on online learner success, particularly prior to the extensive penetration of the internet in the distance education domain (Roblyer, Davis, Mills, Marshall, & Pape, 2008), focus on either learner characteristics or the learning environment, Harrell does not make this distinction.  Corroborating this approach, through an extensive research effort culminating in a readiness instrument for [prospective] online learners (the Educational Success Prediction Instrument [V2]),  Roblyer, Davis, Mills, Marshall, & Pape (2008) state that their “findings indicate that a combination of student factors and learning conditions can predict success” of online learners, “though predicting success is much easier than predicting failure” (99).  The orientation of the piece is higher education – the author is an assistant professor and the coordinator for student affairs at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, presumably writing from his own context; however the references used and the message is more broadly applicable. While Harrell’s piece is not revelatory, it reinforces certain best practices, espoused by related studies, relevant for online learning program development.


“Positive impact on online student success”

When an individual embarks on anything new, preparation for their new environment, expectations, relationships, and skills required is integral to his/her capacity to endure what’s ahead positively and productively.  Harrell recommends assessing student readiness for online learning prior to a student beginning coursework, then using this information to either counsel students against the online option or to build an individualized support strategy for each student, based upon their apparent strengths and weaknesses. An orientation should follow, possibly in the form of entire course (as exemplified by Beyrer (2010) and the Online Student Success online education orientation course).  The author favors online (vs. face-to-face) orientations, to get students navigating the technologies and program expectations in the realm and in ways that “mimic” their educational program immediately, before coursework becomes distracted by the student’s [inevitable] technical struggles.  Student technical support that is as accessible and available as the “anytime, anywhere” coursework is absolutely necessary.  The useful suggestion is made to leverage the skills of student workers and others within and beyond the school community to optimize support in this way (without requiring financial and human resources to which many schools lack access).


Enabling students to feel and cultivate their own sense of community and belonging is critically important – to student’s individual achievement and to the success of the program. The author cites studies that have recorded students’ reasons for withdrawal as very often being a sense of isolation, or not feeling a part of something (bigger than themselves).  A community among online students is relevant for facilitating a peer culture with mutual engagement, contributing to the student’s school support system, and creating opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration and shared “real world” experiences.  Tools to communicate regularly and without pretense, e.g. instant messaging and social networking, and generating online spaces, e.g. “virtual lounges,” for students to connect on topics academic or of personal interest can support the development of communities.  “The more students integrate into the formal and informal social and academic culture of the institution, the more successful they will be” (Harrell, 2008).  In addition to these important features of an online program that supports student success Harrell focuses on, Roblyer et al (2008)emphasize that “initial active involvement in online courses predicts success. That is, students who are active in the first few weeks of the class are more likely to be successful in the course; dropout behavior is most likely to occur in the early weeks of the course” (106).


The development of a “sense of community” is different from developing a community of practice.  “Communities of practice [as defined by Etienne Wenger-Trayner] are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” ( Perhaps the more inclusive (for both the participants and the institution) and ultimately impactful approach is to develop a community of practice among online learners.


Peers – in multiage groups spanning grade levels –might organize an action research agenda around a theme or specific research question, as an example constructing empowered communities of practice among online student populations.  They could do this on a semester, annual, or episodic basis, but continual throughout their postsecondary career.  Each student would have a position in the community, defined in part by their experience and budding expertise (or competences as Wenger [2000] discusses this).  The shared research agenda, with each individual engaged in and accountable for some aspect of the process, as well as coordinated action steps to maintain the group’s “alignment” to the co-constructed vision and mission, the students would gain invaluable experiences navigating the worlds in their research purview, collaborating with each other, and working toward a common purpose (Bautista, Bertrand, Morrell, Scorza, & Matthews, 2013; Wenger, 2000).  The community of practice would serve students’ development in ways applicable to and that transcend academia – arguably supporting their “success”.  Moreover, the likelihood of their retention would be significantly improved.



Harrell uses “success” and “retention” nearly interchangeably.  Is student success no more than an enrollment number?  Many days, given considerable budget constraints and the overly convoluted ADM calculations process (average daily minimum [ADM], which refers to the compensation charter schools receive per pupil) for online schools in the state of Arizona, retention feels so crucial to institutional “success” (read: viability and sustainability) that it doesn’t seem a stretch to conceptualize student success in the stark terms of attendance vs. withdrawal.  However, the effort and heart involved in establishing a new school is likely not just for the warm bodies and smiling faces (hidden behind various screens).  The purpose is more plausibly to provide a better, alternative, or altogether unique educational opportunity to some subset of students.  Defining success in this narrow way unquestionably narrows the exploratory purview: if the investigator is interested only in conditions and learner characteristics that lend themselves to a student’s staying in or leaving a school, will the data capture include relevant life circumstances (e.g. having a baby, needing to care for an ailing family member, having to prioritize income generation, or an onset of a mental disability)?  In other words, will this highly limited conceptualization of success skew the perspective on online educational program quality?


On a personal note, I had a meeting this week with a student who “dropped out” of our brick-and-mortar school in her eleventh grade year, due to a sudden emergence of debilitating expressions of a mental condition.  This would be a “failure” – on the student’s part and on our part – with respect to Harrell’s use of “success”.  However, she returned.  Several months later, she feels, once again, capable of course work.  Success!  (For now.)  A more comprehensive investigation would seek an understanding of: what kept the family connected to our school; why they felt they could trust us during her leave and now upon her return to care for her appropriately; and, what sorts of support they have received from us that kept their family loyal.

Roblyer et al (2008) suggest that “virtual schools … must come to gauge their success not only in terms of numbers of students served and courses offered but also in terms of how much they provide access and support to students most in need of an educational edge (107).”  The intent of this post is not to interrogate the author’s use of “success,” but perhaps that inquiry will emerge in the future. What is most interesting about this examination is what it signifies for program development: the benchmarks for programmatic evaluation and metrics of success are, by necessity, predicated upon the institutional imagining of Success – at the student level and at the organizational level.  When we speak of “excellence” in our contexts and consider an action research program to improve upon some aspect of or to, more generally, strive toward excellence, it is unlikely that retention emerges as the lead indicator.


Bautista, Mark A.; Bertrand, Melanie; Morrell, Ernest; Scorza, D., & Matthews, C. (2013). Participatory action research and city youth: Methodological insights from the Council of Youth Research. Teachers College Record. Retrieved May 30, 2014, from

Beyrer, G. M. D. (2010). Online student success: Making a difference. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 6(1). Retrieved from

Roblyer, M. D., Davis, L., Mills, S. C., Marshall, J., & Pape, L. (2008). Toward practical procedures for predicting and promoting success in virtual school students. American Journal of Distance Education, 22(2), 90–109. doi:10.1080/08923640802039040

Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of practice and social learning systems. Organization, 7(2), 225–246. doi:10.1177/135050840072002

Wenger-Trayner, E. (n.d.). Communities of practice: a brief introduction. Retrieved June 05, 2014, from