Dabbagh, N. (2007). The online learner: Characteristics and pedagogical
implications. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education [Online serial], 7(3). Available: http://www.citejournal.org/vol7/iss3/general/article1.cfm
The Online Learner: Characteristics and Pedagogical
George Mason University
has stretched the scope of the online learner population from a homogeneous
profile of mostly adult, mostly employed, place-bound, goal-oriented, and
intrinsically motivated to one that is heterogeneous, younger, dynamic, and responsive
to rapid technological innovations. This paper describes the emerging
characteristics of the online learner and ensuing pedagogical implications and suggests that
exploratory and dialogical online learning pedagogical models are most effective
for supporting and promoting these characteristics.
The research to
date has not converged on an archetypal profile of the online learner. Although
some situational, affective, and demographic characteristics may cut across
this learner population, what seems to be more prevalent is the changing or
emerging nature of the online learner and the multiplicity of learning styles
and generational differences represented. This situation carries considerable
pedagogical implications for the design of online learning environments and
necessitates a review of the research to determine the characteristics and
skills of the emerging online learner. Determining the characteristics and
educational needs of the online learner may not necessarily guarantee success
in a distance education course or program (Galusha, 1997). It could, however,
significantly help administrators, teachers, and instructional designers
understand (a) who is likely to participate in online learning, (b) what
factors or motivators contribute to a successful online learning experience,
and (c) the potential barriers detering some students from participating in or
successfully completing an online course. In order to better understand the
characteristics and perceived skills of the online learner and the underlying motivations
and barriers that impact successful online learning experiences, a review of
the characteristics of the traditional or classic distance education learner is
The Classic Distance Education Learner
Earlier profiles of the
online learner can be traced to classic distance education settings (e.g.,
correspondence or home study) where most learners were adults with
occupational, social, and family commitments (Hanson et al., 1997). The
National Home Study Council (NHSC) founded in 1926 collected information about
its students and created the following demographic profile for home study
students (Lambert, 2000): “Average age is 34 years; 66% are male; 25% have a
college degree; over 50% have had some college education; and over 75% are
married” (p. 11). Home study students were also described as self-motivated,
goal-oriented, and disciplined self-starters.
A student’s academic
self-concept was also shown to be a key predictor for success in a distance
education setting. Dille and Mezack
(1991) studied the profile of students who enrolled in telecourses (courses
delivered through television) focusing on locus of control (internal/external
attribution of success and failure) and learning style (e.g., verbal, visual,
or kinesthetic) as predictors of success among college distance education
students. They found that locus of control is a significant predictor of
success and persistence in distance education courses. Specifically, students
with an internal locus of control (those who attribute success and failure on
tasks to personal behaviors and efforts) were more likely to succeed (receive a
grade of C or better) and persevere (complete a telecourse) in a telecourse
than did students with an external locus of control (those who attribute
success and failure on tasks to external or uncontrollable factors such as luck
or task difficulty).
Several other studies examined
student attitudes, personality characteristics, study practices, course
completion rates, and other academic, psychological, and social integration
variables to identify barriers to persistence in distance education and
determine predictors for successful course achievement (e.g., Bernt &
Bugbee, Biner, Bink, Huffman & Dean, 1995; Fjortoff, 1995; Garland, 1993;
Laube, 1992; Pugliese, 1994; Stone, 1992; 1993;). Overall results of such
studies indicated that intrinsically motivated learners possessing a high
internal locus of control, coupled with a positive attitude toward the
instructor and a high expectation for grades and degree completion were more
likely to succeed in a distance education course.
Interestingly, individual learning style did not prove
to be a significant predictor of success, the rationale being that distance
education is inherently accommodating for a variety of learning styles (Dille
& Mezack, 1991). This finding is consistent with the pedagogical
characteristics of technology supported learning environments and, in
particular, Web-based or online learning environments that emphasize
interaction and collaboration. Such environments are multimodal (support audio,
video, and text), provide individual and group interaction spaces in
synchronous and asynchronous formats, support linear and nonlinear
representation of content, and provide a variety of learning tools to cater to
a variety of individual learning styles. As Brown (2000) stated, “The Web
affords the match we need between a medium and how a particular person learns”
The Changing Nature of the Distance Education Learner
research demonstrates that although distance education learners share broad
demographic and situational characteristics, no concrete evidence indicates
that this group is homogeneous or unchanging (Thompson, 1998). In fact, the
current profile of the online distance learner can be characterized as emerging,
responsive to rapid technological innovations and new learning paradigms, and
progressively including a younger age bracket. In a recent Sloan Consortium
report on the state of online learning in the United States, Allen and Seaman
(2006) reported that undergraduates represented 82.4% of the total population
of higher education students taking at least one course online.
also suggests that today’s youth, who are increasingly growing up with Internet
and Web-based technologies such as search engines, instant messaging, massive
multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG), podcasting, vodcasting, social bookmarking and folksonomies, are well
prepared to engage in online learning activities that support interaction and
collaboration (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005). In addition, distributed online
learning delivery models such, as knowledge networks, learning communities, asynchronous
learning networks, and knowledge portals, are designed to effectively meet the characteristics
of this emerging learner population. These models support interacting with
peers in virtual spaces on team projects, engaging in online discourse,
researching term papers using Web-based resources, and developing Web sites and
digital products to demonstrate learning. Although Generation Xers (born
1960-1980) continue to represent the majority of online distance education
learners, generation Nexters (born 1980-2000) will soon represent a sizable
portion of this population, bringing with them new communication and
technological skill sets.
distance education population as a whole is also becoming more heterogeneous or
diverse, encompassing students from a variety of cultural and educational
backgrounds (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005). Globalization of distance
education has enabled students from across the globe to participate in online
learning activities, such as joining moderated listservs, participating in
online seminars, and sharing information through knowledge portals.
Additionally, distance education learners are becoming less location bound.
Thompson (1998) elaborated on this point as follows: “Increasingly, students in
close proximity to traditional educational institutions are choosing distance
study not because it is the only alternative, but rather because it is the
preferred alternative” (p. 13). Attraction to innovative technology-mediated learning
environments and flexible course delivery schedules are two of the reasons
listed for the desire to be outside the educational mainstream.
The Emerging Online Learner
The concept of the independent, place-bound, adult,
self-motivated, disciplined self-starter, and goal-oriented learner, which largely characterized the classic distance education learner, is
now being challenged with socially mediated online learning activities that
de-emphasize independent learning and emphasize social interaction and
collaboration. As stated by Anderson and Garrison (1998), “The independence and
isolation characteristic of the industrial era of distance education is being
challenged by the collaborative approaches to learning made possible by
learning networks” (p. 100). Therefore, online learners must be ready to share
their work, interact within small and large groups in virtual settings, and
collaborate on projects online or otherwise risk isolation in a community growing increasingly dependent on connectivity and interaction. Given this
new context, what are the perceived characteristics and skills of the emerging
indicates that interpersonal and communication skills and fluency in the use of
collaborative online learning technologies are critical competencies for the
online learner (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005). Williams (2003) found that
interpersonal- and communication-related skills (which include writing skills)
dominated the top 10 general competencies across all roles in distance
education programs supported by the Internet. Powell (2000) described the
online learner as someone who is “very comfortable with written communications,
somewhat savvy with Web technologies, and proficient with computers.”
Additionally, Cheurprakobkit, Hale, and Olson (2002) reported that lack of
knowledge and skill in the use of online learning technologies, particularly
communication and collaborative technologies, could present barriers to
learning for students in online learning settings.
important characteristic of the online learner that carries forward from the
profile of the classic distance learner is self-directed learning.
Self-directed learning can be described as the skill of “learning how to learn,”
or being metacognitively aware of one’s own learning (Olgren, 1998, p. 82).
Cheurprakobkit et al. (2002) reported that students in online learning
environments must possess “self” behaviors such as self-discipline,
self-monitoring, self-initiative, and self-management, which are characteristics
of self-regulated or self-directed learning. Given the physical absence of an
instructor in online learning, the ability of learners to monitor and regulate
their own learning is critical.
Furthermore, online learners must understand and value the
learning opportunities afforded by collaborative and communication technologies
in order to engage actively and constructively in learning. Some learners are
inherently drawn to peer interaction or collaboration, while others need to
understand the educational value of these pedagogical constructs. Being
inherently drawn to interaction can be characterized as an individual
difference referred to in the literature as the need for affiliation. In online
learning environments the need for affiliation can be interpreted as the need
to be connected or to belong to supportive groups (MacKeracher, 1996).
community of practice (COP) is an example of how the need for affiliation can
manifest itself in online learning environments. Members of a COP understand
that a social mind is at work and that knowledge is a shared intellectual
capital. COP is a pedagogical model grounded in a theory of learning as a social process
and implemented in an online context through knowledge networks, asynchronous
learning networks, and other Internet and Web-based collaborative and
communication technologies (Wenger & Snyder, 2000). Although online learners
still need to (a) act competently on their own; (b) have confidence in their knowledge,
skills, and performance; and (c) learn how to create and manage a personal
presence; sensing or exhibiting a need for affiliation is key to a successful
and meaningful online learning experience (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005).
Characteristics of the
In summary, the following characteristics
and skills are perceived as critical to the success of the online learner:
- Having a strong academic self-concept.
- Exhibiting fluency in the use of online learning technologies.
- Possessing interpersonal and communication skills.
- Understanding and valuing interaction and collaborative learning.
- Possessing an internal locus of control.
- Exhibiting self-directed learning skills.
- Exhibiting a need for affiliation.
Competency in the use of online learning technologies,
particularly communication and collaborative technologies, does not guarantee
meaningful interaction, collaboration, and knowledge building in online
learning environments (Lindblom-Ylanne & Pihlajamaki, 2003). Therefore, in
addition to the previously listed characteristics and skills, online learners
should possess or develop collaborative learning skills independent of these
technologies. These skills include social learning skills, discursive or
dialogical skills, self and group evaluation skills, and reflection skills
(Comeaux, Huber, Kasprzak, & Nixon, 1998; Spector, 1999). Each of these
skill sets are briefly described in the following section.
Social Learning Skills
Social learning skills support
decision-making, communication, trust building, and conflict management, all of
which are important components for effective collaboration. Social learning
skills are needed to assume leadership roles as well as other roles typically
assigned in teamwork.
Discursive or Dialogical Skills
Discursive or dialogical skills
include the ability to discuss issues (being discursive), share and debate
ideas, negotiate meaning, demonstrate openness to multiple perspectives, and
possess good articulation and listening skills.
Self and Group Evaluation
Self and group evaluation skills
include learning how to be individually accountable for (a) being active and
engaged in group activity (b) doing a fair share of the work and (c) helping
other group members to demonstrate competence and learning achievement (i.e.,
Reflection skills include the
ability to apply frequent and substantive consideration and assessment of one’s
own learning process and products and the group's learning process and
products. Learners must be skilled in time management and orienting strategies
that help them prepare to learn, and in cognitive learning strategies that
help them interact meaningfully with the learning content. In addition, time-management
skills and orienting strategies have a direct impact on collaborative learning
in terms of effectively and efficiently carrying out the responsibilities of being
an active and accountable member of a group. Cognitive learning strategies, on
the other hand, are perceived to be most relevant to an individual’s ability to
reflect upon, monitor, and assess one’s own learning when carrying out a
summarize, a successful online learner should
skilled in the use of online learning technologies, particularly communication
and collaborative technologies.
- Have a
strong academic self-concept and good interpersonal and communication skills.
- Have a
basic understanding and appreciation of collaborative learning and develop competencies
in related skills.
- Acquire self-directed learning skills through the deployment of time management
effectively accommodate, support, and promote the characteristics and skills of
the successful online learner as discussed in this paper, online learning
developers, instructors, and teachers should consider two pedagogical models
when designing their online courses and learning interactions: exploratory and dialogical.
Exploratory Pedagogical Models
models are based on the theoretical construct of discovery or inquiry-based
learning, in which learners are provided with a scientific-like inquiry or
authentic problem in a given content area and asked to generate a hypothesis, gather
relevant information using a variety of
resources, and provide solutions, action plans, recommendations, and
interpretations of the situations (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005).
Examples of such models include Microworlds, simulations, WebQuests,
cognitive apprenticeships, situated learning, and problem-based learning. These
models support collaborative learning, interpersonal and communication skills,
social learning skills, self and group evaluation skills, reflection skills,
and self-directed learning skills, all of which are characteristics of the
successful online learner.
The exploratory or
experiential mode of learning is provided within online learning through the
use of several online learning technologies, including hypermedia, multimedia,
search engines, digital audio and video, graphics, and self-contained
instructional modules developed using a variety of authoring tools. Examples of
how exploratory models can be implemented in online learning include the
- Using Web-based authoring tools and scripting languages to develop
self-contained instructional modules such as Microworlds and simulations that engage
students in exploratory-type activities.
- Providing Web-based resources using hypermedia and multimedia
links to support students’ exploratory activities.
- Providing a link to a search engine in the course site enabling
students to search for Web-based resources to promote exploration.
- Providing links to online databases and knowledge repositories
that provide real time data such as up-to-date weather information and other
scientific data and statistics.
- Providing students with a Web posting area and appropriate tools
to publish their work (e.g., draft papers, problem solutions, etc.). Students
can then engage in an exercise of peer evaluation of each other’s work,
prompting reflective thinking.
When designing online learning based
on exploratory pedagogical models, the decision as to which learning
technologies or combination of learning technologies to use will rest ultimately
on the expertise of the online learning developer, the available resources and
technologies, the characteristics of the audience, and the instructional
characteristics of the pedagogical model implemented (Dabbagh &
Bannan-Ritland, 2005). A popular online learning activity with K-12 teachers that
supports many of the instructional characteristics of exploratory learning
models is a WebQuest. A WebQuest
is an inquiry-oriented activity in which most
or all of the information used by learners is drawn from the Web. WebQuests are designed to use
learners’ time to help them focus on using information rather than looking for
it, and to support learners’ thinking at the levels of analysis, synthesis and evaluation.
Dialogical learning models emphasize social interaction
through dialogue and conversation. The idea is to assist learners in
constructing new knowledge primarily through dialogue as a form of interaction.
Internet and Web-based technologies provide various mechanisms for supporting
dialogue related to both informal and formal learning situations. For example,
a Web-based group forum (discussion board) can support a formal conversational
exchange that occurs in support of specific instructional objectives or an
informal conversational exchange based on content interest (Dabbagh &
Bannan-Ritland, 2005). Both of these conversational exchanges foster a sense of
community and belonging. Examples of dialogical pedagogical models include
learning communities, knowledge building communities, and communities of
practice. These models emphasize discursive or dialogical skills such as
articulation, reflection, collaboration, and social negotiation, as well as
self and group evaluation skills, which support the characteristics of
successful online learners.
Online learning technologies supporting the implementation
of dialogical pedagogical models include asynchronous and synchronous tools,
such as email, bulletin boards or discussion forums, listservs, computer
conferencing, groupware, document sharing, virtual chat, and video
conferencing. Examples of ways dialogical
pedagogical models can be implemented in online learning include the following:
- Setting up online group discussion areas focused around a topic
or specific activity, goal, or project, such as a case study, using
asynchronous discussion forums to promote collaboration and social negotiation.
Some group discussion areas can be open ended and unmoderated, allowing
students to solicit information from each other, while others can take the form
of a structured online discussion.
- Designing activities that allow group members to share documents
related to a group project. Sharing documents online is a collaborative
activity and can range from simply displaying the document in a designated Web
posting area to having group members work simultaneously on a document using
groupware (an application sharing tool). When the document is displayed, group
members can discuss its contents via email, videoconferencing, or chat. When groupware is used, group members can co-edit
the document online and annotate the document if the groupware has built-in
- Engaging students in synchronous communication activities using
virtual chat and videoconferencing. Real-time collaborative activities allow
groups to brainstorm ideas, debate problems, and develop action plans in a
finite and short period of time.
examples of online learning applications that support dialogical pedagogical
models are MUDs
and MOOs (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005). MUDs and MOOs are knowledge
networks that emphasize social interaction and negotiation through
role-playing. A MUD (Multiple User Dungeon or Multiple User Dimension) is a
"complete virtual world in which you become the body of a character you
adopt to navigate that world" (Hall, 2001, p. 55). Users explore the
virtual world in real time and typically at the same time as other users who
are also controlling characters. Users can talk to each other and form teams.
Theme, content, and style vary from one MUD to the next. MUDs originated in a
game called Dungeons and Dragons developed for multi-users on the Internet. In
educational settings, MUDs are being used as a collaborative tool for students.
“In Web-based learning, simulated role portrayal can be facilitated through
Multi-User Dialogue (MUD) environments, in which instructors create a
multi-user space with a central theme, characters and artifacts” (Khan, 2001,
(Multi-User Object Oriented environment) is a type of MUD that gives users the
opportunity to experience virtual worlds as players of a game or explorers of a
theme or course. An essential difference between MOOs and MUDs is that MOOs
make use of multimedia, whereas MUDs are primarily text based. Additionally,
MOOs developed into social spaces, lending themselves more readily for use as a
virtual classroom or as spaces for conferences and meetings (Center for
Teaching Enhancement Workshop on Synchronous Communication, 1997). For example, Tapped In is a COP that supports the
implementation of MOOs in classroom contexts. To see an example of how MUDs and MOOs are used in the classroom, go to http://ti2data.sri.com/info/teachers/mare.html.
profile of the online learner population is changing from one that is older,
mostly employed, place bound, goal oriented, and intrinsically motivated, to
one that is diverse, dynamic, tentative, younger, and responsive to rapid
technological changes. This change in profile poses considerable pedagogical challenges that can
be addressed through a better understanding of the emerging online learner. The
emerging online learner can be described as someone who has a strong academic
self-concept; is competent in the use of online learning technologies,
particularly communication and collaborative technologies; understands, values,
and engages in social interaction and collaborative learning; possesses strong interpersonal
and communication skills; and is self-directed.
In order to support
and promote these characteristics and skills more effectively, the online course developer,
instructor, or teacher should focus on designing online learning environments
that support exploratory and dialogical learning. Exploratory and dialogical
learning environments engage learners in online learning activities that
require collaboration, communication, social interaction, reflection,
evaluation, and self-directed learning. As the characteristics and skills of the
online learner population continue to emerge across generations and future
technologies, more immersive pedagogical models will develop, transforming the
design of online learning environments.
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College of Education and Human Development
George Mason University