How to Help Women Online Learners to Succeed

“Work and family constraints that channel women into online programs also make it harder for them to finish.”

Women are the clear majority of students taking college courses online, but they’re less likely than men to succeed. Work and family constraints that channel women into online programs also make it harder for them to finish. Unfamiliar technology and lack of community add to their challenge.

Colleges can help students succeed online. Participants at the NASPA/ACPA annual conference in Orlando in April learned how from two presenters: Dr. Ivan L. Harrell II, coordinator of student services at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond VA, and Dr. Marguerite M. McClinton, director of the Elrod Commons and campus activi-ties at Washington and Lee University in Lexington VA.

Both earned doctorates at Florida State University as Melvene Hardee scholars, named for a pioneer in women’s higher education leadership. Harrell researched online assessment of student readiness and online retention; McClinton, access and retention of African Americans in Florida’s merit-based Bright Futures program.

Online learning makes higher education possible for many who couldn’t otherwise go to college. It expands access, especially for older and nontraditional students. Some thrive while others feel isolated and overwhelmed.

For enrollment-driven colleges, online programs offer a cost-effective way to enlarge their numbers. “Some institutions see it as a way to increase enrollment and revenues without having to build new buildings,” Harrell told WIHE. But they don’t always consider the support structures they’ll need to provide.

Online educational programs have higher dropout rates than classroom-based education. As more and more schools offer courses and degree or certificate programs online, support structures are vital to help students succeed.

They identified five factors affecting online student success: student readiness, student orientation, student support, course structure and instructor preparation and support. Their workshop in Orlando targeted the first three.

Student readiness

Harrell created and tested an online pre-assessment to help schools to identify online students at risk. His “Using Student Characteristics to Predict the Persistence of Community College Students in Online Courses” was cited for excellence by the Council for Study of the Community College. The Southern Association for College Student Affairs named it the 2006 dissertation of the year.

He developed a formula using grade point average, scores of auditory learning style and basic computer skills to predict whether a student was more likely to persist or withdraw. His pre-assessment measures these student characteristics:

  • Motive for taking an online course. Some local community college students take classes online as well as face-to-face, but not always for good reasons. They’re at risk if they choose online so they won’t have to work as hard. Motives that predict success include fulltime jobs, family commitments and limited physical mobility. “A lot of women feel it gives them an opportunity to juggle work and family obligations,” he said.
  • Locus of control. In the eyes of the student, who causes failure? Those who regularly blame others (external locus of control) are less likely to succeed than those who take responsibility for their outcomes.
  • Self-efficacy. Albert Bandura introduced the term self-efficacy for the belief in one’s power to have an effect or achieve a goal. A student who thinks she can succeed online is more likely to do so. Those with strong self-doubts are at risk.
  • Technical skills. Online students are typically older than those in the traditional classroom. They haven’t spent as much of their life on PCs as have recent high school grads. Some lack basic computer skills.
  • Learning style. Highly auditory learners tend not to do as well online. Consider offering them audio files of lectures and discussions as well.
  • Time management skills. Sitting in a classroom makes students attend at least a few hours per week with nothing else going on. Online students manage their own schedule—sometimes while handling the dog, the kids and the laun-dry. It’s easy to get behind.
  • Ability to access a computer that meets minimal technical requirements. Many students have limited resources, and the course may not work on any old hand-me-down PC. Some plan to use Aunt Jane’s computer or one at the library, or share a dial-up connection with a phone-crazed teenage daughter. When life happens, plans can disintegrate.

Colleges may use an existing pre-assessment or develop a customized one geared to their students’ needs. Either way, the results can help them advise at-risk students about enrollment options. Students can also use it for self-evaluation. Some will decide coming into the classroom is worth the inconvenience.

“There could be students for whom face-to-face is a better fit, but the online environment is their only option,” Harrell said. Extra orientation and support services can help these students succeed. He found that use of the pre-assessment was able to improve retention in online courses.

Student orientation

As with most new experiences, students enrolling for their first online course don’t know what they’re getting into. Perhaps no single factor does more for student retention than a well-timed, well-constructed student orientation.

Should orientation take place online, face-to-face or a hybrid? The main argument for face-to-face orientation is to build a sense of connection. “The more the students feel connected to the campus, the greater their chance of success,” he told WIHE.

Arguing against it is the contrast with the online environment and in some cases, sheer impracticality. “If they were able to come to campus, they would be taking face-to-face classes,” he said. A hybrid may be an option for a community college serving the local area but not for all-online programs like the University of Phoenix, with students around the globe.

Harrell believes the best orientation for online learners is completely online and mimics the courses they’ll take, to build familiarity and confidence. “If the orientation is structured as it should be, students have the opportunity to experi-ence the online environment in a non-threatening, non-graded environment.”

It takes place before the students enroll. Some colleges provide an orientation partway into the course, for students who are having trouble. Pre-enrollment orientation—online, as much as possible like an actual class—makes trouble less likely. It gives a student time to decide, “This isn’t for me.”

To be successful, online orientations should:

  • Be interactive.
  • Expose students to realistic expectations of online learning.
  • Introduce the types of technology students will encounter.
  • Introduce the types of assignments they’ll have to do.
  • Help students develop the necessary computer skills, such as how to download and upload files.
  • Introduce school policies and procedures, from sexual harassment to plagiarism and the honor system.
  • Give students a chance to overcome fears and concerns.
  • Let students learn proper “netiquette” to interact with faculty and peers.
  • Connect students with a variety of online resources.
  • Provide opportunities to start building online communities.

Anne Arundel Community College’s online orientation includes training in note-taking, test-taking success and time management. Monroe Community College includes links to a help desk and a range of student resources.

“If you cannot do anything else, develop a good online orientation for your students,” Harrell advised.

Student support

So your students are pre-assessed, counseled, oriented and enrolled. “What are institutions doing to ensure their success once they get there?” McClinton asked.

Working together, academic affairs and student affairs can ensure:

Technical support. “In a community college setting, they have that online tool. We need to realize the students may not be comfortable with that tool. It’s our job to support them,” she said. Since students choose online courses for flexible scheduling, tech support must be available 24/7. Also offer an easy-to-access Word document of frequently asked questions. Compared to men, women use technology more as a means to an end and less for its own sake. Online students are always dealing with two things at once: subject matter and the computer environment. Without good tech support, students may have to put more time and energy into coping with mechanics than mastering course content.

 • Student services. Offer online counseling, career guidance and other services that are routinely available to students on campus. When expanding enrollment through online programs, colleges can avoid new buildings but not the support services to meet student needs and keep your accreditation.

Mentoring. Online students are in a new and typically unfamiliar environment. One-on-one mentoring can provide continuity as needs and courses change. A mentor might be a designated staff member or a student with previous success in the online environment.

Mentors can serve as ombudswomen, a single point of contact to address all student needs. They can act as a liaison between the student and the instructor. A mentor can be assigned to a student for the first course or two, or until the student proves herself successful online.

Sense of community. Leading predictors of student success have always included the quality of faculty-to-student and peer-to-peer relationships, especially for women.

“That interaction that some women thrive on is not present unless faculty structure it in,” Harrell told WIHE.

Students do better when they feel connected to other students. Engagement on campus helps tremendously but isn’t always possible. Distance programs need to build connections online.

In Educational Technology & Society (2001), Edwards and Clear identified four conditions required for an effective online community: group dialog, organized meetings, shared knowledge and problem solving. Instructors can be guided to work these into every class.

Harrell and McClinton suggested a variety of ways to build a sense of online community, including:

  • Student government forums
  • Online study groups
  • Chat “cafes”
  • Instant messaging
  • Threaded discussions
  • Blogs
  • Facebook
  • Podcasting

Traditional classroom students can join campus clubs. Why not start clubs online, unrelated to the subjects studied? Single Moms could meet Thursdays at 9 pm. Painting, needlework, scrapbooking and gardening could each have online discussions or scheduled meetings.

Leadership development is harder in the computer environment. Why not establish an online student government or committees to deal with particular issues? How about graduation ceremonies online?

With practical support and a sense of connection, women students can excel online. While it’s too soon to know if they’ll be generous alumnae donors, they’ll learn skills, content and confidence, preparing them for lives as successful leaders.


Dr. Ivan L. Harrell II,   804. 523.5299

Dr. Marguerite M. McClinton,  540.458-8753

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