Lost and Overwhelmed Online Students? Design for Learner Agency and Way-Finding in Online Distance Learning

Online distance learning ideally combines synchronous and asynchronous learning activities. As they practice self-paced or guided learning in these activities, students need to find their own way as they navigate, engage with others, and personally aim to sustain their learning in the online courses. To help them achieve these things, teachers must design online distance learning courses that can help develop learner agency and the mastery of way-finding skills, two dimensions that relate to social-emotional learning skills. Students need to develop and eventually, demonstrate flexibility, self-discipline, reflective thinking, and self-regulation skills to become successful online learners.

Learner agency can be described as the learner’s power and ability to make and act on decisions related to the learning activities. Learner agency emphasizes that learners should be able to make choices, share their voices, and take ownership of their learning as they make meaningful decisions and see the results of those decisions in their learning experiences or in their personal lives. In online distance learning, way-finding refers to the set of systems or information that a learner uses to navigate the virtual environment. Way-finding helps a student to traverse the online course’s structures through making sense of the text input or multimedia assets for directions, understanding the organization of learning materials and resources, and reflecting on how to properly go through the learning activities among others.

Consider the following to develop learner agency and way-finding skills in online learners:

  1. Try student-led video conference discussions. Like in the classroom, presenting students the opportunity to lead a discussion gives them the chance to drive their own learning, while building critical- thinking along the way. Online learning activities like these also give them the chance of ownership and to practice community-building of knowledge and skills.
  • Take discussion forums or boards to another level. In discussion forums, encourage behaviors such as asking questions to clarify ideas of their classmates, replying to such queries, and extending discussions to reflections or applications in real life. Let students create their own forums where they can talk about the lesson in an extended manner.
  • Make learning goals visible. In online distance learning, students might be on their own or might have parent supervision depending on their grade level. To help them keep track of the learning, it is always important and helpful to post the intended learning goals of the unit or module visibly.
  • Use learning goals as a checklist. To help students regulate, navigate, and reflect on their own progress, learning goals should be used as checklists that they can tick off once they are able to demonstrate the goals on their own. For younger students, having a checklist of learning goals gives parents or home supervisors a visible compass to use in helping their young children at home. 
  • Minimize clicks. Always think “less is more.” Organize online modules in such a way that there are less windows to open, which can clutter the browser or screen of the students. Organize the flow of the lesson and learn how to embed photos, videos, and other assets in a single page.
  • Chunk topics for better learning flow. Arrange your contents in chunks that are manageable for students. Chunk lessons based on themes, similar concepts or skills. Make use of learning materials that are digestible and appropriate to your students.
  • Be a curator and not a dumper. Learn how to curate the best and most appropriate online resources for students. Avoid dumping too much online content because students might lose their momentum and engagement once they feel overwhelmed and overloaded with information.