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Seven Digital Learning Tips for Students

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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Happy Digital Learning Day! As an educator, I have definitely evolved from tech tentative to tech tenacious in a very short period of time. Because of my recently found passion for educational technology, I want to share some of the scaffolds I've developed to help my students evolve into digital learners.

In order to help them prep for an eventual transition to web-facilitated (some online usage) or hybrid schooling (up to 80 percent online), I've been pulling together a list of qualities common to many successful online learners. As many of us incorporate more and more online lessons, assignments, assessments, and digital presentations into our instruction, it's important for students to understand the skills that they will need to function at their best.

The good news is that succeeding in an online environment isn't so different than succeeding in a traditional classroom. OK, sure, there's the time and distance and technological wall that can separate online learners. But the computer, in many cases, doesn't slam the communication door closed; it, in fact, opens it wider.

But it's good to know what you're getting into. So to help teachers communicate their expectations to students who are just starting to blog or use dropbox or set up discussion threads, I've provided a list of characteristics that many agree successful distance learners possess. Notice the similarities in many of the attributes that our students need to succeed in a traditional classroom. The difference, of course, is that one's success relies far more on individual choices and energy management.

Here are seven attributes that should have or need to develop for successful online learning:

  1. You have to have a sense of self. Successful learners online have an awareness of metacognition -- self-motivation, self-starting, and ownership of one's actions. In other words, they reflect on how they learn as well as what they learn.
  2. You need to be able to manage your time wisely. They must be able to lay out their tasks with a critical eye, plan them accordingly, and follow them through to fruition -- many times without someone looking over their shoulder.
  3. You have GOT to know how to collaborate. This is a biggie. More than an understanding of technology, more than a perfection of writing skills, the ability to collaborate is one that must be used comfortably online.
  4. You need to be able to set goals for yourself. Being able to see the target and backwards plan towards that target is vital.
  5. You need to communicate well in writing. The entire online community is based on the language of words and how to communicate them effectively. One cannot use texting language and expect to be heard. A student needs to use their best level of writing.
  6. You must follow the community norms. Just like a classroom has a set of rules, so does an online class. A student must function within the norms and rules of netiquette set up by the instructor (or, better yet, agreed upon by the class itself).
  7. You must be your own advocate. As slam poet Taylor Mali once wrote when asked if they would be tested on the material, "If not you, then who?" So does it go with being one's own advocate. If you won't ask the questions, take control, and make sure your voice is heard in a positive way...then who will?

Still not convinced that online learning is similar to your traditional classroom? Well, as I wrote about in my book, business leaders and college professors have identified 13 skills as those most needed by students entering college or the workforce. They are as follows:

Collaboration, Independent Learning, Communication, Problem Solving, Decision Making, Understanding Bias, Leadership, Questioning, Persuasion, Goal Setting, Sharing the Air, Compromise, Summarizing

Clearly all of these skills are interrelated and weave together in some form or another. But now look at the seven skills of distance learners above. See many similarities? Online learning contributes to one's education of both college and career readiness, and that's the goal. Use this list as a sort of rubric. Let the students know of your expectations online and I bet you'll see that door begin to swing steadily more open.

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert-Gawron
ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

You are quite right: there ARE things a teacher can do to make the process more engaging. In fact, it's foolhardy of any teacher or district to assume that online teaching somehow requires less to do or less engagement. However, that's all for another post!
-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Tony Baldasaro's picture
Tony Baldasaro
Chief Human Resource Officer/Virtual Learning Academy Charter School

Thanks for posting this blog, because I think you are right on when you say that online learning is not too different than face to face learning. But, as an administrator in a large virtual school, I can tell you that many students are surprised with the level of rigor and expectations that are found in virtual courses. This would lead some to argue that virtual schools are only for certain type of student.

I would like to push back against that notion a bit, specifically that you have to be "self-motivated" to be successful in an online school. While being self-motivated is wonderful (in both brick and mortar and virtual schools) I think we would agree that that is not an attribute of many students. In fact, I would suggest that many students still need external structures to help them in their virtual courses. They are still learning to self regulate, manage their time, make appropriate decisions and prioritize. If we simply enroll them and not offer supports, then yes, only the self-motivated students will survive. But that hasn't been the practice in brick and mortar schools and I don't think it should be the practice in virtual schools.

Virtual schools should work hard to partner with, not compete against local schools so they can collectively best support the virtual student. With supports, all "types" of students will be able to successfully complete their virtual courses regardless of whether or not they are self-motivated. The goal of public virtual ed needs to the same as public brick and mortar: To provide pathways and supports so that learners of all types can be successful - not just the best and the brightest.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert-Gawron
ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

Think of this as a list that a learner can have or should develop, with the help of the instructors of course. I think there are too many virtual supporters out there that don't take a tip from brick and mortar teachers. The fact is that there are many similarities in successful online and offline programs. The instructor works to build community (which is why an online class can't be overloaded with numbers), the instructor differentiates and scaffolds. The instructors individualizes feedback as well.

I absolutely believe that there isn't one "type" of distance learner and there isn't one "type" of student that can benefit from distance learning. I've used technology with my at-risk students as well as my honors students, and I believe it brings out the best in both. But it is an equation, with support and guidance from the adults in the room, both brick and virtual.

Thanks so much for your comment,

Andrew Schwei's picture
Andrew Schwei
High School Spanish Teacher from Jefferson, Wisconsin

I am in complete agreement with the list of seven attributes of a successful online learner; however, I question the similarity between traditional learning and online learning. No doubt, there are some similarities, but I view the skill set necessary to succeed in a traditional classroom as quite different from the skills needed to succeed in an online environment.

With my classes this year, I have made a concerted effort to incorporate more Web 2.0 tools, and I have found that teaching students how to be good online learners can be a formidable task. Sure, some students take to it well (just like some students take to traditional learning well) but many students need assistance with time management, goal setting and collaborative skills in an online environment because in a traditional classroom environment, the teacher monitors and provides more structure in these areas.

I'm not saying that online learning doesn't correlate with the skills employers and colleges seek in future employees and students--it most certainly does. My point is that online learning is significantly different from traditional learning, and students and teachers need to acquire different skills in order to succeed in an online learning environment.

Nick Athwal's picture

Yes, if I have to be successful in an online environment (instead traditional learning), the given 7 points in this presentation are the key. None of them can be overlooked.

steve davis's picture

This is my first opportunity to visit this website. I found some interesting things and I will apply to the development of my blog. Thanks for sharing useful information.

Mr. Pooler's picture
Mr. Pooler
seventh grade math teacher

The characteristics of an online learner is very important and helpful. Those are some things to apply to my self and they are also things to help my students understand as they get ready to go onto high school.

Nick Athwal's picture

Awesome article about digital learning and motivating young students on how they can use digital technology in their hand to learn.

No doubt hi tech industry have made it possible to learn any subject or topic from any teacher in any country at any time. Cool resources such as math solver, free math worksheets and lessons can be obtained by visiting online.

Best regards

Jen's picture

What a great list of qualities! Definitely plan on sharing these on

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