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Online Student Support Services
 A Best Practices Monograph


Determining Student Readiness for Online Instruction

Martinez, Ed. D.
Vice President of Student Services
Coastal Bend

Helen Torres
Director of Distance Education
San Antonio College

Vickie Giesel, Ed. D.
Dean, College Preparatory and Support Services
Tyler Jr. College


According to the findings of the Illinois Virtual Campus, “most institutions require basic technical skills as a prerequisite for enrollment in online courses but students are generally not required to demonstrate performance of these skills” (Washburn 2003) .   A review of community college and university websites not only seems to substantiate the Illinois findings but suggests institutional efforts to help potential students assess basic computer, work processing, and Internet use skills.  While anecdotal evidence suggests a correlation between student readiness for online instruction and student success, research based instruments for determining student readiness are lacking.  The lack of valid instruments for determining student readiness does not mean institutions have not developed programs and practices to help students understand the requirements of online education, to identify their own skills in relation to those requirements, and to promote student success in online instruction.  The need at this point in the development and expansion of online instruction is for identification of best practices in determining student readiness and in facilitating student success in an online environment. 

The authors’ goal for this article is to provide a review of best practices to assist institutions in their efforts to determine student readiness for online instruction.  Student readiness in this article refers to multiple support services that prepare students for successful online instruction.  Any endeavor whose ultimate goal is to promote student success in an online environment must examine institutional efforts to identify prerequisite skills, institutional strategies to equip potential students for online instruction, resources required, and a deep look at how student readiness is determined.  Student readiness must be viewed in a continuum extending from the point of initial interest and extending through the skill development phase as students work through the instruction offered by the institution for preparing students embarking on an online education journey, and at the end, must encompass the final phase as students access the course(s) and begin their work.  This article is limited to examining institutional efforts but if learning involves both learners and guides, at some point the learner’s motivation, skill, and drive must also be examined.

This document examines a variety of resources and presents a brief overview of current best practices that may be used in determining student readiness and equipping students for success in online instruction.

Readiness Assessment Tools and Models

According to Howell, Williams, and Lindsay (2003) several factors are emerging that should be mentioned at this point: (1) the Internet is becoming dominant among distance-education media; (2) the increasing demand on higher education infrastructure means more distance education programs are needed; and (3) student demand for flexibility in program structure to accommodate their responsibilities is being supported and answered. These trends suggest several implications among which are a greater need for helping students determine their readiness for learning in an online environment and an increase demand for viable instruments that help students examine their readiness for learning in such an environment.

The models included in this document indicate a strong preference for an initial interactive assessment to help students determine their readiness for learning in an online environment.  The assessments generally tend to focus on two areas: (1) technical skill, and (2) on study skills and motivation.  Some assessments also address learning styles.

The University of Georgia. The University of Georgia is one of the institutions that is providing the help that students need.  Dr. Lynn Schrum’s Student Online Readiness Tool (SORT) developed for the University of Georgia (2001), consists of six research based interactive assessments that are designed to help learners assess their readiness for online learning.  The goal is to help learners make an informed decision based on the information and immediate feedback provided by the six modules.  Each module consists of a brief description, an interactive questionnaire, immediate feedback, and strategies and suggestions for each module.  Indications are the model places responsibility on the learner to work through each of the modules and to make subsequent decisions based on the information garnered from the modules and additional links.  SORT consists of the following modules:

  1. Technology Experience

Since computer access and skills levels are deemed important factors on learners’ attitudes toward online education, the Technology Experience instrument consisting of nine items helps the learner assess the level of computer, email and Internet skills.

  1. Access to Tools

Since convenient and consistent access to hardware and software tools is vital for success in online learning, the Access to Tools twelve item questionnaire is designed to help the learner determine access to the most common tools for online courses.  Students are advised to check the course under consideration to determine whether additional tools are needed.

  1. Study Habits

Because study habits and skills are critical to learning, the nine question Study Habits quiz helps students determine strengths and weaknesses in this area.

  1. My Lifestyle

In order to help students examine the demands of their schedule and the requirements of the course, the six question inventory helps students determine the compatibility of their lifestyle and online learning.

  1. Goals and Purposes

This six item questionnaire helps students assess their motivation for learning.

  1. Learning Preference

The eleven item questionnaire helps students identify their preferred style for processing and remembering information.  It helps them link their understanding of information processing to the course selection decision and to determine strategies for a more successful learning experience.

A resource link provides specific strategies and additional links to needs identified in each of the modules.

The strengths of the SORT model include an interactive format, immediate feedback, a focus that extends beyond the obvious technical requirements to include a look at the individual’s responsibility for identifying the motivation for taking online courses, and a process for suggesting specific strategies for each module.

The Wisconsin Virtual School. Although the Wisconsin Virtual School provides services to secondary school students, their assessment model is worthy of mention.  The model emphasizes personal skills and aptitudes for taking online courses.  They have identified six attributes that contribute to student success.  WVS requirements place responsibility on the student in line with trends in distance education.  According to Howell (2003) a learner-centered, non-linear, and self-directed model in distance education is emerging.  It is a model which emphasizes students’ responsibility for their own learning. Indications are the WVS model is one which follows the emerging trend.  It links the following six attributes to student success:

  1. Self-Motivation

This is defined as the ability to direct the learning environment, fulfill course requirements, and achieve individual academic success.

  1. Independent learning

The assessment helps students gauge their understanding of the online environment, how it facilitates learning at an individual pace, and how this pace relieves the stress of feeling pressured thus promoting an enjoyable learning experience.

  1. Computer Literacy

While advanced computer skills are not necessary, basic knowledge of electronic email, the Internet, and keyboarding skills are needed.

  1. Time Management Skills

An ability to organize and plan the best time to learn is needed.

  1. Effective Written Communication Skills

Since communication with peers and instructors is accomplished via the use of electronic formats, the ability to communicate ideas and assignments is important to student success.

  1. Personal Commitment

A strong desire to learn and attain knowledge and skills via online courses requires a strong commitment to participate in order to achieve.

Wisconsin Virtual School students take a Browser test to ensure that their computers have all the necessary components and plug-ins required for the course(s).  The Student Orientation Tutorial available to all new students introduces students to the platform and tools that will be used in the course(s).  A ten item interactive assessment is available to help students determine if online instruction is right for them.  This online interactive assessment provides an individual score, a brief advisory, and a note about the options offered by online instruction.

The strengths of the WVS model include the emphasis on the personal student attributes that contribute to success, the interactive assessment, immediate feedback, and the Browser test with its well organized site and instructions for downloading required software.

Austin Community College. The Austin Community College model is simple, clean, and interactive.  The Distance Learning site is linked to a variety of interactive assessments designed to assist the student making a decision regarding the appropriateness of distance learning classes.   The initial advisory informs students of both the flexibility offered by distance learning and of the motivation and time management skills required.

The model includes three interactive modules:

  1. DL 101: Learning Style Self-Assessment

This module is intended to help the student understand his/her learning style preference and to determine whether distance learning is appropriate.

  1. DL 101: Technical Skills Checklist

This is an interactive checklist designed to help the student determine the level of technical skills and includes online tutorials in the various skills.

  1. Passport to Success

    This is an online interactive workshop that enables the student to explore the basics of distance learning.  The workshop includes study tips and strategies and access to support resources.

The model is linked sequentially so the registration information page is accessible from the assessments page.  The registration information page provides the necessary links to complete the process.  The model provides support materials but holds the student responsible.

The strengths of the model include an excellent interactive workshop and extensive resource list.

The San Antonio College Model. One of the community colleges that offers extensive and in depth help to potential students and faculty is San Antonio College (SAC).  Their Readiness Test is a quick, interactive, nine item self-evaluation that helps students determine the appropriateness of online and video courses.  It provides an immediate brief advising report.  Students who have taken the Readiness Test are advised to proceed to Module 3: Online Course Readiness Module which prepares them to take online courses.  The three modules, which require one to three hours each, prepare students for online learning, are free to SAC students, and may be completed in any order. The SAC Internet Skills Center provides three instructional modules as follows:

  1. Module I: Basic Computer Skills which addresses the following components

  • Understand basic computer operations

  • Take an overview of Windows operations

  • Create and save Word documents

  • Edit a Word document

  • Format a document

  • Set and adjust margins

  • Insert headers and footers

  • Set document margins

  • Use the Help menu

  • Print a document

  1. Module II: Web-based Library Skills consists of the following:

  • Take a virtual tour of the library

  • Use the online catalog

  • Explore library resources

  • Find information on the Internet

  • Enhance library research skills.

  1. Module III: Online Course Readiness Module which is designed to designed to teach students how to take an Online course successfully, prepares completers of the module to do the following:

  • Access the SAC Distance Education web site

  • Use the Internet for SAC courses

  • Use email in web courses

  • Access Online course files

  • Obtain technical support

The strength of the San Antonio College model includes an interactive assessment to determine Readiness for Online Education, timely and extensive modules designed to assist the learner develop the requisite skills for success in an online environment, and the Internet Skills Center responsible for providing assistance to students.  The model also provides opportunities for faculty to develop the skills required for successful experiences in an online environment along with appropriate motivation.  The faculty skill development portion is addressed in the section on Learning Guides/ Facilitators for Learning/ Instructors/ Faculty.

Cascadia Community College The Cascadia Community College model includes a short, interactive, twelve item assessment to help students determine whether the distance learning environment is appropriate for them.  A brief advisory based upon the assessment score is provided upon submission. One aspect that distinguishes this model is that the assessment is offered through Washington Online, the state's virtual campus. The Washington Online Virtual Campus facilitates collaboration among Washington State colleges to provide greater educational opportunities.

The Washington Online Virtual Campus offers prospective students an opportunity to explore seven excellent informational modules which provide an introduction to the distance learning environment.  The initial topic includes the readiness assessment and
the Blackboard Week Zero Tutorial, a self-paced online course intended to introduce students to the platform to be used.  It is called Week Zero because it is deemed to be most effective if completed prior to the start of classes. The tutorial is set up in a Blackboard classroom similar to the one used in the college classes.

Other topics include online learning skills, advising on program selection, financial aid information, information on required hardware and software, and an excellent Learn-To-Learn Course module.  The Learn-To-Learn course offers an introduction to online learning for students who are considering taking an online class for the first time.  The course, produced by Washington Online and The Boeing Company, helps the students learn:

  1. Online course navigation

  2. How to use e-mail

  3. How to participate in chat rooms

  4. Browser functionality

  5. Study Skills

Cascadia Online provides a good introductory overview for first-time online students.    The page contains a short guide designed to help students prepare for the online class environment. The overview includes six steps:

  1. Is Online Learning for Me?

  2. Information on the Technology and Skills Requirements for a successful experience.

  3. Hints for effective schedule planning to allow regular attendance and homework time for the online course.

  4. An opportunity to explore the Learn to Learn tutorial.

  5. Practice navigating in Blackboard by doing the Week Zero Tutorial.

  6.  An opportunity to buy textbooks and activate your library card.  Information on library services available online through the library site and live online research help availability through is presented.

The Cascadia Model is comprehensive. The assessments, tutorials, and information pages are very helpful.  One of the most impressive dimensions of the model is the linkage with the Washington Online Virtual Campus.  It is an excellent model of collaboration.

Coastal Bend College. Coastal Bend College (CBC) is one of the smaller Texas community colleges developing and delivering courses via the Internet.  Since consumers are not interested in the circumstances of the institution but are interested in the availability of online instruction, in the quality, and in the support services for online instruction that are offered by an institution, even smaller institutions are required to provide the requisite services to support online instruction.   These expectations have profound implications for smaller institutions which must rely on limited institutional resources.  While the CBC model does not compare with the sophistication of models developed at larger districts, it does effectively demonstrate what is possible with limited resources.

Smaller institutions rely on “personal touch” a dimension evident in a “high tech- high touch” environment.  CBC’s use of Internet specific advisors is one example of a high touch approach.   Although basic information regarding the availability of Internet courses and information on the enrollment process is posted on the institution’s website, an interactive assessment is not used.  Advisors work with individual students to help them determine their readiness for learning in an online environment.  The advising process includes a review of attributes of successful online learners and of student’s technical skill level.

The Coastal Bend College Model follows this process:

1.    Students interested in taking an online course submit an Application To Take Internet Courses which requires applicants to provide some indications of their technical skills.

2.    Students meet with an Internet specific advisor to determine their readiness and to enroll as determined by the student and advisor based on the student’s technical skills, life schedules, and motivation.

3.    Students attend an Orientation for Internet Students which addresses the following components:

  • CampusConnect (online student information access)

  • ECOS

  • CBC Student Email Program

  • Internet Course Test Policy

  • Explore WebCt

  • How to Navigate the Web Links

  • Smarthinking (online tutoring assistance)

  • Introduction to CBC Web-based resources and HelpDesk

4.    Retention Specialist directs initial contacts with online students via the HelpDesk and works with faculty to monitor class participation.

5.    The HelpDesk assumes vital functions attempting to accomplish these via its webpage which provides links to Online Tutorials and FAQs.  Student support services available through the HelpDesk include:

  • Student Support which includes information on orientation dates, downloads, web page creation, and a link to  the Virtual College of Texas website.

  • Faculty Support which includes: basic faculty online tutorials, information on uploading files to ColdFusion site, basic navigation information, information on multi media software, and WebCt.

The strength of the CBC model includes a “high touch” approach, numerous face to face orientation sessions, distribution of orientation CDs, Retention Specialist, and the helpdesk.

Staffing a Program to Focus on Learners

Since the most important person in distance education is the learner, the focus of the staffing structure must center on the needs of the learner.  While the institution through its support services enhances the learning environment, the individual learner, and whatever internal and external motivational factors are in operation, must assume a priority role in the learning process.  Although the role of the individual learner may be obvious, the greater realm of reality also dictates a proactive institutional posture in providing timely, relevant, and acceptable interventions to assist the learner in the process of self-discovery and determining readiness for learning in an online environment.

Institutions offering courses via the Internet must provide support services to help online students get started with a major emphasis on technical support” (CHEA 2002).  Although some offer more sophisticated services, most institutions that have developed a distance learning program provide some type of basic services.  All educational endeavors are systems made up of various interconnected components according to Davis (2004).  In distance education the entire system of course development and delivery and how these systems are linked to other services and their components must be understood in order to ensure effectiveness and quality (Davis, 2004).  While the student may be the primary beneficiary in distance learning, many people contribute to that success. Faculty, technicians, test center personnel, librarians, and administrators work to ensure the delivery of viable online courses.

In reviewing the staffing that is required to assess student readiness, the whole range of preparation, delivery, support, and evaluation of these processes must be examined.  Although the review begins with the learner as central, curriculum/course designers who develop the modules to prepare learners for success in online instruction, internet specific advisors who assist learners in making course selections and throughout their development, the helpdesk staff who support learners throughout the process, the IT staff who work to maintain a viable technological infrastructure, the student services staff from admissions, financial aid, counseling, and test center who provide support, and of course the faculty who encourage, guide, and challenge learners must also be acknowledged.

Technicians. The most obvious of services are those of a technical nature.  The people with technical skills either develop the information presented on the technical requirements site or provide the information for others to develop the site.  In any case, the technicians cannot be ignored.  Best practices dictate that institutions provide technicians to assist with these issues.

Terra Community College provides a basic listing of technical requirements which clearly reminds student’s of their responsibility to ensure that they have access to a computer that meets the minimum hardware and software requirements.  Other institutions provide at a minimum a list of hardware and software requirements that is easily accessible to all potential students.

Help Desk. Help Desk staff provide ongoing support in the online environment.  The following examples are selected form inclusion to demonstrate different degrees of service.  All are helpful and readily available and most initial Help Desk pages list contact information.

One of the sites providing support services in the form of information is the Community College of Baltimore County provides an online Help Desk.  Basic login information, AOL issues, employer firewall problems, and WebCT help are available through the links from the Online Help Desk.

The College of DuPage Help Desk is extensive including FAQs, contact information for counselor charged with providing online student support, links to technical help for the Anlon system, and email support.   This page provides comprehensive information on available services.  Each information link includes a FAQs link opens a new small window keeping the original window available.

The Cascadia Online site demonstrates a team comprehensive approach listing instructor, Help Desk, Advisor, and Distance Learning Administrator, members whose responsibility is to help online students succeed.  An impressive addition is WAOL Help which links to 24/7 technical and instructional support, live phone support, and 24/7 Real-time eChat.

Some institutions offer online tutorials from links off the Help Desk.  The Coastal Bend College Help Desk webpage is an example of a site that provides links to online tutorials.

Thus, While the student may be the primary beneficiary in distance learning, many people contribute to that success.  Technicians who develop and staff the Help Desk, faculty, test center personnel, librarians, and administrators are some of the people who work to ensure the delivery of viable online courses.


Advising. Online interactive assessments generally produce a short advisory which includes directions for accessing the required and available skill development modules.  Although the number of preparatory modules varies, these modules generally help the student develop basic technical skills, identify their preferred learning style, examine their commitment to online learning, and determine the constraints on their time.  There is little information readily available on how the “HOLD” process is handled although some institutions make use of the degree audits for online registration for ensuring completion of pre-requisite courses.  Holds are often removed as part of the advising process.  Institutions do not make distinctions between online and onsite students in terms of the admissions, testing, and registration process or requirements. 

San Antonio College includes a link off the distance learning page to Admission  and Registration which lists the following eight step process:

1.      Step 1- completion and submission of online application

2.      Step 2- submission of transcripts and the removal of any “holds”

3.      Step 3- information on placement requirements and test sites

4.      Step 4- information on contacting an academic counselor as needed

5.      Step 5- information for enrollment in student development class

6.      Step 6- early registration process information

7.      Step 7- information for accessing financial aid is provided

8.      Step 8- provides information regarding payment of tuition and fees

A link that could prove very helpful is found on Step 4 that opens the Online Counseling Services for Distance Learning.

The Austin Community College Distance Learning Step 1- Becoming An ACC Student, plainly states: “Students enrolling in Distance Learning courses at Austin Community College follow the same admissions and registration procedures as students enrolling in on-campus courses.”   The enrollment process includes:

1.      Registration Checklist available to new and returning students to help them track their status in regard to the registration process

2.      ACC New Student Admission Application- this online application is available to new students who seek admission to the college

3.      Residency Form must be completed by all new students to determine residency classification

4.      Academic Advising required for all new students prior to registration

5.      Assessment Information for New Students

6.      ACC New Student Orientation which may be completed online or at any of the ACC campuses

7.      ACC Departments Assisting in the Enrollment Process- Identifies all offices providing services

Orientation. Requirements run the gamut from specific course orientations to general orientation for online classes.  In some cases the orientations are delivered via the web.  In other cases students are required to attend a face to face session.

TVI Community College. TVI Community College provides an interactive orientation for online students.  The orientation is delivered via a streaming audio/ video presentation and a text version that allows student manipulation.  It consists of five modules as follows: Start Here, What To Expect, Locations, Programs of Study, and Success.   The success module includes student success video stories, identifies the types of academic support available, introduces the Job Connection Center, and the career resource center.  Additional links open a new window with an interactive admissions form or to financial aid services.  It is deemed to be one of the best orientations available completely online.

The strengths of the TVI orientation include the streaming video, an interactive format, and the links to additional, relevant, and needed services which in turn offer similar a type of convenience and timely service.

Terra Community College. Although the Terra Community College Distance Learning Orientation is not wholly interactive, it is a comprehensive online orientation comprised of four modules.  An extensive list of online tutorials is available through each of the modules.

1. Module 1- Basic Skills Technology Module

Students review terms such as mouse, drag, open, select, file, choose, double-click, download, upload, send, etc, identify the operating system, amount of memory, size of hard drive, and processor in the computer used for the course(s), as well as specific types of software on the computer, and review commands such as save, copy, and find files and folders on floppy and hard drives.

2. Module 2- Basic Skills for Using the Web

Students who complete the course are able to understand terms related to using the Web, access a specific URL, bookmark a web site, conduct a basic search using a search engine, refine a search, and research a specific topic.

3. Module 3-  Basic Communication Skills

Student who complete the module are able to review email terms, recognize the components of an email message form, compose and send an email message, open, reply to, and forward a message; send CC of message; attach and send an attachment; open and/or save an attachment; and, email address troubleshooting

4. Module 4- Online Communication Skills

Students who complete the course are able to log on to a course WebBoard, participate in a conference; reply to WebBoard conference; post comments; open documents posted on WebBoard conference, attach documents; participate in chat room


According to Hughes (2004) there are three common formats that are employed to provide both technological and academic support for online learners: an information center which provides institutional and program information; computing helpdesks to assit with troubleshooting technological issues; and call centers are frequently that support a particular program area. All three are needed to support the whole learning process.  In fact, institutions generally provide direction on the technical requirements including hardware and software.  Some provide troubleshooting information for AOL subscribers since this provider does not support some of the features of the management software.

Technical Requirements. The Community College of Baltimore County includes a comprehensive section on technical requirements.  This page linked of their Online Classes site includes helpful information on the following:

1. Internet Access Requirements

2. Minimal Computer Hardware requirements for IBM/ Intell and Apple Macintosh machines.  Students are advised to check course requirements for additional course specific software.

3. Minimal Software Requirements

  • Operating system

  • Browser Requirements and information on supported Browsers for Windows and Macs

4. Instructions on how to check to see whether the browser is WebCT compliant

5. A Note to AOL Users includes a suggestion to use a stand alone browser and instruction on how to use the stand - alone browser instead of AOL's built - in browser:

6. Browser configuration information for WebCt users is included for configuring Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer.

Washington Online, a virtual campus of Cascadia Community College includes a very good page listing the technology requirements.    The site includes the following eight sections:

1.      PC minimum configuration

2.      Macintosh Minimum configuration

3.      Web Browser Requirements

4.      AOL users advisory

5.      Listing of plug-ins that may be required:

  • RealPlayer

  • Flash

  • QuickTime

6.      Information on Virus Protection including a link to a computer Virus Information Page

7.      Advisory on computer and Internet access requirements

8.      Skill Requirements with appropriate links to other helpful sites.

Course Management Software. The Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) offers excellent online tutorials for specific WebCt tools.   St Charles Community College (SCCC)  provides an excellent tutorial on WebCt navigation.  The SCCC tutorial uses screens captured to trace login and access into the site.  Once the first page is reviewed, WebCT tools are subsequently used to navigate through the remainder of the tutorial.

The Week Zero Tutorial offered by Washington Online provides an excellent introduction to Blackboard.

Support Services.
The Community College of Baltimore County information on support services is informative, comprehensive, and easily accessible.  It is linked from the Distance Learning Homepage.  All support services including online tutoring services are linked off this page.

In Conclusion

While this document addresses student readiness for learning in an online environment, it has merely skimmed the surface.  It does not pretend to be an exhaustive review.  It merely affords a glimpse into the institutional practices for assessing student readiness at a particular point in time.   The dynamic nature of the online environment precludes any final word on the subject.  The only definite word at this point is that institutions must continue to assess student readiness for learning in the online environment in order to develop appropriate and timely strategies to promote student success.


Admissions and Registration, San Antonio College, Texas.

Application To Take Internet Courses, Coastal Bend College, Texas.

Ask A Counselor Online Services, San Antonio College, Texas.

Austin Community College, Austin Texas.

Cascadia Community College, Bothell, WA.

Cascadia Online, Cascadia Community College, Bothell, WA.

Coastal Bend College.

College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

Community College of Baltimore County.

Council for Higher Education Accreditation Accreditation and Assuring Quality in Distance Learning, CHEA Institute for Research and Study of Accreditation and Quality Assurance, CHEA Monograph Series 2002.

Davis, Alan, Developing An Infrastructure For Online Learning. Theory and Practice of Online Learning.  Athabasca University, 2004.

Distance Learning Orientation, Terra Community College, Fremont, Ohio.

Howell, Scott L., Williams, Peter, & Lindsay, Nathan K., Thirty-two Trends Affecting Distance Education: An Informed Foundation for Strategic Planning.  Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume VI, Number III , Fall 2003. State University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center.

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Passport To Success, Austin Community College: Texas.

Presidium Learning,  WashintonOnline 2005.

San Antonio College, Alamo Community College District, San Antonio, Texas.

Step 1- Becoming An ACC Student, Austin Community College, Texas.

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