Good design can substantially reduce the demand for learner support, by ensuring clarity and by building appropriate learning activities. Students also vary enormously in their need for support in learning. Many lifelong learners, who have already been through post-secondary education, have families, careers and a great deal of life experience, can be self-managed, autonomous learners, identifying what they need to learn and how best to do this. On the other extreme, there are students for whom the formal school system was a disaster, who lack basic learning skills or foundations, such as reading, writing, and mathematical skills, and therefore lack confidence in learning. These will need a lot of support to succeed.
However, most learners are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, occasionally running into problems, unsure what standards are expected, and needing to know how they are doing. Indeed, there is a good deal of research that indicates that ‘instructor presence’ is associated with student success or failure in a course, at least in online learning. Where students feel the instructor is not present, both learner performance and completion rates decline. For such students, good, timely learner support is the difference between success and failure.
It should be noted that the need for good learner support, and the ability to provide it, is not dependent on the medium of instruction. The kind of credit online courses that have been designed and delivered long before MOOCs came along often provided high levels of learner support, through having a strong instructor presence and careful design to ensure students were supported.
At the same time, although computer programmes can go some way toward providing learner support, many of the most important functions of learner support associated with high-level conceptual learning and skills development still need to be provided by an expert teacher or instructor, whether present or at a distance. Furthermore, this kind of learner support is difficult to scale up, as it tends to be relatively labour intensive and requires instructors with a deep level of knowledge within the subject area. Thus, the need to provide adequate levels of learner support cannot just be wished away, if we are to achieve successful learning on a large scale.
This may seem obvious to teachers, but the importance of learner support for student success is not always recognised or appreciated, as can be seen from the design of many MOOCs, and the reaction of politicians and the media to the cost savings promised by MOOCs, which are entirely a function of eliminating learner support. There are also different attitudes from instructors and institutions towards the need for learner support. Some faculty may believe that ‘It’s my job to instruct and yours to learn’; in other words, once students are presented with the necessary content through lectures or reading, the rest is up to them.