PPIC Logo Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Blog Post · March 29, 2018

Five Factors for Successful Online Learning

Teenage boy working at a desk in his bedroom, close up

Governor Brown’s budget proposal requested a $100 million initial investment, along with $20 million annually, to establish a new online college that would be part of the state’s community college system. This college would initially focus on short-term certificate programs for non-traditional students ages 25–34 who are already in the workforce. In the long term, this college would seek accreditation, provide pathways to transfer to a four-year college, and compete with established online course providers like Arizona State Online and the for-profit University of Phoenix.

Tens of thousands of students already take online courses offered by California’s community colleges. In fact, the share of student enrollment in these courses has increased 9 percentage points over the past decade to more than 13% in 2016–17. The new online college, if established, is likely to accelerate this trend.

Previous PPIC research has identified five key factors to help ensure student success in online programs:

  1. Use a systems approach to course design. In this model, an instructional designer works with faculty, media developers, and programmers to develop an online course. This approach recognizes the fundamental differences between online and face-to-face instruction and allows instructors to focus on the subject matter and student engagement.
  2. Provide professional development. Effective online instruction requires distinct strategies. For example, to guide discussion online, instructors must gauge student engagement and develop appropriate norms without the usual visual and auditory cues. Rapid changes in technology and the isolated nature of online instruction also make professional development and mentorship particularly important.
  3. Set student expectations. There is a common misconception that online courses are easy. On the contrary, students in online courses often struggle with the autonomy, time management, and digital literacy necessary to succeed. Successful online programs use orientation courses to set expectations and clarify the differences between online and face-to-face education.
  4. Create community. Communication is essential to foster a constructive learning environment and positive peer interactions. Online courses that encourage regular and effective communication among students and between students and their instructor develop a better sense of community and improve the likelihood of student success.
  5. Take advantage of the online environment. Online tools offer unique insights not available in face-to-face pedagogy. Data on student engagement (e.g., did students view the syllabus or access additional course resources?) can provide clues for how to improve student outcomes. Online learning also facilitates personalization and can be adapted to different learning styles and special needs.

In 2013–14, the community college system launched the Online Education Initiative (OEI), which promotes these best practices and has established online course standards and faculty training in pedagogy and course design. As the state moves forward with its proposal to create a new online college, the OEI could play a key role. Overall, the line separating online and face-to-face learning is not as stark as many suppose. Most college courses already incorporate some online aspects, whether it’s an online course management system, chat room, or video conferencing. As the online and face-to-face worlds continue to merge, furthering our understanding of best practices for online instruction will be critical to student success in higher education as a whole.


Access California Community Colleges Completion Equity Finance for profit colleges Higher Education online education initiative online learning