‘Begun is two-thirds done’: Giving flexible learners a head start with a suite of online transition tools for supporting student success in higher education

Concurrent Session 7

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

The Student Success Toolbox project is an important, nationally funded research and technology development project designed to address the problem of effective flexible learner transition into higher and continuing education. Specifically, it targets adults engaged in undergraduate, part-time or online/distance-learning during the initial stages of the study-lifecycle. 


Professor Mark Brown is Ireland's first Chair in Digital Learning and Director of the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL). Prior to taking up this position at the start of 2014, Mark was Director of the National Centre for Teaching and Learning as well as Director of the Distance Education and Learning Futures Alliance (DELFA) at Massey University, New Zealand. In addition, Mark had responsibility for oversight of the Central Hub of Ako Aotearoa - National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence. Over the last decade, Mark has played key leadership roles in the implementation of several major university-wide digital learning and teaching initiatives, including the selection and enterprise-wide deployment of Moodle, the original design and development of the Mahara e-portfolio system, a major implementation of a rich media learning platform [Mediasite], and the first New Zealand university-wide implementation of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform [Open2Study]. Mark is currently Chair of the Innovation in Teaching and Learning Steering Committee for the European Consortium of Innovative Universities (ECIU) and is a member of the Executive Committee of European Distance and e-Learning Network (EDEN). In 2016, Mark was also appointed as a representative of the Irish Universities Association on the Board of the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. In addition, Mark contributes as a faculty member to the US-based Online Learning Consortium's (OLC) Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning (IELOL) and is currently leading an intiative to establish the Empower Online Learning Leadership Academy (EOLLA) for new and emerging institutional leaders in European universities. Additionally, he works closely with Epigeum, a subsidiary of Oxford University Press, in the development of online professional development programmes for university staff and is currently Lead Advisor for a course in the area of Blended Learning. Before taking up his current posiiton, Mark was President of the New Zealand Association for Open, Flexible and Distance Learning (DEANZ). He was also Treasurer and an Executive Committee member of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (ascilite). ascilite is the peak professional body for Digital Learning in Australia and New Zealand. Mark is a recipient of a National Award for Sustained Excellence in Tertiary Teaching and remains a member of the New Zealand Academy of Tertiary Teaching Excellence.

Additional Authors

James has a BA (Hons) in Applied Psychology from University College Cork and a PhD in Social/Organisational Psychology from Dublin City University. Having previously worked as a lecturer and Programme Leader for two undergraduate Social Science Degrees in Dublin Business School's School of Arts he is now the Chair of Humanities Programmes in the Open Education Unit, National Institute for Digital Learning. James is a member of the Digital Learning Research Network which includes over 50 staff with a research interest, and a range of scholarly outputs, in this area.

Extended Abstract

The Student Success Toolbox project is an important, nationally funded research and technology development project designed to address the problem of effective flexible learner transition into higher and continuing education. Specifically, it targets adults engaged in undergraduate, part-time or online/distance-learning during the initial stages of the study-lifecycle. Enhancing retention and completion rates of this group of learners, in order to facilitate successful widening of access, is a significant global challenge. The project has produced a toolbox of eight digital readiness and preparation tools. These are Open Educational Resources (OER), made openly available to any institution/programme team with the most accommodating Creative Commons Licence. Alongside the tools there is a Guide on how to use the technology solutions as part of a strategic socialisation program and, where appropriate, directions on how to technically augment the tools to personalise them for a specific institution, program or cohort of learners.


The Student Success Toolbox project is funded by the National Forum for Teaching and Learning Building Digital Capacity fund. It is a collaborative project involving Dublin City University (lead partner), Sligo Institute of Technology, Maynooth University and Dundalk Institute of Technology.

This project has produced both a guide for the sector on how to improve flexible learner readiness, and a suite of digital readiness tools for the initial stages of the study lifecycle that will aid programme teams/institutions in facilitating undergraduate part-time and online/distance education learner transition into higher education. The project leverages digital technologies to establish new approaches to assist advisors in helping new applicants to assess their own readiness for flexible learning and in providing learners with relevant, timely feedback to enhance their chances of success. Each of the eight digital readiness and preparation tools, described below, were specifically designed around five overarching principles of supporting (i) self-regulation, (ii) personalization, (iii) customization, (iv) information at the point of need, and (iv) language and framing of the tools in the world of the prospective learner. Each tool was developed following an agile project methodology, which involved a cycle of development based on piloting, peer review and feedback from students. The accessibility of the tools, for the education sector, is also a key strength of the project. The tools can be viewed on the project website, and can be obtained from the project’s Github webpage.

The tools are openly available, with a CC-BY Creative Commons Licence, for any institution/program team to take, augment, customise and use with flexible learners (part-time or online/distance education learners).

Tool 1: Am I Ready for Study?

In the first tool, prospective flexible learners are provided with the opportunity to reflect and self-assess if they are ready to commit to online/distance study. This quick quiz is comprised of six sections addressing the following relevant topics: Previous Study, Work and Family, Study Intentions, Study Skills, Computer Skills and Work Habits. After answering each question personalised feedback is provided, and upon completion of the quiz every prospective learner is provided with an overall summary of their results and further personalised feedback. Here, each person is either informed they are ready for online study or encouraged to access the provided resource links to discover how they could enhance their readiness to succeed as a flexible learner.

Tool 2: Do I Have Enough Time?

This second tool provides a self-reflective ‘Calculator’ where prospective students are supported in thinking about the amount of time they spend on different activities during a typical week and how much spare time they might have to allocate to study. The calculator enables people to self-assess whether balancing study with their existing life, work and family commitments is realistically achievable. In completing the tool each person is provided with tips on how to most accurately estimate how they currently spend their time under the sections Work, Family, Household, Hobbies, Leisure and Sleep. On completion of the exercise people are given feedback on whether their personal circumstances are conducive to embarking on further study.


Tool 3: Who can I ask?

The ‘Who can I ask?’ tool offers prospective flexible learners the opportunity to think about their support network and how they might garner support to help them successfully complete their studies. Through a series of information slides, users are made aware of how they can seek support from Friends, Family, Employers, Universities and Other Students. In addition, examples of student scenarios and how they were supported through their studies can be accessed by clicking on quotes presented throughout the tool. Furthermore, advice is offered on how to deal with a lack of support.


Tool 4: My Computer Skills: Am I Computer Ready to Learn?

Through the guidance of a student narrator, prospective flexible learners are informed of the necessary computer skills needed in higher education. They are also informed of the technology they will need, and the computer services offered by colleges and universities. Four students’ stories can also be accessed, which entail flexible learners’ first interactions with email services, online reading materials, Word and PowerPoint. A computer skills quiz is also offered within this tool, allowing users to self-assess their current level of computer skills. Three different navigation pathways are available through this tool pending on the user’s previous experience with computer technology. Online services to assist students in improving their computer skills are also flagged.


Tool 5: My First Assignment

Through the guidance of a student narrator, prospective flexible learners navigate through a narrative relating to what it is like to plan out and develop a first assignment in higher education. Advice on how to start an assignment, develop a plan, break down a research question is also provided, with key elements within a plan being presented. Additionally, a series of student orientated quotes are readily accessible throughout the tool in order to give users a further sense of what it is like to tackle your first assignment in higher education. Four different navigation pathways are available through this tool pending on the user’s previous experience with developing higher education study skills.


Tool 6: Get Ready for Success

This tool is a five week openly available online course that provides prospective flexible learners with key tips and lessons about how to prepare for studying at higher education level as a flexible learner. This tool, which is built on a new MOOC platform yet to be publicly announced, incorporates a number of the other tools within its structure, in order to aid prospective learners in assessing their readiness for higher education, calculating how much time they have to study, examining what supports they have in their lives, learning about necessary computer skills, and also about the study skills required to study successfully. Additional content (text, audio and video), activities and facilitated online discussion forums, unique to this tool are also used to help prepare prospective learners.


Tool 7: Study Tips for Me

This tool is designed to provide support for flexible learners from other flexible learners. The site is based on the Tumblr platform, and addresses topics such as developing a healthy study/life balance. Each student is free to post on the site and it is intended that materials posted would be generic and beneficial for any flexible learner rather than course specific content appearing on the site. Through encouraging interaction between students at the early stage of the study lifecycle in this manner it is believed the Study Tips tool will benefit all students in overcoming challenges and developing suitable plans for study.


Tool 8: Online Orientation

As an online orientation, at the beginning of the academic year, would necessarily be unique to that program or institution this tool takes a different form to the other seven tools. The tool is created as a guide for those who wish to create an online orientation for new online/distance learners. This guide describes the elements that should be present in an effective online orientation, gives examples of different approaches, including the main elements in an effective orientation and allows users of the tool to build up a plan for how they would create an online orientation for their program or institution.


The project utilises an iterative development-review-(re)development cycle. When the tools were being developed feedback was obtained from higher education staff and existing flexible learners at two key points: tool design storyboard first draft; and first tool design prototype. This feedback was vital in moulding the development of tools that must be able to ‘speak’ to learners. Once further design prototypes were developed there was a small scale pilot evaluation, involving the flexible learner test users exploring the tools again, completing an online survey, and then a subset of those learners took part in one of four focus groups. The feedback was then used in the final (re)development of the tools before they were released as (CC_BY) OERs. Now that the tools are available to view from the project website and available to take and adapt from the project’s Github webpage, the tools will continue to develop as we gain experience of deploying the tools in different specific contexts.