by Dr. Agata Sadza, on May 23, 2014

Supporting diverse learners

Snapshot: Synchronous and asynchronous learner support & learning & teaching delivery, informed by an awareness of the social and cultural contexts of learners

This article was written for the eMatrix by Dr. Agata Sadza, Senior Lecturer in Applied Translation at London Metropolitan University.

Diversity and Inclusion in an HE context

One important characteristic of the HE student body in the UK nowadays is its diversity. With the expansion of the EU, intensive marketing activities worldwide and increased emphasis on widening participation in the domestic context, UK HE institutions face an increasingly diverse mix of students. This diversity, traditionally seen as related to disabilities, is now perceived as involving at least four dimensions (see this guide to inclusive learning and teaching in higher education by Liz Thomas and Helen May for more details): 

  • educational (previous knowledge and educational experiences, type/level of entry qualifications, skills  and abilities, learning approaches);
  • circumstantial (disability, employment, caring responsibilities, access to IT facilities, flexibility, financial background)
  • cultural (language, values, ethnicity/race, national/social/cultural/religious background)
  • dispositional (identity, self-esteem, confidence, motivation, aspirations, expectations, preferences, attitudes, beliefs, emotional intelligence, age, maturity, gender, sexuality). 

The presence of such diverse and often multiple identities has an important bearing on blended learning delivery and provision of synchronous and asynchronous learner support. This post will look at some aspects of this complex issue with a view to providing some ideas about practicalities of learner support in blended learning scenarios.

In this context, various educational bodies recognise the importance of systematic inclusion policies. For example, HEA adopts an "inclusive approach to widening participation" consisting in a shift away from supporting specific groups of learners or making individual interventions towards a more holistic approach that facilitates an environment where equity and inclusion are built into within all functions of an institution. See the panel on "Student diversity and developing inclusive culture" below for more resources on these vast topics.    

To get you thinking, watch the video "Supporting Cultural Diversity in e-Learning" (above) on challenges related to cultural diversity in distance learning environment. (While set in the US context, it discusses issues directly relevant to the increasingly culturally-diverse UK context.)


New technologies, new pedagogies and new challenges

The development of distance and blended learning has had an enormous impact on how learning, teaching and learner support are conceptualised and practised. While traditionally learner support was understood as separate from course design, nowadays the boundaries between two sets of activities often no longer hold. With learner-centred activities based on constructivist principles of collaborative learning and meaning construction in communities of practice, where the tutor becomes more of a facilitator rather than transmitter of knowledge, learner support has become to be seen as "all those elements capable of responding to a known learner or group of learners, before, during and after the learning process" (this definition comes from a frequently cited article by Mary Thorpe "Rethinking Learner Support: the challenge of collaborative online learning",an excellent resource to introduce the vast topic of learner support in online environments). 

"It has become clear that one-size-fits-all teaching methods are neither effective nor acceptable for today's diverse students" (NMC Horizon Report 2013, p. 10)

New pedagogies employed in distance and blended learning scenarios result in greater opportunities for flexibility and freedom, however require students to take more responsibility for managing their learning, which some students may be unprepared or unwilling to do. Also, some students may lack the confidence and ability to communicate and cooperate effectively in an online environment. It has also been observed that, when left to their own devices, students may tend to be reluctant to step outside their comfort zone and mix effectively across cultural, ethnic and national boundaries which may result in isolation, frustration or disengagement. All these challenges need to be addressed at the level of learner support in blended and distance learning scenarios. For more information on these issues check the panels below. Teachers may want to refer their students to this eMatrix resource by Laura Hambly on overcoming challenges in online learning. 

Implications for learner support

Research has shown that students "value having their academic and social identities acknowledged and their particular needs addressed" and they "appreciate the teaching that does this" (see this HEA research briefing for more details).  

The changing educational landscapes and the inclusion of new technologies, pedagogies and learning scenarios result in the need for incorporating learner support already at the level of instructional design. With increased flexibility of online educational delivery (where materials are often not provided to learners in a ready-made form but rather negotiated dynamically in response to student needs, aspirations and motivations), learner support can usefully be conceptualised as a "triangle" between interactively created course content, tutor and learners.   Understood in this way, the design of learner support should include the following issues:
  • emphasis on the value of cooperative, experiential and problem-based learning, encouragement of such learning;
  • more explicit inclusion of learning communities in learner support processes; encouragement to utilise communities of learners more extensively as a support tool that strengthens a learner's sense of belonging, provides a social support network, facilitates acquisition of knowledge and skills through learner to learner contact and helps learners negotiate administrative systems (see this resource, pp. 13 onwards);
  • facilitation of group-based work through support from tutor to tackle problems, managing group processes, asking students to work with others they never worked before, building in low-risk encounters so that students get to know each other in structured ways across any boundaries;
  • emphasis on the value of diversity e.g. by designing tasks where cross-cultural engagement is necessary to complete the task successfully;
  • encouraging learners to reflect on cross-cultural differences, e.g. by designing activities where they need to consider how knowledge, content or professional practices may be alternatively conceived of in different cultures;
  • scaffolding built into course/module design;
  • stress on implications of flexibility and importance of time management and taking responsibility for own learning- planning that is sensitive to students' other commitments.


More details and practical guidelines can be found in the panel on "Online learner support" below. 

You may also find this article on facilitating online learning processes in a virtual learning environment useful to help you apply learner support processes and procedures in actual teaching practice.

This article on getting students online and keeping them engaged using synchronous and asynchronous online learning processes and methods (available shortly) can help you to see whether your online teaching practices facilitate student engagement.

The panel on "Evaluating online learner support frameworks" below includes a detailed checklist for learner support within an online component and a video with examples of specific online learner support procedures and a case study showing an implementation of these procedures in an existing module.     

Click on the arrows to access more content

Student Diversity and developing exclusive culture

Student diversity and policy of inclusion are vast and extensively discussed topics. This panel provides a selection of resources to get you to start thinking about the ways of addressing these complex issues in your own teaching practice. 


You may find this guide to inclusive learning and teaching in higher education by Liz Thomas and Helen May (also quoted above) a good help in developing a holistic approach to issues of diversity and inclusivity in day-to-day institutional practice. 


This report by Helen May and Kath Bridger provides several case studies of approaches to these issues at various UK HE institutions. 


To learn more about practical ways of responding to the growing internationalisation of student body, check this list of resources by the HEA.


Christine Hockings' report includes a useful synthesis of research on inclusive learning and teaching in HE.


On the importance of systematic inclusion policies in HE institutions (or the "inclusive culture") see this report by Mike Wray

Online Learner Support

See the resources below for more information and guidelines on learner support in online environments. 

This webpage provides a list of practical steps that teachers can take to facilitate learning in a culturally and ethnically diverse student body. A number of these steps will also apply to instructional design for online contexts.


This book by J.E. Brindley, C. Walti & O. Zawacki-Richter (eds.) includes a selection of papers on various aspects of online learner support.   


This article by Ivan L. Harrell II provides a usefully concise description of learner support in online environments with an extensive reference list.


On the importance of scaffolding in online learning design see this article by Stacey Ludwig-Hardman and Joanna C. Dunlap


This useful resource by Catherine McLoughlin discusses a possible model for learner support in an online environment. 

Evaluating Online Learner Support Frameworks

Criteria for evaluation whether a distance or blended module includes appropriate learner support framework can be found in the Blackboard Exemplary Course Program Rubric. According to these criteria, learner support within an online component should include the following elements:


  • Orientation to the module and the online system used (e.g. induction activities and easily accessible tutorial materials delivered through a variety of channels: audio, visual, text-based)

  • Supportive software (information on other software required with links and installation instructions)

  • Instructor role and information (description of instructor's role, expectations and responsibilities, contact details with multiple forms of communication)

  • Module and institutional policies and support (e.g. clearly labelled links to student support services, library services, relevant institutional policies, netiquette policies)

  • Technical accessibility issues (e.g. use of standard formats and files optimised for web delivery)

  • Accommodation for disabilities

  • Feedback (opportunities for learners to give anonymous feedback during course delivery and after completion).


Specific examples of learner support techniques and procedures embedded in module design, including accommodation for disabilities, are presented in the first half of this video. It also includes an interesting case study of a module where these techniques and procedures were successfully applied.

Student Diversity and developing exclusive culture
Online Learner Support
Evaluating Online Learner Support Frameworks