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The Virtual Student: A Profile and Guide to Working with Online Learners

By Rena M. Palloff and Keith Pratt
224 pages
ISBN: 0-7879-6474-3
$30.00 (paperback)

Reviewed by

Mark Thompson

Department of English
CSU Stanislaus


A recent, survey-based report, "Sizing the Opportunity: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the United States, 2002-2003," observes that in higher-education "over 1.6 million students took at least one course online during fall 2002 [and] over one third of these students (578,000) took all their courses online" (Allen and Seaman 1). The report also notes that most institutions are committed to online instruction, that most academic administrators at these same institutions believe online education is already equal or superior to face-to-face instruction, and that public institutions provide by far the greatest amount of online instruction (3-4).

Since the mid-1990s the California State University has given priority to an integrated technology strategy with a primary goal of excellence in teaching and learning. The November 2003 report from the Office of the Chancellor's Information Technology Services to the state legislature remarks that over half of all courses require use of the Internet, and 80% require use of email. While only 2% of courses in the CSU are offered completely online, students strongly believe that access to networks and computer literacy are important to their degree completion and their future employment. Although students desire online courses, almost half of the students surveyed were dissatisfied with "online learning as compared with regular classroom instruction."

Palloff and Pratt's The Virtual Student recognizes the importance of online instruction as well as the troubling retention statistics and provides a learner- and community-centered perspective for developing online courses. It is important to note that the authors focus on courses that are completely online and that much of their experience and exemplification seems to come from work with graduate students. The authors are core education faculty at Capella University, which offers over 600 online courses, and they have two previous related books, Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace and Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom. At the beginning of their book, they acknowledge that online learners give low satisfaction ratings to courses and, citing Sarah Carr, add that "online course attrition has been reported to be approximately 50% of those enrolled nationwide" (qtd. in Palloff and Pratt 112).

Undeterred, Palloff and Pratt build their advice around a communal approach to teaching, asserting that "the purpose is the involvement in the online course itself" and "collaborative learning and the reflective practice involved in transformative learning differentiate the online learning community" (16-17; emphasis in original). The use of communal, student-centered instruction is offered as a means to achieve greater student retention, satisfaction, and learning. For Palloff and Pratt, student-centered instruction goes beyond addressing multiple learning styles to "understanding who our students are," including the issues that affect students' lives and what needs they have (124). The communal element depends, more than in most classes, on the reflection and interaction by students since the instructor must also let go of some power in the class and function as facilitator or co-learner rather than presenter whenever possible. The authors emphasize that online instructors must pay greater attention to the identity and needs of students to make up for the lack of face-to-face interaction and cues. Additionally, orientation components, ice-breaker activities, and electronic lounges where students are expected to share some personal detail about their lives all become more important in the online instructional community. For readers in agreement with this approach to teaching, the book provides a useful review of strategies, tips, best practices, and an appended toolkit with course guidelines, grading rubrics, and student tools including a self-assessment of readiness for online learning. I would argue that the vast majority of the authors' advice is not limited to online courses but is applicable to most higher education teaching situations, yet the text helps to provide a clear connection of recommended practices to online communities.

The book is presented in two sections: "A Profile of the Virtual Student," which focuses on community building, learning styles, gender, culture, and lifestyle; and "A Guide to Working with the Virtual Student," which addresses orientation, time management, assessment, intellectual property issues, retention, and suggested best practices. Each chapter concludes with a detailed summary table.

The "profile" section describes the needs of the virtual student--for example, access to computers and networks, a necessary willingness to share personal details of one's life, and openness to learning at any time and place (9-13). The section then links many of those needs to the book's theory of community building as a central means of learning. The community motif carries through as a way to address issues of equity, diversity, and spirituality as well as a means to address the varied learning styles of students. Chapter 5 may be the most useful of this section as it explores ways to provide online students a firmer connection to the institution through technological support, student services including tutoring, and appropriate policies--all points directly related to retaining online students. The key is in differential design of online programs instead of relying on the level of online service provided to the non-virtual student. Virtual students may require more regular training, more detailed online tutorials and FAQs, as well as 24/7 access and support, including student-service personnel specifically designated and trained to work with virtual students. Institutions may need to review fee policies, as well as reviewing or inventing library, lab, and "online safety and security, and privacy" policies (61).

Chapter 6 begins the "guide" section with the most online-specific topic of the book, providing a strong overview of the essentials for orienting an online learner, ranging from basic computer skills to guidelines for appropriate discussion. The chapters on time management and assessment are, again, good advice but not targeted specifically to online learning. The authors do a good job of addressing intellectual property concerns by holding true to their student focus and emphasizing the student ownership of student texts and contributions, which faculty and institutions must recognize.

The best-practices chapter discusses necessary stances toward the balance of power, role of the teacher, responsibility for learning, and purposes of assessment. When the instructor shifts to facilitator or co-learner, a greater responsibility for learning is placed on the student, and part of the responsibility for virtual students is to participate in building community. Palloff and Pratt further recommend that content, rather than being the knowledge, become the basis for making knowledge (e.g., through problem-based instruction). They add that online instruction is well served by learning activities grounded in learning objectives that can then be judged through formative assessment including self-assessment.

The book concludes by linking what the student wants with best practices of contact, cooperation, active learning, prompt feedback, high expectations, and respect for a diversity of contributions.

The Virtual Student is a useful book that will remind those interested in online instruction that there is a perspective from the student side of the screen. The detailed summaries provide practical checklists for student-centered course design, but some readers may find the book lacking in the amount of detail aimed specifically at differences in developing the online course as opposed to the face-to-face course.


Allen, I. Elaine and Jeff Seaman. "Sizing the Opportunity: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the United States, 2002-2003." The Sloan Consortium. 2003.

Carr, Sarah. "As Distance Learning Comes of Age, the Challenge is Keeping the Students." The Chronicle of Higher Education, 11 Feb. 2000. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/free/v46/i23/23a00101.htm.

Information Technology Services. Measures of Success V: A Report to the California Legislature. 2003. California State University, Office of the Chancellor. Retrieved from Measures of Success V 2003.

Posted August 10, 2004

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2004 by Mark Thompson.

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