5 steps to building virtual services for online students

Distance learning students need an array of supports

With online learning, the data prompts action but many colleges are slow to act. Today, about 15% of higher education students study exclusively online and one-third of students will take at least one class online, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. In addition, overall college enrollment has been shrinking since 2012, while online enrollment has been growing. Between 2016 and 2017, the number of four-year students fully enrolled online rose by nearly 6%.
Yet virtual services for online learners have lagged at most colleges and universities, experts say.

Providing support services to students is more than a moral imperative and an accreditation requirement. As numerous studies have shown, retention rates are higher for students who feel engaged and receive necessary support. But while traditional institutions “are aware that online and hybrid students require different services and supports, only those with significant enrollments have made the investments,” says Carla Hickman, executive director of research with EAB, an education research firm.

Departments or colleges within a university that were early adopters of online programs, such as professional studies, also tend to lead their peers in providing virtual support services, she adds.

Here are five best practices on how to plan and deliver supports.

1. Align goals and services

Administrators looking to provide meaningful virtual student support while getting a return on their investment need to start with a strategy, says Kim Scalzo, executive director of Open SUNY, The State University of New York’s systemwide collaboration that allows students to take courses online and work toward degrees offered at the 64 SUNY campuses.

After SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson began her tenure in 2017, she emphasized online learning as a vehicle to lifelong learning, causing Open SUNY to evolve to better serve that audience, Scalzo says.

Another institution’s strategy may be to offer more online courses to address a bottleneck faced by existing students seeking high-demand classes. Or maybe online course enrollments are needed to supplement on-campus enrollment declines, or the goal is to reach adult learners around the globe.

Having a strategy in place will make it easier to align resources, policy and infrastructure. “The president and other campus leaders need to be clear on the strategy for online students,” Scalzo says. “Make sure that policies are enabling your strategy and are not a barrier to your strategy.”

The motivation for expanding online course offerings will shape the investment being made in virtual services. For example, if administrators are committed to growing enrollment, they will need to invest in new professional staff.

“You’ll need to add to your advising staff, peer mentors and technology to ensure students have a positive experience,” says Hickman, of EAB. But costs shouldn’t outpace enrollment results or success.

In addition, institutions adding online courses because they’re losing money on traditional enrollment will fail their students if they approach virtual learners as a cash cow, experts say.

2. Develop and test supports

Ideas about virtual supports can come from an analysis of what competitors are offering as well as from a look at what it will take to meet the institution’s goals, says Victoria Brown, a former leader of Florida Atlantic University’s e-learning program.

To start, however, the support delivery platform must be strong enough to provide classes, counseling, academic support, video chat and other services in a user-friendly way.

Several higher ed leaders say they have switched from other platforms to Zoom because it’s simple and the free version meets needs.

Online learners, who tend to be pressed for time, will have little patience for support system glitches. Darcie Anderson Mueller, academic advisor at Winona State University in Minnesota, suggests running practice sessions for staff before launching an online support system.

4 ideas for supporting online students

1. Ask students to serve as virtual peer mentors. At Washington State University, faculty recommend that high-performing students log in to and pose questions on the class portal twice per day and navigate the learning management system. Those students can encourage peers to actively participate in discussion posts, provide tips for success in a virtual classroom, and connect peers with resources for academic support. If a student stops participating, the professor is notified and can follow up.

2. Create a one-stop portal for online students. Florida Atlantic University’s portal for this population, found on the pages for online courses, lists all the support services available, with links for easy access. SUNY has a similar website.

3. Partner up to provide after-hours help. To provide library services when the campus library is closed, Troy University in Alabama contracts with a library science master’s degree program at a university in Hawaii. Students in that program support Troy’s online students.

4. Offer an online learner-specific orientation. New online students and existing students who are reenrolling are notified about Drexel University’s online orientation, which introduces the array of student services available, from counseling to career advising. Data analysis shows many students review the orientation content two or three times.

At Winona State, Mueller and her colleagues received a grant to develop an online student advising program for the 10% to 15% of students who are distance learners. They discovered that traditional students accessed the services, too, when they weren’t on campus. Students could hold virtual meetings with their advisors for advice on course selection, changing majors, returning after a leave of absence, or putting together a transfer plan.

Regardless of whether supports involve advising or other areas, administrators should keep in mind that students who are most at risk of dropping out are the least likely to ask for help, says EAB’s Hickman. So part of developing supports is ensuring students can easily find an answer when they have a question—either through a person, an online tutorial or a chatbot that sends them to the right office.

Online support services can be as good or better than in-person support since they’re available anytime, anywhere, Mueller says.

3. Be strategic about communication

Each spring, Winona State’s online advising team collects the names of all students enrolled in online summer courses. Mueller’s office notifies those students through multiple channels that the online advising program is there to answer questions about summer financial aid, to provide academic support or to address any other student needs.

It’s one example of how administrators are being strategic about getting the word out about services and supports.

Online information, Hickman says, should be presented as text and through mini videos or tutorials. It’s also wise to ask students how they want to be contacted, and then honor their preferences.

Adult learners tend to like email, but many students, both traditional and virtual, will gladly grant their school permission to text, especially with deadline reminders, says Hickman.

Online transcript review tools can help students determine how many of their prior credits will transfer. Let online learners know about additional fees they may face or a waiver of fees they won’t be charged because they’re not on campus, says Hickman.

4. Determine how to staff the services

Some staff members accustomed to 9-to-5 jobs may resist the thought of starting early, working late or working from home during campus breaks to provide mental health, academic or career support to distance learners. But administrators have found that asking for volunteers usually results in finding a few staff willing to work flextime.

As Brown was launching support services for Florida Atlantic’s virtual students, she started by asking department heads for permission to talk with their teams. Once Brown got buy-in from some units, she found that others followed.

In meetings, she gave options, saying the university could provide the services to distance learners or hire third-party contractors. Even though it meant working with new technology and learning new skills, staffers looked around the table and said, “Those students are ours. We should be doing it,” Brown recalls.

Resources for online student supports and services

To learn more about online learning trends and student supports, see:

“Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United States,” Babson Survey Research Group, 2018

“Quality Scorecard for Online Student Support,” Online Learning Consortium

Quality Matters, formed by colleagues from MarylandOnline, Inc., to address the quality of online education

5. Strive to meet the needs of your 
institution’s online students

It’s easier to convince staff to work from home or outside normal business hours if they understand who their students are, where they’re located and why they’re working toward a degree, says Susan Aldridge, past president and advisor of Philadelphia-based Drexel University Online. “The support systems need to be available to students in their time zone. It doesn’t help the retention rate if students are not able to access support.”

Student tech support should be available 24/7, even if it means contracting with a third party or providing self-service from the website, she adds.

Virtual career services are also important to online learners, who are typically enrolled because the degree is important for career advancement. They can’t attend career fairs or study abroad for a semester. The website for Drexel’s career services office provides text and video advice on résumés, interviewing, networking, goal setting and personal branding. The university also offers 10-day or two-week study abroad options that online learners can take between semesters.

Since veterans and active-duty military members comprise a chunk of Drexel’s distance learner population, veterans are paid to serve as advisors and enrollment counselors to address that population’s unique needs, Aldridge adds.

Also read: Reaping the benefits of online student associations and clubs at Saint Leo U

Being able to recognize when students need assistance is another key piece of supporting online learners.

Aldridge’s office worked with the campus counseling center to create video-based training for faculty on how to identify someone in crisis and when to refer them for support. The counseling center compiled a list of mental health resources available by phone in every state, since clinicians can only provide counseling to someone physically located in the state where they’re licensed.

Brown, from Florida Atlantic, says it’s important to remember that online students deserve support as much as any in-person student does. “You’re taking their money for these services. These students are already stressed. They really need to have support services.”

Theresa Sullivan Barger is a Connecticut-based writer.

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