How one coaching program connects leaders to students in a lonely world

The rise of online learning has helped increase students' access to college and university degrees but advances toward equitable access are being counterbalanced by a lack of human connection, argues one higher ed leader.

Colleges and universities wishing to combat an epidemic of loneliness sprouting from increased online learning modalities are working to recapture the power of human connection by equipping more faculty with coaching certificates in social-emotion support.

The rise of online learning has helped increase students’ access to college and university degrees, but its advances toward equitable access are being counterbalanced by their lack of human connection, Errin Heyman, associate vice president of learner experience at National University, wrote in a recent University Business column.

“In its current, most prominent forms, online learning has struggled to replicate the rich social interactions more easily found in traditional educational settings,” Heyman writes. “Students are left feeling disconnected not only from their peers and instructors but also from the learning material itself.”

Students who cannot overcome their loneliness are at an increased risk of suffering depression and anxiety and are less likely to engage and persist, Heyman added.

Campus mental health services may not be enough to combat this trend. More than half of instructors, staff and administrators recently surveyed by Uwill, a prominent higher education teletherapy provider, noted a lack of services tailored for online learners and their helplessness to support. Of the 338 participating staff, over a third felt inadequately or very inadequately trained to recognize and respond to their students’ mental health issues. However, eight in 10 expressed a deep interest in gaining additional training to help support them.

Western Governors University has begun offering in-house coaching certificate programs to student-facing faculty members at no cost to enhance their ability to provide a personalized student experience. The WGU Coach program, which launched last year, is expected to produce over 80 credentialed coaches, and the university is hiring more instructors to match demand, says Jennie Sanders, vice president of instruction at WGU in partnership with WGU’s People and Talent Department. WGU Coach is accredited through the International Coaching Federation.

Except for WGU’s Teachers College and nursing programs, academic programs at the private nonprofit operate entirely virtually and follow an online competency-based learning model.

Casey Clark, vice president and dean of faculty administration at the WGU School of Business recently earned his certification. While the 500 program mentors he oversees already tackle student loneliness by engaging with undergraduates and postgraduates through their academic journey, Clark believes WGU Coach has made him a better leader by expanding his ability to listen, thus strengthening his relationship with others.

“It’s pouring into the people that are pouring into the students,” Clark says. “What they need is someone to listen and ask the right question and not make it about the listener.”

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Sanders believes the essential nugget of WGU Coach is that it dives deep into the social and emotional aspects of learning, far beyond simple knowledge accrual. It taps into understanding one’s behavior, forcing aspiring coaches to dissect their self-narratives and discover where their challenges in becoming better leaders stem from.

“Especially during times of disruption and change happening right now, it’s especially important that folks are trained in a skill set that helps themselves and others move through change and transformation in a way that leverages their agency and helps them feel more proactive and empowered,” Sanders says.

Students entering WGU most often struggle with “bouncing back” after being humbled by an assessment and balancing school with work and family, Clark says. The median age of students at WGU, a predominantly online serving institution, is 33, and nearly 80% are working while enrolled, resembling online student profiles on a national scale. However, he noted an increasing need to build connections with students in an increasingly digitized world.

“As the world becomes more artificial, conversations become even more important with trusted sources,” he says. “The ability to connect with another human to bounce ideas off of is going to become even more important when an increasing percent of the internet is auto-generated.”

The International Coaching Federation has over 50,000-plus members located across more than 150 countries. Rice University, Emory University, Rutgers University and others offer federation-accredited programs to students and staff alike. However, WGU is keeping its certificate focused on its staff, who—along with their students—work across a computer monitor.

“We’re a distributed workforce; we’re working mostly virtually,” Sanders says. “The opportunity to have this program is pretty powerful.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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