Online, but not alone off-campus

Seven keys to top-notch remote academic support services
By: | Issue: June, 2014
May 22, 2014

When it comes to online education, careful course development is hardly the only piece needed for successful student outcomes.

“Some institutions, eager to jump in the field, think once they’ve developed their online courses, they are set to launch,” says Jacqueline Moloney, executive vice chancellor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. “But many neglect to prepare their institutions to support online students with services customized to their needs.”

As of 2012, when Babson Survey Research Group asked 2,800 academic leaders about current enrollment patterns, nearly one-third of all students were taking at least one online course.

Yet, experts say, effective support services meeting the specific needs of distance learners are too often lacking.

“Unfortunately, this is an area that has evolved slowly on most campuses,” says Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

He has noticed two distinct silos on campus. One set of departments caters to traditional learners with a full suite of academic and student affairs support; the other serves online students with far fewer options.

Colleges without long-time experience in distance learning may be far more likely to overlook the importance of adequate support services. Just how can these needs be met? Here are seven ways to provide exceptional support for online students.

1. Create robust orientation programs.

Orienting new students to the institution and online learning is essential, says Heather Chakiris, director of advising and learner success for Penn State World Campus. “This is the opportunity to teach them where to go for help and to reinforce the behaviors that will help them to succeed online.”

Creating a culture of support

Denise Evans is the director of client relations and quality assurance for student support services and advising at Lone Star College-Online, based in Houston. She suggests the following steps in supporting online students:

  • Research and identify who your institution’s online students are and what their needs are.
  • Educate your colleagues about online learning and the need to consider differences in this mode of delivery when dealing with policies, business processes and technology choices.
  • Educate faculty about the needs of online students and assist them in meeting those needs. 
  • Educate faculty about best practices for creating and delivering online courses.
  • Ensure that faculty and staff collaborate to find innovative ways to teach online students to be self-directed learners for life.

Penn State students can attend webinars or review an orientation website. Strategies for succeeding online, dealing with registration and other university procedures, and taking placement tests are among the topics.

At the University of Central Florida, a three-part virtual orientation helps students get off to a good start, says Tom Cavanagh, associate vice president for distributed learning. Dubbed “Knights Online,” students get advice from experienced online learners and overviews of courses from instructors. Students also are shown how to use the university’s learning management system.

2. Provide timely responses.

Because distance learners do course work outside of traditional class times, extended hours for responding to student inquiries are essential. That means, at a minimum, investing in the necessary staff resources.

Most distance learners are 25 or older, with jobs and families, says Stacey Ludwig Johnson, associate provost for academic services at the online-only institution Western Governors University. Often, the only time they can study is on weekends, evenings or very early in the morning.

“Despite these hours, making real connections with them is vital to their success,” she says.

Relying solely on email doesn’t provide the human touch students need to stay engaged. For problems ranging from posting assignments to obtaining textbooks, students need easy access to staff. At her institution, staff are available from 6 a.m. to midnight, Monday through Friday, and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

3. Train academic advisors well.

Unlike traditional students, distance learners can’t drop into a campus office to chat about choosing courses or majors. Yet a workable substitute is a must. At UMass Lowell, online students have a range of options for advising sessions: in-person, online chat, video sessions, phone and email.

“Advisors are trained to respond to the questions that are specific to online students,” Moloney says. “Their goal is to be as flexible and accessible as possible.”

Nancy Walton, director of e-learning at Ryerson University in Toronto, says, “There should be someone at the end of the phone who is knowledgeable and helpful and who can direct students to appropriate resources.” Students need to feel that their unique problem is being addressed. In other words, a general response such as “please check our website” isn’t going to cut it.

For advisors to be effective online, Chakiris says, they need broad-based institutional knowledge. Exceptional phone and writing skills are also important so advisors can effectively communicate empathy and moral support. Proficiency in video-chat technologies—such as Skype and Google Hangout—is also desirable.

4. Offer accessible services.

A study by researchers at Clemson and Lander universities in South Carolina on strategies to engage online learners argued that ready access to support services will help keep distance learners on track. And in an article on learner support services for online students, academic services administrator Stacey Ludwig-Hardman and professor Joanna Dunlap of Western Governors University found such services to be a crucial component in student retention.

Tracking Data

Data on full-time students, including those who sample online courses, may come from any number of sources. But for part-time distance learners, greater focus on gathering relevant information is needed, says Heather Chakiris of Penn State World Campus.

“It’s alarming how few institutions track data on their part-time adult distance learners,” she says.

As a first step, she advises going beyond obtaining demographic information. Institutions should analyze retention and graduation rates, transfer credits, time to complete, and financial aid profiles.

If any parallels can be drawn—such as a correlation between attrition and financial aid status—the data can be used to guide further study and develop action plans.

For additional information, Chakiris suggests surveying students directly to gain a better understanding of the support needed.

At Central Florida, a web page offers key library support resources such as links to databases, a global utility for searching online resources and library staff contact information. There’s also a real-time “ask a librarian” chat function.

“These critical library resources now exist directly within the online learning environment,” Cavanagh says. “The student no longer needs to navigate between the learning management system and the library website.”

Western Governors students can take tests in their homes. Proctors monitor students through special cameras, which are sent to all students upon enrollment. Prior to the system’s implementation in 2010, students had to schedule a trip to a proctoring center two weeks before a test, Johnson says. Now they save driving time and can schedule exams with just a few days of lead time.

5. Organize social experiences.

Some institutions are trying to extend aspects of the traditional campus experience to online students. The thinking: Comprehensive support should go beyond academics to include at least some of the social opportunities afforded traditional students.

UMass Lowell offers study groups where online learners can interact outside of the classroom. A special honors society offers a way to recognize adult students who achieve excellence in their course work, and virtual graduation ceremonies are held annually.

“This is all critical to ensuring our online students have as rich and successful an experience as their counterparts who attend classes on campus,” Moloney says.

6. Help make job connections.

Career planning support also is important, says Kruger. Many campuses have launched virtual platforms that offer anytime access to videos, simulations and information critical to career explorations.

Coaching programs represent another approach, with some colleges developing their own models and others contracting with companies, such as InsideTrack, to offer telephone coaching.

At Drexel University, coaches provide one-on-one mentoring to new online students. While the focus is on helping students balance the demands of school, work and family-life commitments, the coaches also offer tips for developing skills needed for long-term success.

“The deep integration enables us to leverage coaching as a platform for improving the student experience, student outcomes and our operational effectiveness,” says Susan Aldridge, president of Drexel University Online.

7. Incorporate student feedback opportunities.

Another important key for helping to ensure effective academic support for distance learners is to let them express what they need, says Johnson. At Western Governors, surveys complemented by student focus groups give administrators feedback on the complete online experience.

“If we create mechanisms for students to provide feedback and demonstrate that we are listening by responding to the feedback,” she says, “students will provide us with the information we need to serve them better.”

Mark Rowh is a Virginia-based writer.