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Serving Online Learners

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Welcome to the seventh and final post in our blog series about supporting key student populations. This time, we explore how institutions of higher education can better serve online learners. 

According to InsideHigherEd, the number of students taking online classes grew in 2017, despite a decrease in overall postsecondary enrollment. Not only are online degree programs on the rise, in-person programs are also offering more online and hybrid classes for their students. As a result, the Babson Survey Research Group has reported growth in online enrollment for 14 consecutive years, and a third of all college students now take at least one online class.

The 2019 Online Education Trends Report found that 69 percent of these online students are classified as career-minded, which is further broken down into industry switchers, career accelerators, and career starters. For the first time, the majority of these career-minded students identified themselves as career accelerators— interested in an academic credential in their current field or one where they already have practical experience. 

Needless to say, online learners are on a mission. They have a lot to achieve and a lot to balance.

How can we ensure that they have what they need to succeed? In this post, we will explore ways to better serve online learners through academic, student affairs, and other support. 

Academic Support

Online learners need academic support that is both compatible with a virtual environment and tailored specifically to their needs. It isn’t as simple as taking a traditional in-person class and putting everything online. In fact, blended learning expert Caitlin Tucker would argue that the effectiveness of online learning depends entirely on design. According to Tucker, the are four aspects of learning that are critical in this endeavor: content, context, community of practice, and participation. 

Content should be focused on learning the real-life application of information and skills, rather than information retention alone. Context speaks to the material being timely, relevant, and applicable to life— Tucker provides an example of “immersive virtual reality learning” for nursing students. Community of practice encompasses connection, collaboration, and engagement between students. And, finally, you can drive increased participation by tailoring to student interests and passions, which will allow you to secure and sustain their engagement. 

What does this look like in application? Boston College has been successful with their “learning experience design” for online learners by incorporating “animated video modules, interactive dashboards, digital textbooks, gamification, real-world simulation, and a whole lot more, all developed with a learner-first approach to content and delivery.”

In addition to course delivery, services like professor office hours, academic advising, and tech support are critical to academic success and, therefore, need to be adapted for online learners. The Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Washington encourages their faculty to think about how virtual office hours can increase student engagement. In terms of advising, NACADA has outlined the steps you should take to design a sustainable online advising program. They also encourage advisors to build a connection with online learners by using a combination of phone, email, and video communication.  

Additionally, we cannot assume that all students enrolled in an online class will know how to navigate the various aspects of the virtual experience, or that they will reach out for help during business hours, since many are adult learners with full-time jobs. As such, it’s important that tech support is available for them when they need it.

Peer learning programs supported by technology can also help drive success for online learners. Not only do they allow you to extend the services that students have access to but they also introduce an added human connection for students who navigate much of the online learning experience alone.

Student Affairs Support

Of course, we cannot underestimate the impact student services can have on persistence for online students. Robert Udell reminds us that student services “help remote students get through their stressful daily lives” and notes that they may experience more stress than residential students. In fact, research has shown that online learners are more likely to fail or withdraw than students in face-to-face or hybrid courses, making it evident that the personal touch student services can offer is indeed very important.

We talked about some digital health options, like counseling and medical help, in our adult leaners post that can be a good fit for online students as well. In general, virtual support options are important for these virtual learners.

Beyond 12 is a nonprofit organization that provides virtual coaching delivered through texting, Instagram, Snapchat, and phone/video calls. Alex Bernadotte founded Beyond 12 to give more students access to support services, noticing that students who need support the most are least likely to receive the help they need. As a first-generation student herself, Bernadotte had underrepresented groups in mind when she founded the organization, but these types of virtual support systems can help all online learners.

For inspiration on how to make the learning experience more engaging for online students, check out Dustin Ramsdell’s 6 Ways to Help Online Students Find Community and Feel Connected. Online orientations, webinars, and meet-ups are great ways to increase a sense of community among online learners. Meet-ups, in particular, can enable the informal social learning that often results from engagement outside of the classroom. 

We already know that peer-to-peer programs are powerful in helping to acclimate, orient, and guide students along their individual journeys of success. Institutions should focus on building peer helper programs in which relationships are on-going and accessible throughout the year. For online learners, this may involve connecting them with other students who are further along in the program and can help them learn how to navigate the virtual student experience.

Alternatively, you may want to consider connecting online learners with residential students. This can help build their affinity for your campus brand, and increase their feeling of connection by helping them feel included in the school’s community. It can also help drive an equitable experience for online learners through the mirroring of resources that residential students receive.

Other Support

In her piece, Interventions That Work, Rhea Kelly considers five ideas for student success shared at this year’s Annual EDUCAUSE Conference. Two of these, chatbots and proactive advising, are especially relevant for online learners.

Chatbots can help institutions serve more students, especially when short on staff and overwhelmed by student demand. Eric Stoller show us what a chatbot can look like, finding that most people favored their use in the areas of IT support and admissions/recruitment. Stoller believes that chatbots are useful for the “repetitive, non-complex questions” that students ask, noting that they should connect students with a human when questions become more complex and need further attention. 

The idea of “proactive advising” isn’t necessarily new, but its inclusion on the list reminds us that simple solutions often endure for a reason. Not waiting for students to “self-identify as having a problem” because some students “are never coming in” is true of all students, especially online learners who tend to have fewer strong relationships with staff compared to their residential counterparts. As such, you should build more proactive check-points for online learners. 

Financial aid presents another opportunity to better serve this population. According to three years of data collection from Best Colleges, the top two challenges students face when choosing online education are “estimating actual costs” and “applying for financial aid and identifying sufficient funding resources.” Consequently, providing prospective and current students with adequate access to financial services can help to attract and retain them.

Online education is no longer new— it’s an established industry experiencing rapid growth. Check out joinknack.com/colleges to see how you can better serve your online students with Knack. 

This is the seventh and final post in our Supporting Key Student Populations Content Series.