Bringing Student Affairs Online

Right now, institutions are feverishly trying to transition from the remote emergency teaching of this spring to high-quality online education that’s ready for fall. Our student affairs departments need to be similarly scrambling to do the same on the student support side.

Dr. Brian Bourke, Associate Professor of Postsecondary Education Administration at Murray State University, joins the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss.

Learning from Higher Ed’s History During Rapid Change

In the context of online education, it’s almost as though we returned to the 19th century where the student experience is fully centered on the interaction with faculty in the class. In the 19th century, we didn’t have robust student services. 

Now we have entire divisions of student affairs, and mental health services, and all these other pieces to help students attend to both their academic needs and the growth that they experience outside of the class.

In online learning, however, students are genuinely experiencing the institution through the class but often not through those other pieces. And that’s no fault of the student, but there aren’t a lot of institutions that have developed a student affairs piece for online students comparable to what’s available on campus.

Expanding the Service Window of Student Affairs

Online students often juggle a number of different responsibilities in their lives. They are more likely to work full time, hold a second job, manage family responsibilities, and more. So visiting an office during standard operating hours doesn’t work for them. 

Unfortunately, a lot of institutions structure student services around personal contact. In order to better serve and better connect asynchronous learners to the breadth of student affairs services and opportunities, therefore, we really do have to look critically at operating hours and availability for students to make that connection.

We also need to ask ourselves: What are the opportunities for them to connect with peers and not just programs? Often, student affairs professionals assume that faculty members know how to facilitate informal connections between students within their online class.

 But they may not know as much as we assume. Consider that faculty in American higher education probably have not been trained how to teach. They are experts in their field, yes, and many of them are excellent teachers, but they’ve come to be that just through reflections and adaptations on their own experiences as students. 

This means that there’s an opportunity for student affairs folks to reach out to faculty and offer advice on how to provide a space for students to engage. A faculty member might create a student discussion forum, for example. But that’s still course-based, and we need to move beyond that. 

We have to think about the virtual or digital spaces where students are connecting, too. Are they connecting on Facebook or another social media platform? Can we help facilitate some of those connections between students? Why not use Zoom or another web conferencing platform that the institution already relies on for instruction? What can the institution do to create a space within an existing platform? 

“I really don’t think it’s about creating platforms that are institution specific,” Brian said. “It’s about utilizing the tools and leveraging those tools because there’s so many things that student affairs folks can do now.”

Next-Steps Advice for Bringing Student Affairs Online

The starting point is having conversations. As institutions are crafting their plans for reopening or for a transitional period, there are a lot of similarities in what some of the governors are suggesting for reopening. Of course, those all follow the broad guidelines from the White House and the CDC. 

But as those conversations are taking place, make sure that there’s representation from student affairs and also representation from students themselves. There should be a student voice in all of this planning. 

“And I would remind folks that faculty generally, in my experience, don’t even know what student affairs is,” Brian said. “Let’s say that somebody is an astronomy professor and as an undergraduate, maybe they lived in the residence hall, but they spent their time in the astronomy lab. And they spent their time really studying and developing a love for that field, went on to get a PhD, and now they’re a faculty member. If they had interactions with the student affairs side of the house, they may not have realized it.”

As a result, faculty aren’t going to reach out to student affairs if they don’t know what those people do. So student affairs folks have to be very mindful of that reality and reach out to faculty. Let them know, “Hey, here’s what I do. And here’s how being able to offer connections for students between each other and other facets of the institution, how those things ultimately have the potential to impact student learning within the class.” 

Make sure that it’s not just about, “Hey, we’re the people that put on the big shaving cream party on the quad last week.” Instead, emphasize that we do important work. 


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Brian Bourke from Murray State University. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.