Upgrading Online Student Services at Florida Atlantic University

All kinds of students enroll in distance education programs. Gone are the days when internet-based education catering only to self-directed, skillful learners.

Today’s online student may care for an aging parent, work, parent children, and manage relationships while going to school. He or she may be at economic risk, a first-generation student, or academically unprepared.

How can universities upgrade their online student services to keep these students succeeding in the classroom and as graduates?

Dr. Victoria Brown, Associate Professor, Former Assistant Provost for eLearning at Florida Atlantic University, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about the missional and enrollment growth importance of upgrading student services for the online learner.

Why are Traditional Student Services Often Inaccessible for the Online Learner?

“We actually have students from all types of learning styles, walks of life, and cultural backgrounds taking our distance learning classes,” Vicky said. “That perception from the very beginning that they were independent learners and not necessarily wanting to reach out to receive support has definitely changed.”

Online students typically work or serve as stay-at-home parents. Some live in other countries. Others are single parents. That means they’re doing their work at different times during the day.

“I’d like to remind people that online students really prefer to take classes face to face,” Vicky explained, “but for whatever reason, something is going on in their life and they need to take the online courses.”

Students often work during the day, care for aging parents, or have responsibilities that limit them from using their mobile devices to call or contact an institution. It may be against their work rules.

“For that reason, we really should have student support services available at the time they’re engaging in those classes, whether it’s in the evening or on weekends,” Vicky said.  “It could be if you’re in a different country even could be in the middle of the night here in the United States.”

Why Increase Your Level of Online Student Services?

Vicky gave us three reasons.

  • Take a look at your population and determine the risk factors. Some populations such as first-generation students may be at a higher risk of dropping out. We need to make sure they’re getting the same support services as a first-generation student would receive on campus. These students need to be successful. And for whatever reason, that success may be driving their improvement and their life and their work.
  • Recognize some students are not as prepared for online learning as they thought. The distance learning experiences they may have had in high school may not have prepared them totally for being online in a university. Maybe they had extra teachers in the class or daily assignments that helped them keep up. University experiences differ from secondary classes, and some students don’t anticipate that change.
  • Students become frustrated as soon as they engage in an issue they can’t resolve. In larger society, we are used to having those resources and information that we want at our fingertips literally at the time that we want them. Imagine if you’re trying to enroll a student and they’re encountering challenges in that process. They are going to give up or move on to someone else who might be more interested in making sure they can get through your enrollment processes.

Quality Scorecard for Online Student Support

This realization led Vicky and the team at Florida Atlantic University to ask two powerful questions: Are we offering the same level of services across the entire system? How can we know for sure that that is happening?

These questions led Vicky to form a student support work group made up of distance learning leaders and student support leaders across the university and college system. That group decided the best way to improve student services was a tool that would assist in the discussion of what student support services should look like at an institution.

“Once that group went through and we developed the quality indicators and what we considered measures of quality, that particular scorecard was then shared with another group we have in Florida,” Vicky said, “the Florida Virtual Distance Learning Council which has also a student support group within that.”

This approach allowed Vicky and her team to comprehensively measure the quality of services within the institution. This is important because most schools believe they offer great online student support. But once you start diving into the scorecard, you realize areas in which you could do better. You see pre-enrollment and post-enrollment gaps in student support.

For instance, access to your advisor doesn’t mean access by email or access by telephone during the day. Are you able to connect with that student at a time convenient for them? You should have a screen available that you can share with your students and allow them to see what you’re doing so they can replicate that on their own screens.

Next-Steps Advice to Improve Your Online Student Support

Download the Online Student Support Scorecard from the Online Learning Consortium. Once you have it, begin socializing the use of the scorecard with various stakeholders and share with them that it’s a tool to determine availability of services.

“Then I would encourage the stakeholders to use the tool to evaluate their units and come back together to discuss strategies for those weak areas that you might find,” Vicky said. “I will share from personal experience that I have found that student support personnel are probably the most creative, the most energetic and the most enthusiastic, and really are very good at knowing how to use social media.”

Ask them to think through the situation and come up with some creative solutions.

This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Victoria Brown from Florida Atlantic 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.