The Neglected Priority: Support Services for Online Learners

The Neglected Priority: Support Services for Online Learners

This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.

I’ve been in higher education for over 20 years and during that time have seen student support services go from being almost an afterthought to being an integral factor in student motivation and learning. But if you are involved with the administration of online education on your campus ask yourself a question — when was the last time you conducted a comprehensive review of the student support services available to online learners at your institution?

Here’s my own answer: In preparation for this article, I contacted the directors of ten units/offices on my campus that are directly involved with supporting students. And the fact is I hadn’t done it for the past couple of years. Needless to say, I learned some things. I learned that some of the units/offices have new directors. I learned that some have initiatives planned specifically for online learners. And I learned that some need to work on providing better access to their services for students not physically located on our campus.

The goal for institutions should be to offer the same quality support services to online learners as are offered to on-campus students. Why is this important?

  • One reason is that studies show strong student support services can positively impact retention and attrition rates. Attrition rates in online courses usually range between 10 and 20 percent higher than face-to-face courses.
  • Also — keep in mind that prospective adult students often find online courses and degree programs attractive because they can continue to work or raise a family while going to school. This is a core reason why interest in online courses continues to grow, while overall enrollment in higher education is plateauing or even decreasing slightly. So what services might your online students who are working full-time and/or raising a family need to help them be successful? When might they want to have access to those services? These are good questions to ask.
  • And remember that providing adequate support to online learners is important for accreditation purposes. Recently I reviewed a document developed by the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC) titled “Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education (On-line Learning).” The guidelines include nine “hallmarks” of quality. Hallmark number seven is “The institution provides effective student and academic services to support students enrolled in on-line learning offerings.” My institution has a regional accreditation site visit and review scheduled in 2016, and I know that we will be required to show that our online learners receive the same support as our on-campus learners.
  • One factor that has been shown to impact retention is whether students have prior experience with online learning. Sometimes students mistakenly believe that online courses are easier and less time consuming than face-to-face courses. This is not true in the vast majority of cases. For this reason, many institutions now focus on providing orientations to new online learners. These may include orientation to the campus, to the learning management system, and to online learning in general (e.g. tips and strategies to be a successful online student), as well as orientations from instructors for individual courses.
  • It is important to include faculty when having discussions about student support services on campus. Many times faculty are the individuals who might first recognize that a student needs help, whether related to tutoring, a disability, or a mental health concern. Research suggests that faculty often don’t refer students when they might need help, and one of the primary reasons for not doing so is a general lack of knowledge of what services are available. Educating faculty in regard to what student support services are available and encouraging them to encourage their students to seek out appropriate services is important.
  • Also, sometimes students don’t know what support services are available to them. One strategy used at my institution for helping communicate this information to students is having faculty include the names and contact information for a variety of student support offices in their online course syllabi. This helps make that information more visible to students.

An item not on the list above because I feel it needs special attention is technology support. This can range from supporting new students who might be having difficulty signing into their university email account, to navigating through the university’s learning management system for the first time, to using technology in online courses.

I think we frequently make the mistake of thinking that our students, often referred to as “digital natives,” are comfortable with any and all technology. Not true! If faculty are using technology in their online courses and having students do things like participate in blogs, wikis and synchronous sessions, or create PowerPoints, Prezi’s, podcasts and videos, then either the faculty member or an IT support desk should be available when students have questions. This can be especially important with adult learners who sometimes have high levels of fear and apprehension when it comes to technology.

So, what types of units/offices/services are we talking about? I’ve already mentioned the importance of orientations; here is a list of some other possibilities. You will likely be able to identify more on your campus:

  • Financial Aid
  • Records & Registration
  • Library
  • University Bookstore
  • Disability Resource Services
  • Career Services
  • Academic Advising Center
  • Office of Student Life
  • Counseling and Testing Center
  • Multicultural Student Services
  • Student Organizations
  • Tutoring Services
  • Available Scholarships & Awards
  • Legal Services

Keep in mind that you may need to create special policies and procedures to support and accommodate online learners. For example, the procedure at UW-La Crosse for dropping a face-to-face course is that students pick up a class-drop form and have that signed by their instructor or advisor, and they turn that in to the Office of Records and Registration. That’s fine for on-campus students, but it didn’t work, for example, when one of my online students in Germany wanted to drop my class. We now have an electronic course-drop procedure for online learners.

Make it A Priority

Online administrators can be very busy people; their duties can range from helping plan and implement new online initiatives to ensuring the quality of existing online courses and degree programs. Workdays can be filled with meetings, generating reports, and dealing with situations that need immediate attention. If it’s been a couple of years since you’ve reached out to the student support services offices on your campus, or if that is something you have never done, I encourage you to add that to your “to-do” list and make it a priority. I’m giving myself a B on my student support services grade, but with a few changes and improvements, I’m hoping to move that up to an A- in the near future!