Five Best Practices in Online Student Services

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How to Improve Online Classes

The rise of online education is undeniable. According to one recent study, almost 6 million students (30% of the entire college student body) took at least one online class in 2016 in the United States alone. Add in international students, and the number increases much further.

Naturally, colleges and universities across the world are looking to rise to the occasion. It’s difficult to find a university that doesn’t offer at least one online degree. And yet, many of them struggle to provide students with the same type of support and success preparation as in-person alternatives.

The reasons for that are plentiful. At the same time, much of it can be connected to inadequate online student services. Put simply, providing the same type of support opportunities online as are available on campus is often difficult. It requires entirely different business processes, advisor habits, and even software capabilities.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to achieve. Far from it. Established universities like Penn State and Arizona State have succeeded in offering online education in addition to their famed on-campus offerings. They have realized that caring for the student outside the classroom matters as much as the classwork itself. Here are 5 tips on how to improve online classes that have been used at successful colleges across the country to maximize their online student services.

1) Placing Your Audience at the Center

It’s tempting to make online student services about your capabilities. After all, you can only offer the resources that your budget and staff permits. Still, that kind of inside-out thinking can be dangerous when it comes to online students.

According to U.S. News and World Report, the average online student is a 32-year-old working adult that has already attended college in some capacity. They can attend from anywhere in the world, and even internationally. Naturally, this adult will have very different needs than a full-time freshman just out of high school living on campus.

The key to success is placing your audience at the center of your support efforts. Live support and available hours should be scheduled during times that make sense for them, even if that means evening or weekends. Every service you offer, from counseling to financial aid, should be planned with the audience in mind.

2) Offering Proactive Support Services

When working with on-campus students, professors can catch issues before they become problems. A couple of missed classes or assignments may prompt a follow-up that uncovers deeper-lying academic or personal concerns, which can then be addressed. Online education is much more independent, and therefore more complex.

In many cases, you cannot wait until the student already shows signs of problems. Instead, you have to be proactive. Communicate openly and honestly about all of the online support services your university provides, from the library to career services. Let them know exactly what to do and what steps to take should they need the help, so they can internalize that information before an issue arises.

3) Implementing Cross-Platform Meeting Capabilities

How can your students get in touch with your counselors, advisors, and other support personnel? The most successful online universities make this step as easy as possible. Scheduling meetings should be simple, and done with a few clicks. The software should allow for anything from chats to video conversations, depending on the urgency and topic.

Just as importantly, your students should be able to access these meetings across platforms. Asking a question on an iPad should be just as simple as researching library databases on a smartphone or getting resume advice on a laptop. The more the support capabilities stretch boundaries, the more easily you’ll be able to provide services that all of your online students can access.

Getting to that point requires both the right platform and human commitment. Questions should be answered quickly whenever possible, while scheduling meetings requires both updated calendars and intuitive software. When you get there, virtual meetings and conversations become a core communication tool for all of your online students.

4) Closing Gaps in the Support System Infrastructure

Even the best efforts, taking into account all of the above points, may not quite reach the support opportunities that your on-campus students experience. Make it your goal to identify where these gaps are, what students care about most, and how you can close them over time.

For instance, you may find that library services are only available from your on-campus networks. How can you work with IT to close that gap? Does your career center offer its services online as well as in-person? And, most importantly, do students care if it doesn’t?

These questions can be complex, but that doesn’t make them less important. Identifying gaps can be achieved through online surveys, user testing, and other research methods. Closing them, on the other hand, requires close cooperation with a number of departments on campus.

5) Tracking Student Success Holistically

Finally, and as is the case for any strategic initiative, measurement and assessment play a core role in improving your online student support infrastructure. Simply put, you have to make sure that your efforts don’t just make sense in theory, but actually carry tangible benefits for your students in practice.

The above-mentioned online surveys can help in that regard. Make sure that after support experience is followed by a brief questionnaire that asks about satisfaction and improvement capabilities. Then, follow up on these suggestions for a better experience over time.

But it doesn’t end there. You only know that your support system truly works if you track student success holistically. Look for software that doesn’t just allows you to schedule meetings, but helps you track how students are actually taking advantage of these meetings. Of course, this type of platform has to ensure student privacy by following FERPA and HIPAA regulations.

Success in offering online classes depends on more than just uploading some learning modules and a syllabus. Your enrolled students expect the same type of support as their on-campus counterparts. Getting there is not easy, but definitely possible. The above best practices help you outline a strategy designed for long-term student success.

Tracy Gorham

Tracy Gorham

CEO & Founder at ConexED
Tracy Gorham is the founder of Cranium Cafe, a WebRTC EdTech company that democratizes student engagement regardless of ability or location and instantly connects students with their academic support team with one-click. Tracy is a serial entrepreneur, starting her first hi-tech photo simulations company at 24 years old. Tracy has extensive experience in building new technologies and teams that create and inspire innovation. She is an alumni of Westminster College and is inspired everyday by the students who use her software to achieve their academic goals.
Tracy Gorham

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About the author: Tracy Gorham
Tracy Gorham is the founder of Cranium Cafe, a WebRTC EdTech company that democratizes student engagement regardless of ability or location and instantly connects students with their academic support team with one-click. Tracy is a serial entrepreneur, starting her first hi-tech photo simulations company at 24 years old. Tracy has extensive experience in building new technologies and teams that create and inspire innovation. She is an alumni of Westminster College and is inspired everyday by the students who use her software to achieve their academic goals.