Transformative Practice: Student Affairs and the Online Learner

Thoughts on staffing, inclusive language, cross-campus collaboration, communications, and digital engagement

May 23, 2019

“Accrediting bodies have been concerned with student services for online students for some time, and a very simple tenet to follow is that whatever student services are offered for on-campus students should be offered in an equitable fashion for online students.” – Kayla L. Westra

This week I had the opportunity to discuss how student affairs departments/divisions can support online learners with a room full of chief student affairs officers (CSAOs).

Facilitating the conversation, I started out with a brief slide deck with ideas on how student affairs can support students who may never physically be present on campus. We then delved into issues, concerns, and opportunities for digital engagement and success.

Organizational Structure / Funding / FTE

The biggest challenge seemed to be about resources/funding. For most student affairs divisions (some of them are literally 100% focused on “campus life”) the organizational structure is mostly predicated on serving on-campus students.

With the proliferation of online/distance learning programs, supporting online learners has become a rather fragmented patchwork of various departments taking on that particular responsibility.

However, as one CSAO opined, students (online or on-campus) deserve the same levels of support and engagement, regardless of where they are.

One opportunity that seems like such an easy win for student affairs divisions is to work towards adding more FTE to their staffing levels by way of tapping into the additional funding that comes from online learners. As most institutions see online learning as an instrumental way of building up enrollment, it makes sense that student affairs departmental budgets would increase in line with serving distant learner populations.

Just as OPM providers have specialized staff in place to support online learners, student affairs divisions at traditional brick-and-mortar-based institutions should work towards the creation of positions that are devoted to serving the unique needs of these students.

At the moment, a quick look at a variety of online education programs in higher education shows that a lot of institutions are linking online learners back to traditional campus-based departments for support. Whether or not that remains enough to ensure student success, retention, and completion is another story.

Collaboration and Intentional Coordination

The needs of online learners are vastly different than their on-campus peers. Online learners don't get to interact with people and places in physical environments. Hence, the student experience hinges on a variety of campus departments working in unison to provide services that are lot more joined up and readily available in easily accessible digital spaces.

An online learner needs to be able to access support across a wide swath of time zones and technologies. Specialized student affairs staff that support online students will need to coordinate with a variety of campus departments including but not limited to: academic advising, libraries, registrars office, orientation/FYE, counseling/wellness, instructional design, information technology, career services, internal communications, financial aid, student involvement/activities/leadership and alumni affairs.

Inclusive Language

While it's tremendous that plenty of student affairs divisions/staff are using social media for digital engagement, the odds are that the messaging for on-campus students will be quite different than for online students.

Segmented messaging is the best bet for reaching online students with information that is pertinent to their experience. Instead of asking them to come to a hall/building, offering up Zoom (or similar) sessions so that they can participate is crucial to fostering a sense of community within a distance-based population.

While most student affairs staffers didn't enter the profession thinking they would be engaged in strategic communications, it's a necessary skill. With email still being used as one of the principle means of institutional communication, using specific email lists (as well as email management systems like Constant Contact or Mailchimp) for online learners will make for messages that are relevant, timely, focused, and measureable.

Digital Engagement

Student affairs staff will need to ensure that online learners are engaged via a variety of digital channels including email, social media, LMS discussion threads, and SIS portals. If this is starting to sound like a full time job, please refer back to the organizational structure section...because the requirements built into comprehensive digital engagement initiatives are no small feat.

Student affairs administrators need to thrive, lead, and experiment with digital channels so that online learners are as genuinely supported as their on-campus peers.

A unique blend of digital platforms, built off of a student affairs division's strategic engagement plan, will ensure that online students are connected, supported, and retained.

Professional Standards

Fortunately for student affairs, the profession has created a technology competency that includes language around supporting online learners. It's something that might not yet be as prominent as it could be, but it does provide some direction for how student affairs can (and should) support online learners.



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