For face-to-face students, orientation facilitates relationships, introduces campus surroundings and previews the upcoming academic and extracurricular experience. Learners taking online courses – and who may never step foot on campus – have different needs. Some have never taken an online class. Others haven’t been in a learning environment for years or even decades. Some need some help refining their self-discipline and time management skills.
Institutions have adopted a wide range of approaches to welcoming and situating their online students as well as setting them up for academic success. Some programs begin with a course that prepares participants for the rigors they’ll soon face. Other institutions prioritize a face-to-face orientation experience that they say lays a foundation for a successful online experience. And the particulars of these introductory efforts are always being fine-tuned.
“Often we find people don’t know what they need until they need it,” said Sharon Goldstein, campus operating officer for the online campus at Berkeley College in New York City. “What we’re hoping is that if a student runs into challenge, something goes off in their head, ‘I think I remember hearing at orientation that there is something.’”
Online Through and Through
Other institutions take the position that online students gain the most from an orientation that mimics or foreshadows their courses. None of the below orientation examples are mandatory, though each institution strongly encourages its students to enroll.
At the fully-online Excelsior College, students can take a webinar that walks them through the process of navigating the online experience and prepares them for the differences between their prior face-to-face experiences and what they’ve signed up for.
“Online learning is different than the traditional brick-and-mortar [experience]. It’s like learning to drive over again, or learning to write with [the other] hand,” said Kristin Carknard, an academic adviser in Excelsior’s student success center. “We’re helping students navigate … figure out what buttons to click, where to go, who to ask for help.”
The synchronous webinar originated a couple years ago in the business school, and has since spread to other schools within the college.
Tinkering is still underway. Last week for the first time, online students were offered the webinar on their third day of class during the lunch hour, rather than on the first day between 7 and 8 p.m. Eastern time. Attendance was significantly higher, as more students had begun their coursework and run into issues, according to Terry Brown, Excelsior’s senior director for special population services.
The duration of online orientation offerings varies widely. Western Governors University – an institution that only offers online programs and that has 80,000 students -- presents orientation in eight two-hour sessions, according to Jason Levin, the university’s vice president of institutional research.
That course not only includes practical advice, but also includes exercises in mindfulness and meditation that could prove useful to students at times of high stress during online coursework, according to Chelsea Barnett, the university’s project manager for institutional research.
Liberty University, meanwhile, presents orientation in an eight-week, three-credit format that focuses on a “metacognitive approach,” urging students to think critically about how they’ll approach their online educational experience. Students in those courses tend to run the gamut from those in their 20s with recent higher education experience to far older students, according to Ben Gutierrez, co-provost and vice president for academic affairs at Liberty, which has one of the largest online enrollments in the U.S.
Berkeley College has had some form of online student orientation for the two decades that its online programs have existed. The current module is an “interactive experience” in which Goldstein and Amy Castillo, assistant dean for the online campus, appear as flight attendants guiding students on an airplane journey that makes “stops” at different categories of information, including financial literacy, student development and “campus” life, student accounts and library.
The “in-flight movie” is the student handbook, and the final destination is graduation, where students can watch a video of the commencement ceremony they’ll one day attend.
Goldstein and Castillo introduced this semester the interactive component, which might stick around if it proves appealing and effective for students. As of now, between 70 and 80 percent of online students start the orientation course; the two want those numbers to be even higher.
Driving Student Interest and Collecting Returns
A similar goal is driving efforts at Arizona State University, where 70 percent of online undergraduate students take the seven-day orientation “seminar” but only 50 percent make it to the end, according to Ryan Chase, assistant vice president for EdPlus at ASU, another leader in online enrollments. EdPlus is an arm of the university that houses its technological efforts.
Slightly different versions are available for participants in the university’s partnership with Starbucks, face-to-face undergraduate students and military members. Arizona State also recently introduced an option for self-enrollment in the orientation course separate from registration for the overall online program, an option that allows more scheduling flexibility for students who want to roll right from orientation to their regular coursework.
In the future, Chase said his team might pare back the “meaty” requirements of the orientation course and find ways to offer that material at other points in the admissions and onboarding process. A separate course for graduate students is also in the works.
“I believe that providing a compelling orientation offering and weaving it in to a cohesive student journey as I mentioned is really the way we want to move this forward," Chase said.
Even as some institutions grapple with the best way to reach a collection of students with disparate backgrounds, needs and interests, many agree that orientation programs boost students’ chances for success.
Excelsior has found that credit activity is “substantially higher” and course withdrawal rates are “significantly lower” among those who receive orientation and coaching, according to a spokesperson for the college.
At WGU, students who take orientation are far more likely to complete full-time credits within a term. Arizona State has observed that students who complete orientation end up with an average of .3 grade points higher than their peers who skip orientation, and students who enroll in orientation also have a higher rate of persistence throughout the program, according to Chase.
In at least one case, students are exposed to orientation online whether they choose it or not. At Southern New Hampshire University, one of the nation’s leading institutions in online enrollment, students are automatically enrolled in orientation upon completing registration, though they can choose to skip it.
The self-paced exercises take some students as few as 8 to 10 hours or as many as 40 hours, according to Matt Belanger, assistant vice president of academic operations and first year experience.
This institution has only offered orientation for two years, Belanger said. Though it’s optional right now, Southern New Hampshire might require it as an experiment in upcoming semesters.
Starting On Ground
When students enroll in the Fox School of Business online master’s of business administration program at Temple University, they’re signing up for a little more than just a few months alone at their desk on their own time. The first semester kicks off with a weeklong residency at the university’s Philadelphia campus, during which students experience professional development, technology training, networking opportunities and icebreakers.
The program was designed in part to welcome online students into the Temple fold, just as they would face-to-face students, according to Darin Kapanjie, academic director for Temple’s online MBA and online bachelor’s of business administration, and an associate professor of statistical science.
“They are not ‘student 17654 on the internet,’ ” Kapanjie said. “They’re part of the Fox family.”
Kapanjie has heard from students who describe the residency as the place where they make friends and acquaintances who stay with them throughout the online program.
There’s also a pragmatic component: Technical issues are easier to work out in person than remotely. Students participate in a Cisco WebEx training session as a group, reducing the risk of hiccups in the future.
Attending the residency is mandatory for the online MBA program’s students, but the requirement is flexible — if students can’t attend the residency, they must have a one-on-one orientation with a staff member at some point early on in the program.
Early on in the program, which began in 2009, that substitute wasn’t required as a replacement for missing the residency.. But enough students told the university that they got more out of the program when they started out in person that the requirements grew stricter, Kapanjie said.
For undergraduate online students, Temple offers a less elaborate orientation, delivered entirely online with a more personalized approach in which an adviser helps students lay out their course schedule based on their needs and interests. In many cases, the undergraduates are in their mid-30s with an incomplete academic track record that requires individual attention, Kapanjie said.
Gutierrez from Liberty thinks the next big shift in online orientation could be on the horizon. If students grow weary of separate orientation courses, materials from those experiences could end up in introductory courses for individual disciplines, he said.
But he isn’t sounding the death knell for online orientation yet. His university urges professors who teach online to continue the work of the orientation course by taking active steps to ensure student success. Flexibility is key, he said.
“If you apply it to the students that need it, want it, you’re going to have very successful outcomes,” Gutierrez said. “To apply it to everybody can be counterproductive and even a deterrent to them pursuing their education.”