Student demand for online learning has risen, bucking national enrollment trends for in-person education. However, equity gaps can exist in online learning for minority students, making student support critical to academic success and completion.
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock hosts a regular webinar providing students with success tips for online learning and connecting them with support staff who can help them throughout their time as a student. The event has seen high levels of student participation and benefits learners of all modalities prior to the start of the term.
The background: During remote instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic, UA Little Rock educators wanted to better support students who might be unfamiliar with online learning, as well as connect incoming students with the variety of services available to them online.
Sherry Robertson, associate vice chancellor of student success and online education, initiated the event, partnering with the e-learning office and faculty members to brainstorm solutions. The Virtual Student Success Fest first launched in fall 2020 and has run prior to each semester since.
“The idea was to give students the tools and to give them access to the resources and give them tips for being successful online students,” says Sharonda Lipscomb, director of online learning. “But also to give them faces with names for campus resources that are available to them as online students or being in the virtual environment.”
The event: E-learning hosts two synchronous, two-hour success webinars each semester over Zoom with identical formats and speakers. Students across the university can participate in the webinar, whether in a graduate or undergraduate program, in person or entirely remote.
The event features around eight speakers who give 10-minute presentations. The Virtual Student Success Fest opens with an address from Lipscomb, followed by practical tips on online learning from Professor Daryl Tate.
Then representatives from the student care team, the Learning Commons (which houses the communication skills, mathematics assistance, writing and tutoring centers, which provide remote and in-person services) and TRIO highlight their work.
Two faculty members also speak, one about academic integrity and copyright and the other on how to be successful in an online math course.
To conclude the event, student ambassadors lead an “ask me anything” session, answering participants’ questions about college life. In the past, ambassadors have addressed how to contact an instructor with an issue, how to create a study group and (for those who aren’t fully remote) what the food is like on campus.
“We had one of our student ambassadors … talk about how it was to be an athlete, to take classes on campus but then shift to online and what she did to be successful as an online student,” Lipscomb says.
UA Little Rock also hosts a Blackboard Student Support session prior to the term’s start, getting students familiar with using the LMS to find assignments.
Staff incentivize student participation by giving out prizes throughout the webinar. One lucky participant wins a laptop as the grand prize, but others win smaller swag bags that they can pick up on campus or have mailed to their home address.
Staying flexible: The webinar format is designed to mirror an online class, so the event is broken into 45-minute chunks, with a five-minute brain break in between to give participants a chance to step away from the computer like they would have in a typical course, Lipscomb says.
Sometimes the staff experiences technical issues, which could also come up in class, so the e-learning office shares what to do in the event of a mishap or error.
All students who register for the event are also added to a Blackboard “course” that houses links to all the featured services, a link to rewatch the webinar and other helpful tips to succeed in college.
Finding what works: University officials collect student feedback with a questionnaire after the event, which show students feel more prepared to start classes and they are more aware of available resources, Lipscomb says.
Most participants are first-year students or those taking an online class for the first time, but some students are later into their college career and just want to know what else is available to them.
The student ambassador section of the webinar is the most popular, but most students stay for the entire webinar, which Lipscomb attributes to the prizes scattered throughout the session.
Lipscomb doesn’t see a future without the Virtual Success Event, because it has been such a success, but each year leaders look to make it a little shorter and more pointed to ensure it’s serving students in the best way.
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