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5 Ways to Engage and Support Students Online During COVID-19 and Beyond

April 7, 2020 Stephanie Smith Budhai

Current events have spurred colleges and universities to increase their capacity to provide student services online. While faculty move expeditiously to transition course content online, student affairs professionals must think of creative ways to support, engage, and nurture students through their virtual college experience. 

It can be a daunting task to move student services and programs online, but it is not impossible. In fact, engaging online learners through the multitude of student affairs functional areas offers the opportunity for practitioners to be innovative and creative while expanding their reach. 

1. Ensure Continuity of Programs and Services

The first question asked is usually: How do I get started? My answer: Continue offering the same services and programs you would have offered to on-campus students. At this time, in particular, enough events have already been canceled for students. Continuity in students’ college experience is needed. If you are concerned you cannot offer services and programs online because there is a physical requirement to be there in person, think about how you can put a twist on already planned events or develop new events that would engage learners who already take all of their courses online. 


2. Host Virtual Career Services

Seniors are currently preparing to graduate and secure positions in their fields of study. Instead of holding a spring job fair on campus, you can hold it virtually using breakout rooms where students can meet individually with employers. In the real world, video interviews are becoming increasingly popular, and having this type of experience will provide practice for students to hone their virtual interview skills. To help students prepare for their interviews, offer virtual mock interview sessions where students meet online with a representative from the institution’s career center to practice interviewing skills. A shared Google doc can be used to conduct live résumé and cover letter critiques with students. 


3. Offer Virtual Registration Services

It is the spring term and time to register for fall courses. Instead of meeting with your advisees in person, schedule one-on-one meetings with them using a video and/or audio meeting feature within your institution’s learning management system (LMS), or use other applications your institution already has a license for such as Zoom. You could even meet with students on Facetime if you both have access to an Apple device or Google Duo for Android-compatible devices. Develop a screencast using a tool like Screencast-O-Matic to walk students through the online registration process where they will see the full schedule, course offerings, and how to select courses.


4. Provide Mental Health and Well-Being Services from a Distance

Services such as counseling and telehealth appointments can be conducted virtually through HIPAA-compliant mechanisms. The HEMHA publication College Counseling from a Distance is a good resource and goes into detail on how to provide mental health services confidentially and legally in online environments. 


5. Use Social Media to Stay Connected with Students 

Online learners are not able to stop in your office on their way to the student union for lunch. An LMS can only go so far in helping to stay in touch with students. Use social media to engage with students in their element. Campus recreation can hold live fitness classes on Instagram or Facebook Live. Create Facebook groups and invite students to join and contribute in some way. Use Twitter to invite students to virtual programming, and encourage them to re-tweet and bring classmates. Have daily challenges for civic engagement and post stories of the impact your students are having across the country. 

Ensure online learners still feel connected and part of the university. Find out what they need. If you work in student engagement, develop an Online Student Ambassador Program. Have each ambassador responsible for a set number of students and collaborate with you to offer online programs. 

Remember you are not alone. There are both brick-and-mortar as well as fully online colleges and universities already doing this type of work. Talk to colleagues in other student affairs offices to diversify offerings. Online learners do not want to attend dozens of Zoom meetings on different topics. Get creative and leverage technology to innovate. 

While this shift to online student affairs is quite an undertaking, it is the duty of student affairs practitioners to support all students in loco parentis, as we have always done, regardless of the environment. 

There are a number of ways to engage students online and maintain the mission of student affairs in virtual settings. For additional best practices, innovative ideas, and strategies to support online learners, explore NASPA’s new publication Online and Engaged: Innovative Student Affairs Practices for Online Learner Success.