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Online Learning Reconsidered

May 30, 2019 Jill Dunlap NASPA

Higher education has long struggled with the concept of online learning and distance education as it has developed and expanded in recent years. Challenges surrounding who is eligible to serve as an online instructor (i.e., faculty members versus certificate instructors or business leaders), what constitutes regular and substantive interactions between students and instructors in an online environment, and who provides accreditation for these programs are but a few of the questions facing institutions that provide online programs. These issues were a central focus of the Department of Education’s recent negotiated rulemaking on Accreditation and Innovation that concluded last month. Specifically, the Distance Learning and Educational Innovation Subcommittee was tasked with providing solutions to many of these sticky questions.

As a result of the successful rulemaking process, institutions are now being given greater leeway in managing and developing online programs. For example, regular and substantive instruction in an online environment is more clearly defined under the new rules and allows for a range of student-instructor interactions in order for a program to comply with the definition. For a more detailed look at the changes, you can find the red-line version of the rules here. The definition, agreed upon during the negotiated rulemaking process, requires that instructors must do at least two of the following when instructing an online course: provide direct instruction; offer feedback on assignments; provide information or answer questions on course or competency content; facilitate group discussions; or other activities approved by the program’s accreditor. It was also agreed that online courses can be taught by a team of instructors, as long as at least one of the instructors is “ a subject-matter expert, by virtue of academic credentials or work experience, as defined by the accrediting agency.” This expanded definition provides greater clarity than existed previously, which may open the door for more institutions to develop or expand online courses or competency-based credentials. 

As these programs continue to expand, it is important to note that a significant amount of research exists on online courses from which institutions can learn. To date, much of this research has focused on instructor strategies, engagement and perceived learning in online environments. For example, a study by Gray and DiLoreto (2016) focused on the level of instructor presence, student engagement and learner interaction on student satisfaction and student learning outcomes.[1] Another study by Cochran, Campbell, Baker, and Leeds (2014) focused on the characteristics of students who are likely to succeed in online learning environments[2] while still other research by Huntington-Klein, Cowan, and Goldhaber (2017) centered on the success rates of online courses compared to face-to-face courses.[3] But what is missing in all of so much of the research about the success of online students is the student affairs perspective.

What does all of this mean for student affairs administrators who are trying to navigate the changing landscape of online education programs? Much of the existing research has focused on the mechanics of online learning and what currently exists (e.g., which types of institutions offer online programs and whether those programs are blended or entirely asynchronous). Faculty members have justifiably centered their work on the engagement of students in online courses and connecting online students to one another for support in the asynchronous learning environment. The next step, as these programs continue to grow, is for student affairs administrators to provide opportunities for online students to engage meaningfully with the campus as well as necessary support services.

For example, how do we encourage online students to get involved with student organizations and the leadership opportunities that come with that type of involvement? If student organizations primarily recruit new members and engage with other students through on-campus flyers and tabling events, they are missing the benefit of the involvement of online students who may not come to campus regularly. Even more recent support services on campus such as food pantries may not be helpful to those students who are enrolled in entirely online classes during a given term. How can student affairs administrators recognize the needs of online students and connect them to community supports when their primary engagement with an institution is online?

Support services and engagement opportunities for online students will likely continue to be at the forefront of student affairs administrators’ priority lists as the developments at the federal level indicate increasing opportunities for online programs and the need for support services for students to succeed in the online environment. What hasn’t been explored through research and is not well understood by student affairs administrators is the range of support services and engagement opportunities that should be offered to support the retention and persistence of online students. NASPA began to assess the availability of these types of services through the Vice President of Student Affairs Census in 2016. This year’s census, which will launch in June, will again include questions that address the availability of these services for online students within divisions of student affairs. 


[1] Gray, J. A., & DiLoreto, M. (2016). The effects of student engagement, student satisfaction, and perceived learning in online learning environments. International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation11(1), n1.

[2] Cochran, J. D., Campbell, S. M., Baker, H. M., & Leeds, E. M. (2014). The role of student characteristics in predicting retention in online courses. Research in Higher Education55(1), 27-48.

[3] Huntington-Klein, N., Cowan, J., & Goldhaber, D. (2017). Selection into online community college courses and their effects on persistence. Research in Higher Education58(3), 244-269.