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Online Learning Reconsidered – Part II

Student Success Technology
July 25, 2019 Jill Dunlap NASPA

This is the second in a three-part blog series about the growth of online learning and the role of student affairs practitioners in this expanding area of higher education.

As highlighted in the first post in this series, the growth of entirely online programs may expand more rapidly, due to more leniency in the definition of online programs and their oversight by accreditors, expanded within the most recent Department of Education negotiated rulemaking. This raises inevitable questions for the student affairs professionals who are largely responsible for supporting students at their institutions, whether online or in a physical campus setting. 

At around the same time as the negotiated rulemaking process was nearing completion, Eduventures and Quality Matters released their 2019 survey of 280 chief online officers (COOs), CHLOE-3: Behind the Numbers, The Changing Landscape of Higher EducationThis report provides a fascinating insight into the prevalence and opportunities facing institutions as they expand online course offerings. There are many avenues provided within the report that student affairs professionals might use to engage with the leadership at their institutions about ways to strengthen student support services for their online student population. Some of the key opportunities for student affairs practitioners found within the report include ensuring representation on standing committees dedicated to online programs, collaborating with academic departments which may be uniquely responsible for online course offerings, and connecting with the growing number of COOs to ensure student support for online services. 

The challenges to developing support systems and engagement opportunities for online students identified within the report’s findings are many. The sheer number of students who are engaging with online courses means this population cannot be ignored. The report noted that one out of three students in U.S. higher education is taking at least one online course and that the majority of students take both online and in-person classes at an institution. The majority of online courses offered are asynchronous, so efforts to connect students and to campus support services must be intentional. The report noted that the strategy behind online course expansion at many institutions is left up to the individual academic departments that offer the courses, which can make developing systematic student support services online more difficult. 

Although the report doesn’t address support services for online students, it offers several opportunities for improvement. Many institutions are using instructional design (ID) efforts to improve their online courses, and those institutions find that the use of ID improves student outcomes. So connecting with ID staff, where they exist, can be a place to start for student affairs professionals looking to expand support for online students. 

The report noted that a desire for increased enrollment is the driving force behind the expansion of online courses, although a significant number of community colleges indicated that student retention is also a major priority for the increase in online offerings. Many survey respondents indicated that they have developed standing committees to address online issues, and is a promising practice, 19% of those institutions with standing committees include student representatives in the group. The inclusion of student affairs personnel on those types of standing committees, although not assessed as part of the report, would also be a great addition. 

Another interesting finding is that of the chief online officers surveyed, 40% indicated that they are responsible for providing online orientation for students, 31% indicated that they are responsible for providing online support services, and only 22% of COOs are responsible for ensuring the accessibility of their online courses. The survey didn’t assess whether the COOs who aren’t providing these services are leaving those responsibilities to the student affairs professionals who provide those services to on-campus students, or if the online students aren’t provided with these services aside from what is offered to on-campus students. If the scenario is the former rather than the latter, it does raise the question of how the campus is training student affairs professionals to provide services to online students in a way that best meets their needs. 

For institutions with large or expanding online programs, it can be difficult to find student affairs professionals who have the requisite training and experience to work in the online environment. Many student affairs professionals believe they can make the jump from the campus environment to the online environment, only to find out how different the two types of student support services can be (such as providing leadership opportunities and student organizations/clubs for online students). The need for well-trained and experienced student affairs professionals who can work and thrive in the online environment is a need on which higher education leaders should be focused. 

There is a wide gap in how institutions perceive the success of their online students are faring compared to on-campus students. According to the CHLOE-3 Report, a full 55% of community colleges report that their online students do worse than their on-campus students, while 94% of four-year public institutions report that their online students succeed at equal rates to their on-campus students. The authors allude to the fact that this discrepancy could be a matter of resources: four-year public institutions often have more student support services and personnel dedicated to providing those services. But if this is the cause of online student success, then student affairs administrators need to take stock of what engagement and support services they provide for online students and how these can be enhanced to improve online student outcomes. 

One way NASPA is contributing to this conversation is by collecting data from Vice Presidents for Student Affairs as part of the NASPA VPSA Census. This year’s census included questions about the range of student services if target the institution’s online student population. Stay tuned for the third and final blog post in this series in August for more information about the results of those questions. In the meantime, student affairs professionals across campus should be working together to ask their institutions what the strategy is for online students moving forward, and how student affairs practitioners can be involved to improve online student outcomes.