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Online Learning Reconsidered – Part III

Student Success Assessment, Evaluation, and Research Technology
November 14, 2019 Jill Dunlap NASPA

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

The first blog in the series focused on the changing standards for online instruction as the result of new guidance from the Department of Education. The second blog focused on a survey of Chief Online Officers (COOs) conducted by Eduventures and Quality Matters, and the challenges and opportunities for student affairs administrators in ensuring student success in the online setting.  In this final blog in the series, we explore the online environment from the perspective of Vice Presidents of Student Affairs. As part of the 2019 Vice President for Student Affairs Census, NASPA asked participants about the availability of student support services for online students at their institutions.

The topic of online learning continues to capture the attention of higher education leaders, faculty, and staff. Just this week, Inside Higher Ed and Gallup released the results of a survey highlighting faculty members’ thoughts about the challenges and opportunities of online instruction. It is rare that a week goes by without a major news story about online education, many of which are centered on the increased revenue online programs can provide to institutions. What is often left out of the conversation is the student at the center of these efforts (for example, see the graph that leads the article on revenue). 

That is not to say that conversations centered on online students’ needs aren’t beginning to take shape. In fact, some interesting recent developments have centered on long-time online education providers recognizing the importance of opportunities for students to meet in face-to-face settings. For example, Capella University is opening a physical student center. “The 26-year-old for-profit online university, which enrolls about 40,000 students across 53 degree and 42 certificate programs, said the Campus Center will provide space for local students to meet, study and access enrollment counselors and academic advisors.”[1]

Student affairs administrators have centered their careers on the notion that student engagement and learning that happens outside of the classroom is as important as what happens inside. Yet, systems designed to support and engage students whose primary interaction with higher education is online are less developed. Given the expanding environment of online courses, and the relaxed definitions of online programs from the Department of Education described in the first blog in this series, NASPA included questions in the Census that asked Vice Presidents of Student Affairs about support services for online students. Only 13% of total survey respondents (n= 646) ranked providing support services for this population of students in the top 5 pressing issues facing student affairs at their institution. The majority of respondents (59%) didn’t rank this issue at all (n=384). Participants were also asked if they have a full-time position within Student Affairs tasked with online student support. Slightly more private, four-year institutions (n=161) have a full-time position (61%) than four-year, public institutions (n=107), at 50%. Of those institutions with a dedicated position, slightly more (n=161) were private four-year institutions (54%) than four-year public (n=107) institutions (36%). Although the assumption might be that those with dedicated positions are among those with the largest student populations, the reverse was actually true. Of institutions with a dedicated position, the largest proportion, 48%, were those at institutions with student populations between 1,000 and 4,999 (n=143). The rest of the responses were equally divided among other institution sizes: under 1,000 students at 11% (n=33); 10,000 to 19,999 students at 13% (n=40), and 20,000 or more students at 11% (n=33).  

These full-time positions are found primarily in five areas within student affairs divisions, including disability support services, career services, counseling services, orientation, and academic advising. Respondents indicated that most of these positions have been added to these departments within their divisions within the past three years. Not surprisingly, of the institutions without a dedicated staff person for online students, 75% indicated that they aren’t meeting the needs of this population at all. But even among institutions with a dedicated staff person, a majority (66%) indicated that they are only “somewhat” meeting the needs of online students. In other words, having a dedicated staff person is not the only way to meet the needs of online students.

The survey also included questions regarding how respondents’ divisions of student affairs are meeting the needs of online students. Overwhelmingly, the responses centered on working with online students around orientation, academic advising, tutoring and academic support, disability accommodations, and career services. It is interesting to note that many of these services take place immediately upon the beginning of a student’s academic journey with the institution (e.g., online-specific orientation, assessing for accommodations needs) or as they are on their way out (e.g., career services). Fewer survey respondents indicated ways that they work to engage with students throughout their academic pursuits. One respondent indicated that since online students do not pay student activity fees, they do not have access to many student support services that are paid by those fees. Some respondents indicated that rather than having a full-time position, “everyone does it all” in terms of providing support for online students. Another survey respondents said that they provide specific training to their student affairs administrators in thinking creatively about how to serve online students in addition to campus-based students. 

The survey responses did, however, provide insight into some of the unique – and promising – ways that divisions of student affairs are working to actively engage online students into the campus environment. One respondent indicated that they live stream all of their on-campus events, so that students who cannot attend in person or who attend from a distance, can still participate. Another respondent said that their division has an online student government separate from the on-campus student government to address the unique needs of online students. Another survey respondent said that their division had developed a virtual student union as space where students could meet online and share resources and engage with one another. Additionally, a handful of respondents said they utilize software so that online students can make virtual appointments with administrators to allow them the same access that campus-based students have. 

A few other forward-thinking approaches were also detailed in the survey responses. Institutions mentioned creating online student task forces made up of student affairs administrators, faculty and online students to determine the best ways to support and engage online students. Another respondent said their division had developed an online strategic plan, and yet another institution had created a Dean of Online Learning dedicated to the support and engagement of online students at the institution. All of these are promising practices that demonstrate the ways that student affairs vice presidents are proactively working to address the needs of this growing population. There is clearly still much work to be done in moving beyond recruiting and enrolling online students toward providing online students with the same type of leadership, networking and engagement opportunities that equal those of their on-campus peers. The growth of online programs and increasing online student populations are not a matter of much debate, and it is clear that many student affairs administrators are thinking about how to meet this growing need. The good news from the survey is that as more and more student affairs administrators begin to grapple with supporting this population, they are in good company and they have many places to look for innovative ways to do so.  

[1] Paterson, J. (2019, June 17). Capella U to open first student center. EducationDive.