Serving the Online Learner
Support and advising systems provide a competitive edge for institutions
by helping to develop a lasting relationship between eLearner and school.
SYSTEMS AND SERVICES for recruiting, advising, and
support of online students have seldom been at the top of the
list when planning online and distance learning programs.
That is now changing: Forces pushing advising and support
services into the foreground include recognition of the student
learner as “customer” and the increasing expectations
and demands of government and business in our global information
economy. The recent release (September 2006) of
the Spellings Commission report, A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of US Higher Education,
notes a lack of systems that track the progress of individual
students over time and across institutions—and is sure to
increase the focus on these systems.
AN INVESTMENT in online support services for eLearners is moving the Ohio Learning Network, Rio Salado College, and North Carolina State University ahead of the pack.
Institutions will be investing in and transforming their
advising and support services, and it is now not a question
of if, but of when. For now, however, investing in systems and
services that focus on the learner’s needs, lifestyle goals,
and choices may well hold the key to competitive edge in the
world of online learning.
Forging Early Relationships
The key to affordability for these systems probably lies in
approaches that encourage a long-term relationship between
the student and the institution. The period of data gathering
and decision-making is an important advising juncture for
many online learners; a time during which institutions have an
opportunity to capture the learner and forge connections that
last over time, even if, at that point, those potential
students are not actually providing revenue
to an institution. Potential undergraduates are
also potential customers; they are searching
for colleges that match their academic, life,
and financial needs. Prospective students of
graduate and professional programs are
searching for affordable programs that fit into
their career, life, and family responsibilities.
And many working adults and professionals
are looking for programs that will increase their
skills and general earnings potential. Not surprisingly,
institutions have employed all sorts of
tactics to demonstrate that they can meet
Free online courses. Schools are utilizing a
number of techniques to get into students’
heads early on: One is the use of free online
courses and databases about online learning
and program information. The Ohio Learning Network, a statewide consortium
of 76 colleges and universities, offers a
free non-credit month-long experience in
online study that learners can complete at their
own pace. Called “E 4 ME: Online Orientation Course for Exploring Learners,” the program was recognized in 2005
as an Advising Technology Innovation Winner by the National Academic Advising Association.
Virtual advising. Many institutions also provide “virtual
advising,” using FAQs and other detailed program and
admission-process descriptions. One good example is
North Carolina State University’s virtual advising center, now
part of a central university advising and support unit that
connects existing advising services with new advising initiatives
such as university-wide professional development
workshops for advisers, and an eight-week online transfer
workshop. The goal is a higher quality of advising before
and during a student’s time at NC State.
The period of data gathering and decision-making is an important advising juncture for many online learners; a time for schools to forge lasting connections with students.
Interactive services. Another good example of virtual and
interactive advising for the online learner is the center at Rio Salado College (Rio Salado, an online institution, is part of the Maricopa Community
College District, AZ). This site does not rely solely on
static packaged materials, but also provides personal advising
support for students, six days a week. For more information,
check out CT’s interview with Rio Salado President
Linda Thor, about her institution’s approach to supporting distance
learners: “Know Your Student,” November 2006.
Live support. Many advising sites complement their prepackaged
services and asynchronous support services
(such as e-mail) with synchronous services such as phone
and live videoconferencing. NC State is launching a pilot
program with nearby Wake Technical Community College
(NC), to provide program/degree advising and consulting
for transitioning students, via webcam. NC State is
equipping its advisers and a lab at Wake Tech with systems
that provide interactive, real-time audio and video, so that
potential transfer students and their advisers can see each
other, discuss transcript questions, and review program
and degree information.
The deployment of virtual classroom applications from
vendors such as Horizon Wimba, Elluminate, and Saba across institutions will no doubt soon enhance
institutions’ efforts to reach out to students for academic
advising and support, particularly in the case of graduate
and professional learners.
Program-specific advising. Graduate students’ advising
needs are often program-focused, rather than degreefocused.
Sandy Lundeen, program director for the Fast Track MBA at Babson College (MA), notes that the program employs an
admissions person dedicated to advising potential students
about program requirements. The adviser highlights the time
commitment of 18 to 22 hours a week, and explains that the
program is cohort-based for mid-career professionals.
Before a student signs up, he or she is encouraged to negotiate
required time and cost commitments with employers
and family. This kind of advising is essential, because the
lead time for mid-career professionals to sign up and begin
a program can be lengthy: up to two or more years. Lundeen
puts the minimum lead time for the Fast Track program at
two to three months, and that only happens occasionally,
Learn More About It
The National Academic Advising Association is an excellent resource for academic advising. The association’s
annual Advising Technology Innovation Awards recognize the “most
creative and unique uses of technology that support academic
advising,” including advising websites, databases, learner portfolios,
and software applications.
An analysis of what the Spellings Commission recommendations
mean for governing boards of institutions is available from the
Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.
Ongoing Program and Course Advising
Once students are actually enrolled in courses and programs,
what types of advising tools and approaches work?
Technology formats such as the live, real-time, virtual classroom
are increasingly being used for educator office hours,
general Q&A, and to manage a range of learning experiences
and assessment events. More and more, faculty and
students are also seamlessly “roaming” from one technology
to the next. For example, Meghan Young, academic sales
manager for Saba, reports that a statistics professor at
Texas A&M University encourages his students to IM him
if they are having trouble during late hours (such as between
10 and 11 pm). If he can, he “meets” them in a Saba Centra
Live classroom, to offer real-time help with study difficulties.
Through the deployment of online tutoring services from Smarthinking, Rio Salado offers an
instructional help desk that provides students with 24/7 academic
support for science and math courses. The institution
also provides advising services on placement testing for new
students, transcript evaluation processes for transfer students,
and degree planning, and is designing a new proactive
advising service that will help students stay on track to complete
a degree. This type of ongoing support—particularly for
the majority of courses during the first two years—can prevent
faculty from being barraged by constant questions, and
fosters the trend of supporting online learning with a team of
people, rather than a lone faculty member.
Plan for Technology Investment
Students considering an online learning program often
need to wait until their interests, life commitments, and
career aspirations come into alignment. This extended period
of data gathering and decision-making means that
online programs need to invest in systems and people to
support that ongoing relationship, even if the revenue is
realized much later in the game. Increasingly, savvy institutions
are integrating constituent relationship management
(CRM) software, such as that available from Oracle and Saba, to manage student contacts. These
types of systems, with their detailed recordkeeping capabilities,
are key to supporting more effective recruiting,
advising, and program planning for students—particularly
as the need to track students across programs and institutions,
and across online and campus programs, becomes
Institutions are increasingly committed to strengthening
the link between advising and instruction, so that they can
not only better support a student’s progress toward a
degree, but also guide that individual toward a degree that
is appropriate for his or her life plan. The electronic portfolio
is a technology tool with potential to support this link
between students, advising, and systems. ePortfolios are
useful tools for students, academic staff, and all those interested
in “meaningful outcomes” of learning.
Institutions willing to risk investment in these types of
customer services can secure for themselves an image and
reputation for accessibility and quality that will help build
customers for life, as well as build the growth sector of lifelong