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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 those needs.

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, she adds.

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 more acute.

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 learning services.

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