Velcro to the Campus
Online advising programs can provide critical academic services to distance learning students who otherwise might feel untethered from their schools.
- By Susan McLester
Higher education institutions that support multiple campuses and distance learning programs can find it a challenge to offer consistent and accessible advising services to their students. Online advising would seem to be an appropriate option for these schools to reach their dispersed student populations.
Yet recent studies--like the 2010 annual distance education report from the Instructional Technology Council and a 2003 University of Nevada survey of 60 universities offering online courses--point out the discrepancy between the meteoric rise of distance learning programs and the low numbers of e-advising and e-counseling options for students.
But instituting an online advising program, as the schools below demonstrate, does not require some outsized effort: Using out-of-the-box technologies and working with existing staff, these programs can provide the means to ensure that all students feel a part of the school community--what Webster University (various locations) Online Learning Director Dan Viele calls "having 'Velcro' to the campus."
State Center Community College District: A First Line of Defense
Located in California's vast, agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley, the State Center Community College District is home to a network of seven dispersed higher education institutions. Its two largest schools--Fresno City College and Reedley College--anchor the district's five smaller community colleges. The entire system draws heavily from a largely Hispanic, high-poverty (40 percent) student population.
With a mission to broaden its reach and range of services to all 40,000-plus students--particularly Hispanic students--and to ensure consistency of services across all campuses, SCCCD launched the Online Academic Counseling Program, or OACP, in 2006.
OACP was funded principally by a US Department of Education Title V grant, which supports higher education institutions with a 25 percent or greater population of Hispanic students. The OACP program, rolled out over two years, acts as a first-line-of-defense counseling hub, offering an FAQ database, live chat, and online orientation. Services are accessible from each campus website and also via the districtwide portal hosted by Blackboard.
With more than 4,000 entries, the FAQ, maintained by Xigla Software's Absolute FAQ Manager, can be browsed or searched 24/7, and addresses a full range of questions on topics such as academic probation, school loans, disability services, and online courses.
The chat feature, available through Xigla's Absolute Live Support, offers students direct, real-time, text-based communication with counselors during scheduled weekday and evening hours. Counselors answer questions, provide links to other resources, and give referrals to on-site services as they are needed.
The online orientation, available for access anytime on the web via Adobe Captivate, is an audio-enhanced PowerPoint presentation that welcomes students and steps them through various campus policies, procedures, programs, and services.
Training and Challenges
To transition to online counseling, lead counselors at each site complete a training program from ReadyMinds that offers instruction on best practices in creating and maintaining remote relationships, as well as technical, legal, and ethical issues involved with distance-based counseling. In turn, the lead counselors train others on site.
Stephanie Harris, Fresno City College counselor and coordinator of the online program, says that one of the big challenges in instituting the program has been convincing staff of its legitimacy. To combat skepticism, Harris conducts regular meetings, walking counselors through the program and presenting student ratings, comments, participation, and scope data.
Another hurdle has been the additional time and energy required to fold online counseling into the traditional advising day. Manned in two-hour shifts, the live chat is more intensive than face-to-face counseling. "You're constantly typing with no break," says Harris. Although some "brave" counselors conduct multiple simultaneous chats, Harris and others limit communication to one student at a time to relieve strain.
Perhaps chief among the challenges, says Harris, has been the extensive collaboration required among the counselors at the district's seven separate colleges and learning centers.
"There are different policies at each site, and each counselor has had to learn the policies and guidelines of all the other campuses, as only one counselor at a time fields live chat," she explains. Standardizing policies across all campuses is on her short list of goals.
Determining OACP's effectiveness remains a work in progress. Harris says that no hard data exist on how the program has affected retention rates, but student ratings give counselors four out of five stars on average, and most comments are positive, citing convenience and flexibility.
For other multiple-campus colleges wanting to implement systemwide advisory programs, Harris suggests beginning by identifying the best counselors for the program. "Picking team players who'll be willing to put in the extra hours and to make the collaborative effort is key," she says. Additionally, Harris emphasizes that even with the system in place, someone still needs to be in charge of maintenance--checking links, answering questions, and other tasks are ongoing. Also, any feelings of territoriality have to go, she insists. "It's about the entire district now, not just your own campus."
Webster University: Serving Adult Learners
Webster University is a private, nonprofit institution with 109 locations worldwide and an enrollment of 21,000-plus students around the globe. With its graduate degree programs a primary focus, Webster mainly serves a working adult population earning advanced degrees to enhance employability. The university offers face-to-face, fully online, or hybrid delivery of classes and advising, so all counselors are required to provide online advising services.
Webster's online advising combines academic services with career counseling. New-student webinars delivered via Adobe ConnectNow offer the basics, such as getting textbooks, setting up payment plans, and login information for online courses. After this initial webinar, each student is assigned a counselor and can follow up at any time via phone, e-mail, instant message, or in person. Counselors also have weekly online office hours--both days and evenings--for students needing immediate assistance.
Tyann Cherry, senior academic adviser and project manager of the online advising program, says career counseling encompasses a range of practical employment issues, with job networking, internships, events, interviews, referrals, and other information offered for student guidance. For more in-depth assistance, such as choosing a career path or dealing with stress, counselors refer students for aptitude tests, personal therapy, or other services.
Cherry also designs and hosts--with input from various campus experts--ongoing informational student how-to webinars on topics such as using the school's online tools, choosing electives, and determining transfer credits.
Training and Challenges
Cherry agrees with SCCCD's Harris that online counseling can be more intense than in person. It can also be more time-consuming, sometimes requiring a few e-mail exchanges just to set up appointment dates. She notes that organization, communication, and strategic planning are key to an effective online advising program.
Webster advisers, all of whom have advanced degrees, must be comfortable using Microsoft Office and multiple methods of communication (phone, e-mail, instant message). They receive both introductory and ongoing training.
An initial Blackboard-based course, created by Cherry and the school's Online Learning Center, focuses on the basics of online advisement, maintaining contact with students, counseling on general course issues, and how to use the school's online counseling tools. Follow-up training includes monthly webinars, brainstorming sessions, and brown bag lunches conducted by Cherry. This ongoing training focuses on advanced topics pertaining to vocational and interpersonal counseling.
A series of templates outlining processes for each advising function ensures standardization across all campus locations, and storage in a password-protected central warehouse makes access easy for all counselors.
Cherry insists it's crucial that online advising programs have a project manager to collect documents, develop and update templates, ensure all information is accurate, and approach program development in a systematic way.
Because Webster's site-based and online services are so closely integrated, separate data on the impact of online counseling for the broad student population has been somewhat difficult to track. However, the school has accrued data on the students considered at highest risk for dropping out. Of these, 70 percent persist through a second nine-week term. Cherry believes online advising has played a key role in keeping these students in school.
On the docket for Cherry is the creation of a system to directly tie online counseling to retention. "Currently, the importance of high-volume online enrollment is recognized," she says, "but online counseling is a critical service and needs to be a part of the equation as well."