Published on 2018/04/19

Establishing Culture and Prioritizing the Personal Touch to Deliver a Great Online Experience

The EvoLLLution | Establishing Culture and Prioritizing the Personal Touch to Deliver a Great Online Experience
Creating a culture and focusing on the personal touch at every interaction are keys to creating a great student experience tailored to meet the needs of online learners.
For many centuries we have equated postsecondary education (PSE) with ivory towers and brick walls, set in idyllic, tree-lined campuses, with peaceful sitting areas. We have had this picture presented to us so many times and in so many forums many people equate a great student experience only with this environment. Even from a quality perspective, I often hear it argued that the student experience is dependent upon this traditional face-to-face form of delivery. The truth is learning occurs in many ways and in many forms, and often in spite of us rather than because of us. In my own learning journey, I’ve had the opportunity to learn off the traditional campus. I was a distance learner for one undergraduate degree, and a hybrid participant for my doctoral program—though my master’s and another undergraduate degree were taken in traditional in-class, face-to-face formats. As such, I have watched (and experienced) our move to more online learning over the past two decades.

This conversation is critical because the biggest issue facing our PSE learners in Northern Ontario today is access. Geographical access is only one aspect of access, but in Northern Ontario it is a BIG deal. Northern College has four main campuses (and numerous satellite campuses) covering an area over 1600 km (approximately 1000 miles). We deliver postsecondary programming to a region the size of France and have done so for more than 50 years. It was important for us to figure out how to create geographical access early and well!

Reflecting on what we have learned about the student experience over those 50 years delivering distance, then hybrid and now fully online programs (not just courses, full programs), there are two key components that come to mind.

Establishing Culture

You need to create a culture that values the student experience in the online world. It has to be as important to the recruiter as it is to the faculty teaching as it is to the registrar signing off the diplomas.

I have fabulous faculty who take learning very seriously, and are so used to the distance component of their role they consider it every day work and teaching. Understanding what the student experience needs to be, and honestly comparing it to what it is, is a routine part of our everyday culture.

People at all levels of the organization need to be aware of, talk about, and prioritize the student experience, for both online and traditional delivery. About a month ago, a facilities staff member stopped in my office to tell me about an incident for new, incoming students which he was concerned about, because he was worried, “this is not a good student experience for them to have.” He was absolutely right, and action had to be taken immediately to correct the student experience that was the problem. Reflecting on the experience made me realize how much we have generated a culture of student support and caring at our college. Culture is the driver of the student experience, whether online or traditional.

Prioritizing the Personal Touch

A few years ago, our distance learning department undertook a serious look at how distance and fully online learners perceived their experience at Northern College. They took the time to ask the questions, follow up on the answers, and make changes to meet the needs of the students.

While there were many adjustments in operations and processes, the key theme that emerged from this exercise was the knowledge that the personal touch was a value added for every process, not just the actual online learning. Managing admissions, book acquisitions, information dissemination and every other administrative process all require some form of personal touch to make the student experience better.

The personal touch does not have to be face-to-face, but it does have to be one-on-one—a personal email, text message or phone call to understand what the student needs and then a follow up to assure the student got what they needed.

If I were in the retail or service industry, it would be called customer service. Honestly, customer service is exactly what we need to deliver. The difference in a PSE environment is that more people (recruiters, admissions, advisors, faculty) are interacting with the student (customer) to ensure the experience (service). A very interesting by-product of the distance and online approach, is the fact our faculty are not tied to a physical location. For example, one of our faculty members lives on the other side of the country, using VR and avatars to bring his students into contact and discussions. There is constant contact via text, email, or whatever form of communication the student prefers. Another faculty member, who films her feedback on students’ work and creates a video dialogue for them, has spent winters in Greece with her family, teaching online the entire time. These two educators get glowing feedback from students about the student experience they deliver. The ongoing and frequent contact (although not face-to-face) generates a personal relationship to assure needs are met which further generates a positive and proactive student experience.

Prioritizing the Online Student Experience

Do we do it perfectly at Northern College? By no means. We have lots to do to continue to improve the student experience we deliver. But while the technology for education has moved forward leaps and bounds during my career (I believe my experience goes back to when they discovered fire ), the essence of the student experience has not changed.

Learners want/need to have the institution demonstrate a culture that puts students at the centre and provides the personal touch assuring their needs are met. Both the culture and the personal touch generate better student experiences, which generates better student outcomes, greater retention, and more learning. We are here for students!

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