Evolving the Online First-Year Experience to Meet Demands
First impressions matter. The start a new student’s educational journey, whether on a physical campus or online platform, involves a series of first experiences. In previous roles, Jamie and Jeff have overseen and facilitated online first-year programs at three large online institutions, supporting annual enrollments of over 30,000 first-year students. In this interview, Jamie Holcomb and Jeff Hall provide insights into the Online First-Year Experience (OFYE), identify emerging trends and share advice for practitioners.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What is the Online First-Year Experience?
Holcomb: In a previous EvoLLLution article published with Ryan Korstange and Jasmeial Jackson, we defined the Online First-Year Experience (OFYE) as including students who encounter the institution primarily or exclusively online. The OFYE includes specifically designed transition programs to support new students in adjusting to the rigors of online learning. Since the online learning experience can differ significantly from the traditional campus experience, the first-year experience must be adapted to fit the online environment.
Hall: The transition programs designed for the OFYE generally consist of orientation programs, college success (aka entry-point) courses for first-year students and activities to foster a sense of belonging among students. You typically find these programs within academic units, student affairs departments or a combination.
Evo: What recent trends have you seen in Online First-Year Experience students, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic?
Hall: Several years ago, I noticed more traditional-aged students and those in employer-sponsored partnerships enrolled in my online entry-point courses. Since the pandemic, there has been a significant increase in 17- to 21-year-olds enrolling in first-term courses online. OFYE programming has typically catered to traditional adult learners. Now, OFYE programming needs to broaden its scope to include younger learners and consider the needs of the employers who pay tuition for their employees. For Gen Z, the pandemic has transformed how they view online learning. Many younger students choose online learning for its flexibility and affordability, with traditional college experiences no longer a viable option or even of interest for them. Many are seeking specific jobs with employers that will sponsor their online degrees.
Holcomb: I agree with Jeff that online learning has become an appealing option for students of all ages, which is one outcome of the pandemic. With that transition, a secondary outcome might be described as confusion about what online learning is and is not. Public education largely had students attend class synchronously and remotely during the pandemic, which is not the same as online learning. So, new learners enrolling in online higher education courses can still be confused about what online learning is, what the expectations are for learning and what it will take to succeed in online degree programs. One of the greatest challenges for new online students is simply learning how to manage themselves without the structure of synchronous class schedules. This is a challenge for students of all ages, but it is also a challenge for students who believed they were experiencing online learning when, in fact, they were attending class remotely in a highly structured environment. This is why OFYE coursework is important for new online learners of all ages and experiences.
Evo: How might an influx of younger students and those receiving employer-paid benefits impact higher education, and what are some potential opportunities and concerns associated with these developments?
Holcomb: We have seen an incredible transition in how people enter higher education through organizations like Guild and their partnerships with corporations like Target, Walmart, Chipotle, Hilton, Disney, etc. And they aren’t the only ones; Amazon, Google, Starbucks and others are seeking direct partnerships with educational institutions to upskill employees, attract new talent and retain existing employees. Next to healthcare benefits, education has become a key benefit that employees and employers value for personal and organizational impact. One thing that has stuck is how much debt can impact your future, and younger generations are taking this into consideration. This is something that I believe is impacting our Gen Z students’ decision-making, as they enter or get ready to enter higher education.
Hall: With more competition for fewer students and public discourse about the value of a degree, attracting younger students on the fence about college presents an enrollment opportunity. The flexibility and cost-effectiveness of online programs could be a deciding factor for a younger generation who is wary of student debt and prioritizes flexible lifestyles. However, providing effective support for these students is challenging, as most OFYE programs have spent considerable effort designing courses and experiences with older working adults raising children in mind. With the age range of our online students further diversifying, you must appeal to learners at multiple stages of adulthood. The challenge is to create a sense of belonging and support for this age-diverse group. The age gap presents an opportunity for adult students to mentor younger students who may lack the social opportunities found in on-campus experiences. Therefore, institutions may be able to leverage their adult learners’ experiences to bridge the gap between generations.
Evo: You both have managed high-enrollment college success (or entry-point) courses. Could you explain the relevance and value proposition of an OFYE course for online learners?
Hall: Instructors often hear, “Why do I have to take this class?” OFYE courses provide first-year students with the necessary time and space to adjust to the challenges of online learning and develop effective habits and strategies for success. However, it is vital for those overseeing and facilitating these courses to ensure they are practical and relevant to the still predominantly adult student population. Many OFYE courses take content from traditional college success textbooks and put it online, resulting in less engaging and relevant coursework designed around traditional study strategies and debunked learning styles. Adults desire relevant content that provides them with an opportunity to achieve a deeper understanding of themselves. I have found that the OFYE courses with the best outcomes develop self-efficacy by having students explore how they learn using brain-based learning strategies, metacognition and self-regulating learning behaviors, all while applying the curriculum to their personal and professional lives.
Holcomb: The path to success in the workplace mirrors the path to success in academics. The skills needed for success are the same. Jeff has often described them as “enduring skills” in our conversations, and I agree. While there has been an increase in younger adults entering the online learning space, most learners have been out of school for several years. It’s important to remember this when considering an OFYE course. I think of an OFYE course as onboarding for a new job. The job is, in this circumstance, your educational success as a student and subsequently your career success as a professional in your field. There are things that everyone starting a new job needs to know to succeed. The OFYE course is your introduction to the school, technologies, resources, policies and basic skills necessary for success as a student. Providing a thorough onboarding has value and has been emphasized in the corporate space, as well as successful student experiences in higher education. For adult learners, the stronger the alignment between the skills they learn and their immediate value in the workplace and future careers, the likelier they are to apply what they learn. Applying those skills—and the success that directly follows—is where true value is realized. That should be the goal of every OFYE course.
Evo: What advice do you have for those overseeing OFYE courses or programming?
Holcomb: Given the other questions, I would say that we need to consider brand and organic marketing, especially with the new influx of employer-sponsored students. Workforce students aren’t entirely remote. These are students who will return to their workplaces and engage with their colleagues and managers. We should safely assume they will discuss their educational experience. The last thing we want them to say is, “I don’t know why I have to take this class?” There must be a value proposition for students immediately upon entering their courses, or we risk negative word-of-mouth feedback that could ultimately reach higher-ups. Online education has become a competitive space. In fact, it’s the expectation for institutions of size. It’s no longer a scenario where there aren’t other options for online learning. The scenario has evolved to “Are you a contender in the online learning space?”
Hall: Those on the frontlines of OFYE must advocate for themselves and find ways to be more visible, so they control the OFYE narrative at their institution. In many cases, those directly managing OFYE programs are faculty or staff members with limited visibility, time and resources. Every enrollment matters in this competitive environment, intensifying scrutiny of high-enrollment courses, particularly at the entry point. There are often several layers of leadership interested in OFYE, making it essential for those doing the day-to-day work to have a voice in guiding these programs, communicating their experiences, accomplishments and concerns to their leadership, so their needs can be advocated for at all institution levels. To quote the great Shirley Chisholm, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
Author Perspective: Administrator