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10 Ways To Help Your Online Students Feel at Home With Your Institution

10 Ways To Help Your Online Students Feel at Home With Your Institution
Ensuring online students feel welcome and connected to the campus is critical to their academic success, and institutional leaders, staff and faculty have a huge role to play.
The good news is that about 7 million college students will enroll in online courses this year. The bad news is that the retention rates for online students typically trail those of their on-campus colleagues.[1]

There is evidence that stronger student support services — especially targeting the out-of-class experiences of online students — can make a difference in their retention and engagement.[2] As I discussed in an earlier article, the bottom line is to show students that they matter.[3]

Here are 10 ways an institution can help online students feel at home and feel a part of your campus community:

1. Be Responsive

Think like an online student. Return emails and phone calls promptly. Be up front about your response times on your websites, emails, phone messages and then do what you say you’ll do. It’s worth defining seemingly basic things, for example; how long should a student expect to wait before hearing back from someone?

2. Be Accessible

You probably have many students who live within 50 miles of your campus, but you probably also have students in other time zones. Imagine their frustration with trying to reach critical contacts like an academic advisor or the financial aid office if your institution keeps traditional office hours.

Think about the possibility of expanding or shifting office hours, adding service on the weekends (or whenever you offer classes) or adding a live chat function. For example, Lone Star College (a Sloan-C Effective Practice award winner) offers academic advising through chat, email, phone and web-conferencing during extended hours, seven days a week.

Library services are another area that can get overlooked for online students. Some campuses integrate workshops on using the library from offsite into academic courses.[4] Others, like USC, integrate video tutorials and guides about accessing library services (including the free delivery of hard copy resources when electronic resources are unavailable) into online Orientation modules (See #10 in this list and contact me if you want more information).

3. Be Friendly

It’s easy to assume from someone’s tone of voice that they think you are an imposition. That’s a quick way to alienate a student who may already be wondering if they belong. Always be friendly, open and inviting with your students to ensure they remain connected.

4. Be Inclusive

Look at the language you use in your print materials and on your website. Acknowledge that you have online students and include them in your materials, instruction and news. Don’t make your online students an afterthought, or force them to “read themselves into” your materials.

5. Familiarize Them With Your Campus’s Unique Elements

Who is the mascot? What’s the alma mater? What are classic campus traditions? The fact that they aren’t physically there doesn’t mean they aren’t interested. It certainly doesn’t mean they don’t want to be a part of your community, and you never know when they might visit.

6. Facilitate Collaboration

Make it possible for students to form groups, and when they form, support them. You can create your own social networking site or co-opt existing ones to help drive this.

7. Be Accommodating

Be ready when your online students do actually come to campus – like for graduation. Consider organizing some on-campus events for them the day before, perhaps around career services and job searching. Offer tours and other kinds of campus-familiarization events.

Most importantly, identify the staff person responsible for working with online students when they come to campus so that you know where to refer them if they arrive unexpectedly.  It may only be the one time they set foot on your campus; make it positively memorable.

8. Connect Them With The Institution

Send them a care package filled with mementos from your institution. The cynic will say this is about branding, but it’s also about helping them feel like part of the group; a university bumper sticker, or a tote, or a t shirt — depending on your budget — can go a long way to helping students identify with the institution.

9. Make Sure They Have a Point-Person

Connect them to someone who cares about them, specifically (see #7). Western Governors’ University has an online mentor for every student.[5] That may not be the optimum route for your institution, but at least having that knowledgeable point person signals that you value the online students enough to dedicate a staff member to them, and can help students better identify and access the right services for their needs.

10. Be Welcoming

Don’t forget Orientation. Your online students may not be moving into a residence hall on campus, but they will benefit from many of the same programs you offer your residential and local students. Create a virtual tour of the campus, show them where to find campus office links, walk them through how to access virtual library resources and where to find their academic advisor.

Finally, for any of these strategies, consider consulting with and/or beta-testing your ideas with some of your online students. They may reveal the need for something you hadn’t thought of, and save you time by nixing a service you thought was important but they see as unnecessary.

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[1] Errin Heyman. (2010). Overcoming student retention issues in online higher education programs. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 13(4), Winter 2010. Accessed from

[2] Joan Hirt, Darrell Cain, Brad Bryant, and Eric Williams. (2003). Cyberservices: What’s important and how are we doing. NASPA Journal, 40(2), 98-118. Accessible at

[3] Melora Sundt, “Adults and the Higher Education Experience (Part 1), The EvoLLLution, August 1, 2014. Accessed at

[4] Angela Gibson, Priscilla Coulter and Susan Satory, “Bringing the Library to Life: Live Librarian Instruction in a First-Year Online Course,” Online Learning Consortium 2014 Sloan-C Effective Practice Award Winner. “

[5] Rebecca Johnston and Mitsu Phillips, “Best Practices in Mentoring Online Students,” Presentation at 2012 Sloan-C Conference.

  Communicating with Students

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