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Online Students Require Greater Engagement from Institution

The EvoLLLution | Online Students Require Greater Engagement from Institution
Status quo student management is ineffectual in the fully online space; students require a greater level of engagement from their institutions.

The systems and processes most colleges and universities have in place to manage their on-campus students do not work for online learners. Most of these processes are reliant on the notion that on-campus students have the time and capacity to go from office to office and wait for responses. This is not true for online students. Managing fully online programs and students requires a more student-centered way of thinking about administration and, given the number of non-traditional students on campuses today, perhaps some of those practices would translate well to the campus setting. In this interview, Beth Brunk-Chavez shares some of what UTEP-Connect has pioneered to manage their online population and discusses the transference of best practices between different institutional bodies.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the common inconsistencies between the experience non-traditional students expect and the experience universities provide when it comes to administrative functions?

Beth Brunk-Chavez (BBC): Non-traditional students, for the purposes of this discussion, are people who have stopped out of school because of life circumstances, who are starting school a bit later in life, or are returning to graduate studies after some time away from receiving their baccalaureate degree. These are the people that faculty very often love to have in their courses. They are hardworking, focused, and appreciate the value of an education. What this student population doesn’t appreciate, however, is feeling like they are the first person to ever ask a question or being sent to multiple offices to find the answers they seek.

University systems and processes were developed, understandably, for on-campus students who have the ability to maneuver from office to office and perhaps have the time to wait for a resolution. For example, when graduate students defend their thesis or dissertation, they must take a tour around campus to acquire signatures from their thesis or dissertation chair, their program director, the dean of their academic college, and then the graduate school. Acquiring all these signatures in an efficient manner would be a great task for an online student. Unfortunately, there are many processes such as this one that are confusing or unnecessarily time consuming. Confusion and time wasting occurs when policies and processes are not clearly articulated on a website, when the person who answers the phone hasn’t been well trained, or when the office the student visit sends them to the next person without calling ahead first.

Therefore, as UTEP Connect has developed administrative support for our 100-percent online programs, examining these processes has become one of our biggest responsibilities. Some tasks were already in place for online students; however some required quite a bit of revision. In the example above, we asked if all the signatures were necessary and how we could make the process more efficient for a student who is not on campus. Of course, it’s hard to catch all the roadblocks, so when we hear about a concern from one of our students, we try to resolve it as quickly as possible and make it more efficient for the next student who encounters this process.

Evo: Why is meeting the expectations of students especially important when those students are online?

BBC: It’s always important to meet the expectations of students, whether they are online or face-to-face students, from the time they inquire about a degree program to the time they are prepared to graduate. Those expectations cover a wide range:  that the enrollment counselor they speak with provides good information and advice about the program of interest, that their financial aid is processed correctly and on time, that their advisor assists them fully, that the LMS is functioning properly, that the helpdesk is responsive when needed, that their faculty are engaged and engaging, that the institution provides appropriate support services, and so on.

Why is this important? In the beginning stages, many prospective students may be looking at several institutions. Institutions that do not provide them with the correct information in a timely fashion will be crossed off the list of potential schools. Institutions need to do everything they can to assist the prospective student in making the best choice. While the student is enrolling in courses, institutions need to be sure they’re set up for success to increase the chances of student persistence and matriculation. Efficient administrative functions are essential to making sure that online students can focus on their studies.

Of course, this is not to say that meeting students’ expectations equates to always saying “yes” to every request. There are many circumstances in which a student will have to hear “no,” but it should only come after all other options are exhausted.

Evo: What are some of the features of online administration that helps to meet the high expectations of today’s online student-consumers?

BBC: One thing we always say at UTEP Connect is, “It’s all about the student.” We try to ensure that all facets of online administration are invested in student success. One significant difference occurs between the on-campus student who occasionally takes an online class and the online student who takes all their coursework online. For the first type of student, there is very little, if any, support beyond what the instructor may provide or what their academic advisor might suggest. It’s no secret that these type of online courses often have a higher than average drop rate, and that’s often because the students haven’t been prepared to succeed in this type of course.

Students enrolled in the 100-percent online programs, however, have much more support throughout their experience with UTEP Connect—from talking with an enrollment counselor about whether online learning is the right choice for them and what online learning is like to a student success advisor checking in on them periodically and being available when they have questions or concerns. We’ve also built a variety of resources for online students including student success tips on topics such as participating in discussion boards, organizing your semester, and working in groups online. We are working on developing a series of tech tips on topics such as using Google Drive for collaborative projects, making a video, and using time management software. In other words, because we know from past experience that students drop online courses at a higher rate, we are building the resources they need to be successful.

Evo: Do you think these administrative features will ever migrate into traditional institutional operations?

BBC: Yes, I think there is great potential for appropriate administrative features to migrate into the traditional institutional operations. However, I’d say that over the last couple years, the line between online administration and institutional operations has become pretty fuzzy at our campus, as I’m sure it has at many others. Given that UTEP is a non-traditional university with a large commuter student population, we were already doing some things a little bit differently than a more traditional campus might. However, one thing we did early on was gather together all the key players at the university and review every process a student could encounter, that could influence a student’s success, or that our new online programs could impact: admissions, registration, financial aid, instructional designers, help desk, institutional reporting, deans, program directors, and so on. The purpose of these regular meetings were to learn how processes worked, determine if those processes would continue to work for online students, and figure whether and how to change or adapt those processes for the online population.  We found that over time, the adaptations we chose to pursue became the way things are done for the on-campus students as well.

Is this to say that we launched our programs without a hitch? Not really. But, we are quickly learning from the students’ experiences and making the adaptations that will best serve all students.

A specific example of a migration into traditional operations is our use of a CRM, or customer relationship management, system. UTEP already licensed the software, but few offices were using it extensively. Our Contact Center implemented it to track communication from the prospective phases through degree completion. After learning how we have made it work, other offices have become more interested in using it to also track their communication.

In five years, I’m not sure we would be able to say that those processes changed because of our attention to online students. A more accurate description would be that we have learned from each other and adapted to improve administrative functions for all UTEP students.

Evo: What is the most important piece of advice related to administration of online programs that you can share with leaders in the progress of launching their own online divisions?

BBC: Recently, someone asked me how I thought my background as a faculty member or my experience in an academic dean’s office helped me for this role. My response was that it’s not necessarily the knowledge I bring or the skills sets I have relative to my discipline that are important. Rather, some of the most basic leadership skills are required: networking, patience, flexibility and perseverance. Change is not easy for a large, long-established institution. So, when you are representing the catalyst for a big change it’s important to know as many people as you can on campus and have a good working relationship with them. Not only will you need to request their advice and assistance, at some point, they will need to contact you to express a concern. Having a positive relationship will go a long way towards making changes that benefit everyone. Flexibility is an important trait for keeping the momentum. Often, the ideas we developed within our group ran into roadblocks after discussing them with other offices on campus. But being flexible and open to other ideas will keep things positive. Change is not fast, nor is it popular, so patience and perseverance are essential to practice.

But the most important thing to keep in mind, again, is that it’s all for and about the students. Yes, this may not be “the way we’ve always done things” and yes, this new process may require some investment to make sure it works efficiently. But, all these changes and investments are worth it when we also know that the students are engaged in learning and that their experience and interactions with the university are as positive as they can be, especially from a distance.

This interview has been edited for length.

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