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Student-Centered Approach of Online Ed Could Enrich On-Campus Student Experience

The EvoLLLution | Student-Centered Approach of Online Ed Could Enrich On-Campus Student Experience
Main campuses would benefit from adopting the student-centered processes and tools that characterize online higher education.


Since its inception, online programming has continued to evolve to better meet the needs of its students, mainly non-traditional, part-time learners with competing priorities. Great strides have been taken to create rich, engaging experiences for online learners, and colleges have looked to the adoption and implementation of different tools and strategies to support this transformation. In fact, in pushing to create these engaging student-centered experiences for online students, many online leaders have stumbled onto administrative processes that would significantly enrich the traditional and on-campus student experience as well. In this interview, Pat James shares her thoughts on what it takes to craft a first-rate experience for online students and sheds some light on how processes forged in the online space could improve the main campus product.

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

Pat James-Hanz (PJH): Colleges and universities still expect to serve a very traditional student: a young person coming in as a full-time student. If you’re expecting all of your students to be full-time, you’re leaving out those that have to work to go to school or those who are coming back to school after some time away. You may not be providing the kind of services they need in order to be successful.

Students need assistance and information at their fingertips. For example, putting libraries into digital mode and being able to go to the library from home on your computer is a significant change in supporting students. When you start to take all services and make them available to students 24/7, from wherever they are, you start to minimize problems that they might have with their lives getting in the way.

Online students also don’t always understand what online learning is. They don’t necessarily realize they should be setting aside time for classes and don’t necessarily know what kind of time it takes to complete an online class. Any program that doesn’t inform students about what the necessary skills are to be an online learner is going to find students being frustrated.

Also, educators need to be really involved and available to students, interacting with students around the content so that it’s engaging and students get help right away. Students get frustrated really quickly and without the right support they will drop or fail classes.

Evo: Why is meeting the expectations of students especially important when those students are online as opposed to face-to-face?

PJH: You have to make sure that they are prepared. That’s one of the issues. When they’re at a distance they are fairly isolated and as an educator you’re isolated as well. Being able to monitor what’s going on in your class is important and making sure that the faculty are prepared to teach online is vital. It doesn’t work for anyone—student or teacher—to not check into an online class on a regular basis. If you don’t have your course set up so that students have to check in and do something in the very beginning, it’s hard to know that they’re attending. When you’re in a face-to-face class you see them every day. It’s a different environment. The isolation and the disconnect that can happen if you’re not paying attention can be very frustrating. That’s why there are lower success rates in online courses than there are in face-to-face. There’s a lot that goes into a successful online offering and those variables cause a lower success rate.

We haven’t been able to close that gap, but we know that we have to address all of those items in order for that to work.

We have to make students feel like they’re part of a community when they’re online. Getting them involved in the college in some way is also helpful. That’s something we need to think a little more about—that non-cognitive connection with the college that online students don’t necessarily have. Trying to provide them with everything they need to be successful is incredibly important when they don’t have that connection to the college in the first place.

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

PJH: They can plan events online to increase the student-to-student interaction. You can have them talk about what they’re doing and reflect on that in a more public way so that they can share their reflections and experiences with each other. Just allowing students to get to know each other through either video conferencing or a discussion mechanism across the college would help.

Forming an environment where students can talk to each other about coursework is a really positive move when it comes to student success.

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

PJH: Most colleges have course management systems for use for all classes, not just online classes. Using digital materials and tools like discussion forums or blogs or other activities that students can do online is increasing. Faculty members are seeing the value of incorporating the digital learning mechanism into their teaching and that’s happening almost everywhere.

There’s more that administrators can do to encourage face-to-face faculty members to use these tools. They can provide more training, incentives and assistance and instructional design support and resources to help them learn how to use the tools so that they are able to use them however they’d like to. Teachers really appreciate that support.

The same goes for online registration. When we started to have online courses we started to have online registration, not only for online courses but face-to-face courses as well. Technology was used to create that space. There are a lot of things we haven’t applied digital capability to which we could. There are processes that still need to be reworked with a digital capability applied to them, but for the most part students can access a lot of things online whether they’re taking online classes or not, registration being one of them.

Evo: What are a few of the other administrative processes that could be digitized?

PJH: We could work on our administrative processes, for sure. We could streamline processes across our California Community College System that are currently local processes, particularly in admissions and records. We haven’t really looked close enough at how we can make those digital processes happen across systems.

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

PJH: Number one is take an online class yourself and see what it’s like to be a student. I wish all administrators would do that.

Next, bring faculty members into the planning discussions at the very beginning. When you’re starting to think about what you need for the online programs, bring the faculty into those discussions and make them a part of the decision-making process. We have to start thinking differently about how we manage. Management at colleges is often done in silos with instruction separate from administrative functions. We can’t do that anymore. We have to start getting people into those conversations and have them do problem solving together and take away any obstacles to that kind of collaboration.

If you can bring together really divergent groups that are representing a variety of concerns at a school and you can ask them to look at what you want to accomplish—to consider some of the ways to get there and be really creative around problem solving—then you can start to build a program that people are going to want to participate in because they had buy-in and provided knowledge about, from the beginning. We’re wasting the talent we have by isolating it into departments rather than having people be part of a larger problem-solving institutional approach. That’s something to consider for anyone beginning to plan a program.

You also need to do research and make sure that you have all the elements that you need. Those elements have to be centered on students. If you really focus on doing work that’s good for the students, everything else is going to get better.

Additionally, if you’re focusing on what’s good for students you also have to be sure you’re developing responsive technology so that students can access whatever you’re doing on whatever device they choose.

Lastly, but maybe most importantly, you have to expect to provide resources—technology, professional development and instructional design and support—and you’ve got to fund it.

This interview has been edited for length.

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