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From First Steps to Next Steps: The Online First Year Experience (OFYE) (Part 1)

The EvoLLLution | From First Steps to Next Steps: The Online First Year Experience (OFYE) (Part 1)
With growing numbers of students enrolling in online offerings at colleges and universities across the country, it’s increasingly important for institutions to pay more attention to ensuring first-time online learners are properly acquainted with this unique educational environment.

Evolving technologies, newly defined learning experiences and increased access has created a digital disruption in higher education. Access is no longer limited by location or time, and several new educational pathways have been developed. Increased flexibility and freedom has brought a new learner population into higher education, one that is hungry for all the possibilities a degree can provide, but who encounters college in an asynchronous and decentralized manner. An increasing number of online students never set foot on the campus to which they belong. These students, just like those who have a traditional experience, need support in making their transition to higher education. For the traditional campus, this is referred to as the First-Year Experience. All online students will have a “first” year experience by default, but without creating an intentional, well organized Online First Year Experience (OFYE) for these new learners, we risk limiting their success to mere chance.

In the most recent Babson Research Survey just out in January of this year, over 31 percent of students are taking at least one distance course (stats based on Fall 2016 numbers), which makes the term non-traditional limited in its applicability (Seaman, Allen & Seaman, 2018). In 2015-16 the average age of online students was 32, most of whom were either employed or returning to college (Friedman, 2017). full-time distance learners now total nearly 15 percent of the entire collegiate student population equating to over 3 million full-time distance learners. While recent data shows that traditional campus enrollment has declined slightly, this “non-traditional” learner population continues to make significant gains in both undergraduate and graduate enrollments (Seaman, Allen & Seaman, 2018). With so many learners turning to online education as their pathway to a degree, there is a need for institutions to prioritize their first experiences to help ensure success.

It has long been recognized that investment in acclimating students to the requirements and expectations of college in their first year greatly impacts their success and persistence (Tinto 1993 & 2000, Braxton & Hirshey 2005). Intentional acclimation is no less important, and perhaps even more so, in an online learning environment. Why? Online first-year students are a complex and diverse student body, who require a variety of supports to be successful. Unfortunately, due to their age and experience many assumptions are often made about their ability to start school successfully. This may present a variety of challenges to include, but are not limited to, unfamiliarity with technology, attrition of academic skill due to time out of the classroom, lack of support at home, and a multitude of competing personal and professional responsibilities.

For the traditional student, the first year can prove to be the most important and dictate their transition from high school into young adulthood. For the online learner, the first-year experience is no less important to their success. The challenge lies in meeting the specific needs of this diverse, unique, and ever-growing population by providing them a strong foundation upon which to build and meet their educational goals. The online first-year experience (OFYE) provides new online learners the resources, support mechanisms, and the educational skills necessary to navigate their new learning environment.

Institutional Factors

Online learners enter higher education at different levels of preparedness. As such, it is extremely important to ensure a holistic and intentional student experience from day one. A cadre of institutional factors are necessary when attempting to equip online first-year students with the knowledge and skills they need to successfully transition to college and achieve their academic and personal goals. Identifying various institutional factors which impact the online first year student’s experience is a necessary pre-condition for designing an intentional OFYE. The well-known saying, “It takes a village…” is highly applicable when looking at ways to support online students in their first year. Supporting these students is not a singular responsibility. Rather, success relies on interwoven institutional partnerships in which everyone is a key stakeholder.

To begin, the scope of the OFYE needs to be identified. Face-to-face FYE deals with the period of time between admission to enrollment in the sophomore year of school, and so it is most often an 18-month period. In the online context too, a student’s first-year experience should be considered to be the time between their application to the school, and their matriculation through their first semesters in the program, though the pace and schedule of online programs can make this a shorter period. Defining the scope of the OFYE in this manner means that many departments become key stakeholders that support students at various points of their OFYE, including admissions, advising, disability services, financial aid, career services, student support services, data analytics, marketing/communications, and academic support (though the varied structure of universities means that the list may look different depending on institutional context).

If coordinated properly, a very intentional and holistic student experience can be achieved. For this to occur, OFYE must coordinate cross-functional and interoperable teams to address the “holistic” needs of student for every step of their journey. A team approach enables continual evaluation of student success (data/metrics) with the flexibility to apply proactive interventions as needed. Without this level of focus and coordination, the student experience will be disjointed and cause undue stress and anxiety. Through a highly collaborative and focused effort, OFYE is able to support students in all aspects of their educational journey. A few key areas of collaboration and intentionality will be highlighted here.


From a curricular perspective, online first-year students learn about the institution in a number of ways. On the surface, OFYE courses must be designed with the learner in mind. Time out of the classroom, lack of familiarity with, or access to, technology are key considerations in the development of a fluid learning experience. Because of this, navigation must be simple with resources integrated into the classroom in a variety of formats to support individual learning preferences and needs. Additionally, in the OFYE classroom, course content is broken down into smaller units that allow learners to focus on specific objectives while they progress through their coursework. These smaller “units” then scaffold within the classroom to build skill and comfort for OFYE students while setting them up for success in the completion of larger assignments/projects. “Scaffolding” should not be isolated within the classroom. An extension of this strategy is the development of clear course pathways, which are quintessential for the adult online population who enter distance education with a plethora of previous experience/coursework and have numerous time constraints. Therefore, clear pathways become a lifeline for meeting graduation and degree goal deadlines.

The online environment also allows for the creation of learning modules to be deployed in non-credit bearing contexts. These modules might include a welcome to the university from the president and other administrators, an overview of University resources or history, technical demonstrations on how to use the Learning Management System (LMS), a description of the process of registering for classes, or an overview of financial aid requirements and procedures. Any information that is disseminated to students ought to be considered carefully and programmed intentionally. Many of these pieces of information fit in an online orientation.

Faculty and Staff

Faculty and staff have tremendous impact on the OFYE learner experience. They provide new learners, who often possess varied academic and technological preparedness, a strong foundation upon which to build academic success and rigor. As such, faculty must possess dispositions best suited to understanding and supporting OFYE students. They must demonstrate active listening and strong communication skills, show empathy for others, cultivate diverse perspectives, and must be student centered in their support. In addition, faculty must employ strategies to build rapport, which include increased discussion board engagement, frequent announcements, quick feedback, proactive outreach, and the leveraging of technology in the classroom to increase student success. Research indicates that one of the largest ways faculty can improve students’ experience, overall success, and increase retention/persistence to continue to move forward is through building and developing a positive rapport with their students (Glazier, 2016).  Similarly, staff play a large role in a student’s first-year experience. Recruiters, advisors, and administrators need to function as advocates for students to assist them in identifying and reaching their goals.

This is the first installment of a two-part series by Holcomb, Jackson, Korstange and Hall describing the factors that go into serving first-time online learners. In the second installment, they will explore some of the drivers of online student success and suggest a framework for support systems to help action the ideas being shared.

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Series References

Braxton, J. M., & Hirschy, A. S. (2005). Theoretical developments in the study of college student departure. In A. Seldman (Ed.), College student retention: Formula for student success (pp. 61–87). Westport, CT: ACE Praeger.

Cuseo, J. B., Fecas, V. S., & Thompson, A. (2007). Thriving in college and beyond: Research-based strategies for academic success and personal development. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Friedman, J. (2017) U.S. News data: the average online bachelor’s student.

Glazier, R. A. (2016). Building rapport to improve retention and success in online classes. Journal of Political Science Education,12(4), 437-456. doi:10.1080/15512169.2016.1155994

Seaman, J. E., Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2018). Babson Survey Research Group. Retrieved January 23, 2018, from

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Tinto, V. (2000). Linking learning and leaving: Exploring the role of the college classroom in student departure. In J. M. Braxton (Ed.), Reworking the student departure puzzle (pp. 81–94). Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

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