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From First Steps to Next Steps: The Online First Year Experience (OFYE) (Part 2)

The EvoLLLution | From First Steps to Next Steps: The Online First Year Experience (OFYE) (Part 2)
Delivering a holistic online first year experience—one that addresses and supports the factors that contribute to online student success—is critical to learners’ persistence and completion of online programming.

This is the second 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 first installment, the authors introduced the importance of consciously developing an Online First Year Experience (OFYE) and reflected on the institutional factors that help to build it. In this second installment, they explore some of the drivers of online student success and suggest a framework for support systems to help action the ideas being shared.

Student Factors

There are four basic things, based on research, that first-year students need in order to be successful, they are: active involvement, utilization of institution resources, social integration and collaboration, and self-reflection (Cuseo, 2007). Each of these skills is essential for the online student as well—though acquiring the skills takes careful and intentional design. Programming these skills more intentionally throughout the first-year is only natural. Educational research highlights the importance of scaffolding, to provide additional support to learners earlier in their educational process, which are gradually removed as students learn, and as they become more capable and independent. The systems discussed herein should be understood as these type of scaffolds—supporting students when they need support, but being removed as students acquire skills, and as they progress through their college career.

Active involvement constitutes a student’s interest and motivation for their own learning (Cuseo, 2007). Setting this in the online environment requires a few different skills than in a face-to-face classroom because online education is different. To facilitate this connection the following components must be addressed. For an online student, the Learning Management System (LMS) is the lifeline to their education and their future. Inability to navigate an LMS can greatly impact student success (either because of frustration, or because they cannot access class content or submit work). So, basic introduction to the LMS is a vital part of the OFYE. In addition, students must also learn to interact in an online environment. Online lectures are fundamentally different from in-person lectures, and online discussions operate in dramatically different ways than do face-to-face discussions. Expectations need to be made abundantly clear in the first classes, and examples are always helpful too. Students also need help to connect class content to real life. This type of transfer is always important, but for the online student transfer is essential. Transfer is facilitated through both diagnostic tools that help students understand themselves, their skills, and their propensity for success in college, and career development tools that help students identify the hard skills and abilities that make for success in their chosen field. In this regard, soft skills also should be emphasized given that much of what makes for effectiveness in a particular field comes down to these factors. Finally, student registration is handled differently by most every institution, and for a student to progress in their program they need to know both how to register, how to choose classes to register for, and where to find assistance.

The second thing that first year students need to learn to be successful is how to utilize institutional resources. In an online environment, students might hesitate to make use of available resources. But, research makes it clear that the students who are successful use a variety of institutional resources—jand so, students need to both be made aware of the resources available to them, but also be given a nudge to use those resources. The most common of these academic resources are tutoring, the online library, research assistance, career services, writing center, and accessibility services. Success in college is complicated, and students benefit from experience with all resources designed to support or assist their progress through the program.

Successful students also need to develop several different types of connections. Institutional connections help students to feel like they belong, and that their time and money is not being wasted at their institution. Students also need to develop connections with key staff members. Many aspects of the college experience are confusing, these connections can provide students with a point of contact, and with someone who advocates for them. From recruiters, to advisors, to various administrators and support staff, there is the potential for countless connections, and each connection matters. In addition, students need to connect with their faculty members. Faculty contact in the online environment is mediated by technology (email, LMS messaging, etc.), but is an important criterion for student success. Virtual office hours should be maintained, and a variety of technological solutions should be used to connect with students (video chat, email, messaging, phone conversations). Students need to feel like their faculty care, and that their faculty want them to learn. Students also need to connect with their peers. They need to make friends and allies. College is hard, and too many students think that the concepts they are struggling with, or the balance between school and life that they are trying to achieve are individualized problems that no one understands. The key is to create opportunities for students to collaborate and develop meaningful relationships. This can be achieved through careful assignment development, virtual clubs, live webinar opportunities, or online learning communities.

Finally, successful students need to learn to self-reflect. Reflection connects to a variety of components of the learning process, but one important connection is that reflection enables process change. When a student enrolls in college, they are inevitably asked to do a lot of new things, some of which they’ll enjoy and thrive on, and others less so. Challenge is inevitable. One of the purposes that reflection serves is to help students see challenge as an opportunity for growth, not the mark of their inadequacy. Structuring regular intentional reflection in curricular and co-curricular contexts can facilitate the process improvements necessary for student growth and learning.

Support Systems

A first-year experience program should support students in their transition to college and help them develop intentional learning skills and grit to overcome learning challenges and persevere through to graduation. Developing grit is especially important for online learners, who do not typically benefit from the engagement opportunities and support resources offered to their on-campus peers. Due to the physical distance between the student and institution, online students must be more self-directed and motivated. Institutions must prioritize the development of students’ grit and perseverance early in their experience to increase retention and create a sense of belonging for first-year, online learners. This may be achieved through integration within curriculum, faculty engagement, and all support services.

Online learning requires focus, engagement, and intentionality on the part of the student to achieve success. In a similar vein, it is the institution’s responsibility to be intentional in ensuring that there is a focus on the engagement and persistence of online, first-year students and that a support structure exists that facilitates their academic success. While school is hard, enrollment, advising, financial aid, and other services should be easy and centered on the needs of the online student. It is incumbent upon the institution to provide the necessary support services so that first-year students can focus on the task at hand—learning. By avoiding a piecemeal approach to supporting the success of online students through an intentional and focused effort, a seamless student experience can be achieved. When online learning lives at the periphery of an institution, there are practical strategies that can be implemented. Below are four strategies that any size institution can use to identify potential gaps in the online learning experience, particularly for first-year students.

1. Identify groups of at-risk students and focus on them

Which populations need the most support? What are the factors that impact their ability to learn and be retained? Identification of high-risk student groups is an opportunity for stakeholders at the institution to collaborate.

2. Get students off to a good start with an online orientation

Institutions committed to growing their online enrollments should strive toward a model where online students never need to come to campus except if they want to participate in commencement.

To begin building your orientation, ask your current online students what they wish they knew before they start and leverage their experiences as a foundation for building content. Every institution is unique, and an online orientation should be tailored to meet the specific institutional needs. For example, an orientation could be tailored around the following objectives:

  • Acclimate students to the Learning Management System and expectations of the online classroom by requiring them to complete typical course activities (posting a discussion, taking a quiz, interacting with peers, submitting a short paper, etc.).
  • Consider giving new students the opportunity to interact with a faculty member before they are in their first credit-bearing course by having faculty members interact/teach/mentor within orientation.
  • Provide students an opportunity to self-reflect on their readiness for online learning through the completion of an online learning readiness questionnaire.
  • Explore life factors such as time, place, reason, and resources and ask students to tie them to specific time management strategies.
  • Introduce students to support resources, specifically the online library and Writing Center.

3. Utilize a “one-stop shop” or have a single point of contact for online students

Depending on the size and scope of online offerings, some institutions will have an Office of Distance Education or something similarly titled. If that is the case, it is vital for faculty, advisors, and other student support staff to work closely with this office to coordinate efforts. Through intentional collaboration, stakeholders should advocate for the needs of online students and help centralize processes so that all students in the university have a similar, seamless experience.

Smaller institutions and those where online learning remains a small niche may need to rely on a single point of contact for serving the needs of first-year online students. Whether it be an academic advisor or a program faculty member, there should be one person within each department that understands the entire online student lifecycle and helps current and prospective students navigate institutional processes.

4. Engage online learners in the larger community

Online students often pay the same tuition and fees as on-campus students, yet are unable to fully capitalize on all services including counseling services, clubs/organizations, tutoring, intramural sports, and other perks that come along with being a college student. It is essential to take a critical look at the institution through the student affairs lens to ensure that online students have similar access to services available to their on-campus peers. Here are some questions to ask when attempting to engage online students and grow online programs:

  • In what ways are first-year online students able to engage with their on-campus peers? Are there clubs and organizations that have an online chapter or welcome students from distant locations?
  • During the start of the semester, are any Week of Welcome activities geared toward online learners? Are there opportunities for virtual interaction with prominent university figures?
  • Are online students able to easily access services such as tutoring, counseling, and health center offerings?
  • Are sporting events, commencement, campus speakers, and other high-profile community events streamed for online students?

Decades of research has shown that engagement in the campus community is critical to success and persistence in the first year of college and online learners are no different. With the average age of online learners decreasing, paying attention to student engagement strategies is more critical than ever.

Focusing on the idea that “college is hard, but everything else should be easy” will help ensure that the needs of online students are considered when creating a smooth transition in the first year. If students do not know where to go to ask questions, seek advising, or receive support with technology, it can create stress that interferes with the ability to learn. The more intentional the institution can be in ensuring that the often-mundane, non-academic aspects of student life are easy, the student can focus on learning.

Success and persistence in the first year of college are often dependent on the initial experience the student has with the institution. Colleges and universities must be intentional in identifying opportunities to provide support and engage learners in the online community to create a sense of belonging.

A holistic OFYE experience provides students the skills, support, and resources necessary to smoothly transition from taking their first steps in higher education to achieving the next steps in the pursuit of their goals and dreams.

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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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