Keeping Student Services Relevant in a Virtual World

Christopher Giroir & Christine Austin, Arkansas Tech University

There are not many guarantees in higher education, but one that is certain is change.  Failure to embrace the changing trends impacting higher education can have tremendous impacts on many divisions on a university campus, including student affairs.  Close to 32% of today’s college student population has taken at least one academic course online with the trend predicted to grow even more in the coming years (Sheehy, 2013).  This trend requires closer examination and a response from the student affairs community on how to best serve online students’ particular needs.

The majority of college students have been traditional-aged (18-22 year olds) and residential at four-year institutions, so many of the services and activities offered to students are designed for face-to-face delivery (Thelin & Gasman, 2011).  In a recent study conducted by Van Der Wef and Sabatier (2009), universities predicted only half of their student population in 2020 will be traditional-age, full-time students.  This indicates a more diverse student population with different needs to be considered when looking at what services, programs, and activities will be offered at universities, including those from student affairs.  This article examines the characteristics of online students, how theoretical frameworks can assist student affairs administrators in meeting the unique needs of this population, and how some institutions are presently serving students who strictly attend classes online.

A Unique Student Demographic:  Online Students

It is difficult to determine a clear picture of the new college student, but research has helped identify common characteristics.  Based upon the Van Der Weft and Sabatier study (2009), approximately one third of higher education institutions estimate 60% of students will complete their entire academic coursework online.  Online education is becoming an integral part of many colleges and universities, with 65.5 percent of chief higher education administrators reporting online education is an essential component of the strategic plan (Lytle, 2011) for their institution.  These reports indicate higher education is embracing online learning and is recognizing online students as essential to the growth and sustainability of higher education.

Administrators need to gain an appreciation for the mindset and demands of online students if they hope to retain and increase their online student population (Floyd & Casey-Powell, 2004).  Many online students and their parents are exploring higher education through a retail lens by wanting quick, convenient, and instant service (Selingo, 2013).  They not only expect customer service in meeting their academic needs but also in the traditional services commonly provided by student affairs.  Higher education institutions have devoted financial and human resources such as online platforms, technology support personnel, online instructional designers, and massively open online courses (MOOCs), to help address the academic needs of the online student (Haynie, 2013a).  Administrators need to consider how these same resources might be used to give students exposure to the needed services commonly associated with student affairs.

Using Theory to Connect to Online Students

Failure to consider how to serve online students and their demands could drastically impact the need for student affairs divisions all together (Moneta & Jackson, 2011).               According to Cawthon, Boyd, and Seagraves (2013), “[f]actors such as economic conditions, increased accountability, increased focus on student learning, campus retirements, and changing student demographics are impacting the organizational structure of student affairs divisions” (p. 5).  By being proactive and taking measures to show how services provided by student affairs can be modified to meet an online student’s needs, student affairs divisions can confirm their presence as a necessary and relevant entity in a collegiate environment.  Student affairs professionals have often justified the benefits associated with their services by using student development theory as a foundation for their work with a traditional, residential student (Upcraft, 1998). Student services areas now need to use the same theories with the online student as the main focus.

Student Development Theory

Unfortunately, there has not been much discussion in the literature about how traditional student development theories can be applied to the online student.  One of the foundational theories student affairs professionals reference when developing programs or services (e.g. Astin’s Involvement Theory) can be easily adapted with the online student in mind.  The theory stresses the importance of connecting students to the campus through active and quality involvement that can create a positive impact on the student’s overall development and satisfaction with the campus.  Online students in particular need the feeling of social presence and connection to create conditions for optimal learning (Aragon, 2003).

Today’s student is a multi-tasker with many obligations and commitments, and student affairs administrators report difficulty in trying to help connect students who are physically on campus to get involved (Roper, 2007).  The challenge only escalates when trying to find ways to promote involvement for online learners.  Student affairs professionals will need to investigate how they can creatively use technology or other resources at their disposal to help online learners feel connected and involved with the campus.

Social Network Theory

One way to encourage the type of involvement advocated by Astin (1984) is by examining the ways in which students seek connection in other parts of their lives.  There is a rich variety of social networks to which students belong and contribute their time.  Knowing how to create or enhance these networks can contribute to online learning success “due to the isolated nature of these instructional settings” (Aragon, 2003, p. 61).  One theory closely related to the involvement perspective of student development is social network theory (SNT) (Kilduff & Tsai, 2003; Thomas, 2000; Webster, Freeman, & Aufdemberg, 2001).  Initially designed for use in sociology, social network theory is useful when examining the way in which students, particularly online students, interact with their distance education.  A distance student’s requirements are focused more on his or her own individualized needs.  Through the use of data analytics and algorithms (Kilduff & Tsai, 2003) SNT tracks the interaction of the individual within the larger network, and identifies the building of community through a series of interactions.  It views the social relationship as a series of nodes (individuals) and ties (relationships) (Kapucu, Yuldashev, Demiroz, & Arslan, 2010).  In SNT the ties or the links between the individual and other agencies within the network demonstrate the importance of the relationship.  Rather than the individual driving the interaction, it is the quality of the interaction that contributes to success (Thomas, 2000).  By understanding the patterns of navigation that online students take as they maneuver through student services, student affairs administrators will be able to provide and refine the services that online students demand to create the community and social networks they need to be successful in a virtual educational environment.

Translating Student Services to the Virtual Environment

Understanding the paths by which online students seek assistance in the varied types of student services necessary to their successful retention and ultimate completion of a college degree is essential to ensure that we serve them effectively. Learning the ways in which students seek information about services as varied as campus activities, admissions, career and health services, and academic advising will assist student affairs professionals to be present in the virtual world our online students inhabit.

Campus Activities

One way to promote involvement and community for online students is through the creation of online student groups and organizations.  Many institutions, such as Penn State (“Penn State students create,” 2010), offer online students the opportunity to join a virtual student group.  Many of the online groups center around an academic major focused on helping these students become successful in their chosen academic field (Kolowich, 2010).  The following are some examples of online student organization activity.  Conducting resume and networking webinars and presentations from professionals working in their chosen field on current topics via a live video feed are examples of using technology to meet online students’ needs.  Students can post comments about the presentations, hold an active discussion by calling in and conducting a group chat, or make use of other technology programs like Second Life (n.d.), where students can meet and talk in a virtual context.  Holding organizational meetings online where students can participate by watching a “live video feed” and typing in their questions or comments is another effective way of interacting.  The questions and responses from these organizational meetings can be archived for future use and can provide a record of the organization’s activities.  All of these activities can create opportunities for online students to participate in student organizations (Underwood, Austin, & Giroir, 2008).

Admissions

Online students want to feel connected to their institutions and experience a true collegiate bond with their classmates, faculty, and staff (Pokross, 2012).  Some institutions, such as Utica College in New York, are giving registered, online students an opportunity to have an official student identification (ID) card, giving these students tangible evidence of being a part of the university community (Utica College, 2014).  Having a student ID gives online students the opportunity to access many of the services for which they pay fees such as library access, entrance into university athletic events, and access to health services, among others.

Career Services

Career services is also a common student affairs functional area of which online learners want to take advantage (Haynie, 2013b).  Much like traditional on-campus students, online learners want opportunities aimed at helping them find employment (Floyd & Casey-Powell, 2004).  Using the telephone, e-mail, or video calling programs with smart phones are just some examples of how career coaches are helping online learners gain access to career searching resources (Haynie, 2013b).  Institutions, like Central Lakes College (2014), are giving their online learners access to practice interviewing strategies through a computer program entitled Interviewstream.  The software has general or industry specific interview questions it can ask the online learner and records their responses.  The user can then send the recorded interview via e-mail link to career coaches or advisors on the campus for feedback (Interviewstream, 2014).  Online learners can send resumes via e-mail to counselors for feedback; and it is not uncommon to see many universities hold virtual career fairs.  Employers post job announcements on a career services web-site and both on-campus and virtual students can submit their resumes and applications for these positions electronically to the employers for their review (Virginia Tech, 2014).

Health Services

Another common student affairs functional area adapting to meet the needs of online learners is health services.  While not able to perform full medical appointments over the Internet, Santa Fe College nonetheless created a resource site for online students, which includes a number of internet-based resources (Santa Fe College, 2014).  Students are invited to use programs such as MyStudentBody.com to learn about the effects of alcohol, drugs, and stress, as well as to learn more about various health and wellness issues.  Santa Fe College online students, as well as on-campus students, have access to the Student Health Care Center staff via the Internet for any health-related questions they may have as well as a host of links to other health-related information.

Academic Advising

In an effort to assist online students with their holistic development, many student affairs functions are exploring ways to provide effective services in a variety of areas for their online students.  One functional area that ranks as a top priority for online learners is academic advising.  Good academic advising is essential for traditional and online student success and many institutions are exploring a variety of advising techniques, with some specifically designed to meet online students’ needs.  Intrusive advising (Cannon, 2013) is a type of academic advising commonly being used with online students at Arkansas Tech University (ATU) in the accelerated bachelor of professional studies (BPS) degree program (ATU, 2014).  This approach is more than just asking a student what classes they want to take for the upcoming semester, it is a holistic approach looking at all the different factors that impact the student and could have an impact on their academic success.   Student affairs professionals need to be knowledgeable about the institution and the resources available; many times, they are the sole contact for the student regarding university issues, such as registration, curriculum changes, or financial aid, so it is vital for student affairs professionals to be aware of those resources (Albecker, 2012).  By using a holistic approach which reaches out to the student rather than waiting for them to ask for assistance, online student services create interrelationships that influence the student’s academic success (Upcraft & Kramer, 1995).

Conclusion

Student affairs professionals need to face the challenge of a changing student population and begin to seek ways to use technology to get students involved and connected with their institutions.  Understanding the needs, from both a theoretical and practical perspective, of online students will assist in placing resources judiciously to offer distance students the interaction and community that will make them successful.  Students are very clear about what they need to be successful and several institutions have made that connection to their students.  Adapting and modifying services to meet the needs of online students will demonstrate how professionals are using many skills from the equity, diversity, and inclusion professional competency area and  enhancing the relevance and function of student affairs for all students, both those on campus and those in the virtual university.

Discussion Questions

  1.  What are you currently doing at your institution to help online students be successful both in and out of the classroom?
  2. What services do you think online students may need or want from student affairs at your institution and what are ways you could provide these services?

About the Authors

Christopher Giroir and Christine Austin are both Associate Professors of College Student Personnel (CSP) at Arkansas Tech University (ATU).  The CSP program at ATU gives students the option to complete their master’s degree entirely online, so both authors have research interest in online student success and learning. 

Please e-mail inquiries to Christopher Giroir.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.


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