Challenge without Support: How can we Create a Meaningful First Year for Distance Learners?

Challenge without Support: How can we Create a Meaningful First Year for Distance Learners?

Marisa Vernon
Columbus State Community College

A few semesters ago, I took on a section of my institution’s first-year experience course. Despite my relatively short time as an administrator at my institution, I initially felt confident in my ability to lead students through their first semester, build a sense of community, and connect them to critical resources they would need to employ in order to move through the college. My years of experience in working with first-year students in open enrollment institutions and a solid background in advising and student support services fostered a false sense of self-assurance about what the next fifteen weeks would be like.

This first-year experience course, I quickly learned, would prove to be different from the rest. The students enrolled in my section were not unlike any other college students I had worked with. The modules on time management, career development, and academic planning were not foreign to me. The difference, however, was that the students were taking the course online.

As the online course progressed, I found myself struggling to connect the dots between foundational principles of retention and practical application. Knowing that student engagement in the first year plays a key role in retention, my trained eye read students’ discussion board posts looking for clues that would unlock the secret to each individuals formula for success. As many involved with first-year experience programs do, I immediately went on high alert for success programs, initiatives, and involvement opportunities to share with my class.

In the online environment, however, helping students create a meaningful first-year experience proved more challenging than I had anticipated. The tried and true options for engagement, such as intramurals, leadership programs, and face-to-face advising were eliminated from my professional toolbox.

During a division meeting several weeks into the semester, our college’s student life department discussed the introduction of intramural soccer into our campus programming. My mind immediately flashed to a journal assignment I had just read in which the student stated that he wished he could find an adult community soccer league to make friends after high school. I made a mental note to connect the student to the college’s new league…only to remember that he was taking the first-year experience course from several states away.

When the announcement regarding a new cycle of Student Ambassador recruitment was released, I had the perfect student in mind. She had taken on a leadership role even within our small online community, and would benefit greatly from the experience of representing her college. The only barrier was that she was logging into her college from three hours away.

Finally, I began to notice how difficult it was to link this group of first-year students to the departments that could best assist them with various process-based tasks. My nearly scripted directions (“…go to this office, with this form, and get this signature…”) no longer proved beneficial. Students needed to rely on phone, email, chat, video tutorials, and electronic signature systems in order to move processes forward or obtain the answers they needed. Students reaching out to student support services were often at the mercy of the department’s ability to engage in email or phone correspondence. In many student support offices all over the country, electronic correspondence takes a backseat when traffic in the physical location begins to increase. Priority is often given to those who stand in the line, visit the office, or are present in the physical sense, leaving limited time for other channels of access.

A study conducted by the Center for Community College Research (Jaggars, 2011) shows evidence that while students are certainly challenged by learning in the online environment, they are often unable to access the support services they need to receive tutoring, advising, and assistance with completion of other college processes.

For decades, colleges have focused on creating the perfect environment for success through the development of Student Success offices, Student Life departments, Student Accessibility teams, Counseling Support Services, Academic Advising for all; but are we prepared to deliver this same safety net to students opting to take our courses from other locations?

Sanford’s theory of challenge and support (1967) has been a foundational theory in student development for decades, inviting us to develop safe environments where individuals are faced with challenges that promote growth and development. Students enrolling in online courses are certainly exposed to challenge, as successful completion requires a commitment to independent learning and sophisticated time management skills. However, with limited online resources and student support infrastructure lagging slightly behind, are they receiving the support they need for the challenge to truly foster growth?

Isolation is one of the primary retention barriers to student persistence (Tinto, 1987), and colleges have poured resources into efforts to deconstruct this significant roadblock to success. Nearly every institution seeks to build loyalty among its students in the hopes that connection will keep the spark of motivation alive in the students it attracts. Developing a meaningful first year often requires the careful integration of intentional safety nets in the form of timely and intentional academic advising, career coaching, quality student life programming, accessible academic support, and inclusion efforts. The duplication of services, despite universal acceptance of their collective impact, is a daunting and expensive charge for many institutions extending their reach into cyberspace.

Some institutions, however, have begun to build the infrastructure to adequately support the unique and challenging online learning environment. The University of Cincinnati boasts high student satisfaction related to online degree programs and courses, according to recent National Survey of Student Engagement responses, as well as an 85% success rate (students earning a C- or better) in online coursework. Students based high levels of satisfaction with the University’s online environment on the availability of academic advising services, strong relationships with faculty and staff, peer support, and response times. Enrollment services are streamlined, allowing registration and payment through a single online system, and student persistence and success is carefully monitored throughout the term. The University of Cincinnati, though intentional in its creation of a successful online environment, has created what students perceive as an ideal online environment by simply expanding upon existing student support services. The University has committed to offering the same quality level of student support regardless of the gateway from which the student is accessing the institution, recognizing that connection and support are the keys to student success both on and off campus (Clark, Holstrom, and Millacci, 2009).

While these key student support services are essential to student success and promoting connection to the institution, the role of social interaction and community engagement in retention theory cannot be overstated. Most college faculty or administrators can recall at least one anecdote in which a student’s decision to persist was based on a seemingly casual and insignificant interaction with another member of the campus community. These interactions occur daily on college campuses, from friendly discussions while waiting for class to begin, to brief daily transactions with a caring member of the campus community. These experiences, while difficult to intentionally replicate, compound to create a student’s perception of his or her college environment.

After several email conversations with one of my traditional-aged online students, she simply showed up in my office one afternoon. She arrived at my office’s front desk, exasperated, explaining that she was just really tired of communicating with everyone via email and felt it was more efficient to just come in and find the person. I met with the student for no more than fifteen minutes, conversing and answering her questions. She left my office relieved to have finally met her instructor.

Surprisingly, however, the online environment may promote more emotional and social development than one may think. A survey of students enrolled in online classes determined that students do in fact experience emotional responses to their coursework in the form of humor, compassion, motivation, and empathy. While interactions with others are limited by proximity and distance, new research suggests that the level of social engagement necessary for students to learn may be attainable in an online environment (Meyer and Jones, 2012). Colleges that can identify strategies to promote online social interaction that is comparable to the opportunities afforded to on-campus students (student organizations, leadership opportunities, service learning, and other student affairs programs) may begin to see increases in online student motivation.

If Sanford’s challenge and support theory is to serve as one of the foundations of educational design, understanding the pitfalls of online students, their dissatisfaction, and struggles to connect proves an important step in designing the ideal remote learning experience. While the online learner’s challenges manifest in a different environment, the principles of student retention and persistence remain the same. Only distance, limited resources, and our own creative limitations stand as barriers to delivering the same level of support provided to our on-campus learners.

Adapting existing experiences and services for online students is a practice most colleges will soon not be able to neglect. Distance learners are on the rise, even among students pursuing degrees in traditional, on-campus environments. Among all college students, more than 30% enroll in at least one online course, and the rate of enrollment continues to climb (Babson Survey Research Group, 2013).  With many public institutions shifting funding away from access measures towards success, increased enrollment through online sections can no longer be a priority unless the safety nets are in place to support students who accept the challenge.

As decision makers, factoring the unique needs of distance learning students into our daily conversations may promote creative approaches to engagement that could benefit all students, not just those logging in from the outside. When processes are streamlined in a manner that caters to distance learning students, on-campus students can also take advantage of more convenient access points. Social networking trends that create community within online courses, such as blogging, discussion boards, photo submissions, and video can not only unite those logging in from afar, but provide exciting arenas in which other students can interact.

Within areas in which meaningful connection is of primary concern (academic advising, career counseling, student life, etc), online workshops, Blackboard Communities, and group chats may encourage resistant students from both on and off campus to engage. Online student life programming in the form of leadership certificate courses, online student organizations, service learning components, and training and utilization of remote Campus Ambassadors could extend the reach of the college experience well past the walls of the institution, and enhance student success in both college and beyond. Such innovative forms of program delivery uphold the values of higher education by fostering student growth beyond academic content and the goals of the classroom, even when the experience is primarily achieved through cyberspace.

Academic advising initiatives such as early alert systems, interventions, and referral systems also hold potential for professionals to maintain levels of support that are consistent among both online and on-campus students. The National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) has established CAS standards for advising distance learners, including the designation of a single point of contact to streamline services offered to distance learners, orientation programs that help guide students through the online environment, and facilitation of frequent interaction between staff and online students to promote engagement (NACADA, 2010).

In many institutions, faculty were the first to take the leap into online innovation, forced to respond to the swift increase in demand for courses and full degrees online. While student affairs administrators are now grappling with how to complement these alternative delivery methods, faculty and instructors are key partners in alternative content delivery. For many instructors, the need to develop creative solutions that promote growth among online students has become a common practice term after term.

Within many college environments, the first-year seminar course is often where all of us collide. These courses are sometimes a marriage of the academic and student affairs experience, offering each of us a glimpse into the challenges our counterparts tackle in our similar yet different roles. In these courses, conversation begins to emerge, as faculty and student affairs professionals begin to examine the holistic experience of the distance learner from different vantage points. The responsive nature of first-year experience courses also allows for a certain level of experimentation, and provides an important platform for which an institution can communicate its commitment to the success of all students, regardless of location.

Few educators would argue against the idea that the college experience expands far beyond academic content. For many of us who experienced our undergraduate years without the option to take courses online, the growth that occurred during those years seems difficult to attain without the physical setting in which it occurred. However, for today’s student, online and independent learning is not just a more flexible option; it is quickly becoming a mainstream experience.

Guiding students through their first-year experience is a challenge for most faculty and student affairs professionals regardless of setting. With roadblocks and barriers constantly challenging even the most intense of aspirations, today’s students need supportive environments that allow them to properly navigate the college experience. As distance learning evolves and increases the enrollment potential of many institutions, colleges are under more pressure than ever to find new ways of helping online students reach critical developmental milestones that will retain them and aid in their persistence.

As for me, working with first year students in an online setting has shifted my own professional paradigm towards increased inclusion and accessibility. When brainstorming new ideas with my team, or developing program proposals for an upcoming academic year, I cannot help but to consider how an online learner may access the service. Transformational experiences are what fuel the minds of educators, and, in my experience, the lessons learned from our students are often the ones that generate the most progress in our field.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you feel as though colleges and universities should offer student support services to distance learners, or should institutions focus simply on content/ course delivery? Do you believe distance learners expect student support services?
  2. Some institutions have decided not to join the online marketplace, and continue to offer coursework only in traditional formats. Do you believe institutions that have chosen to forgo this market are making a wise decision? Why or why not?
  3. In your current role (faculty, staff, administrator) how can you improve services or connect with distance learners? In addition, how can you foster institutional loyalty among your online student population?


Babson Survey Research Group. (2013) Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online
Education in the United States. Retrieved from:

Clark, M., Holstrom, L., & Millacci, A.M. (2009). University of Cincinatti case study of online
student success. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 13(3), 49-55.

Jaggars, S. (2011). Online learning: Does it help low-income and underprepared students? CCRC
Working Paper No. 26. Assessment of Evidence Series. Community College Research
Center, Columbia University.

Meyer, K.A. & Jones, S.J. (2012). Do students experience “social intelligence,” laughter, and
other emotions online?. Journal Of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 16(4), 99-111.

NACADA. (2010). NACADA standards for advising distance learners. Retrieved from:

Sanford, N. (1967). Self & society: social change and individual development. New
York, NY: Atherton Press.

About the Author

Marisa Vernon serves as the Assistant Director of Advising Services at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, where she leads a large team of professional Academic Advisors and coordinates the community college’s mandatory First Year Experience Seminar. Marisa has seven years of higher education administrative experience at open enrollment institutions specializing in two- and four-year degree programs and transfer preparation. Before joining Columbus State Community College, she was the Assistant Director for First Year Experience at Kent State University’s Stark Campus in North Canton, Ohio, and has also worked at the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education.

Please e-mail Inquiries to Marisa Vernon.


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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.