Online Compass: Engaging Students from Every Direction

Concurrent Session 5
Streamed Session

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Engaging online students virtually is new territory for academic and student affairs alike. The “Online Student Navigator”, a non-traditional support role at Wilmington University, is the conduit that transformed student engagement at a distance.  This program will highlight the successes and challenges faced in an effort to link online students with the university community through a myriad of virtual and social spaces. Participants will walk away with access to all materials shared during the session.


Dr. Sallie Reissman is Assistant Vice President and Dean of the College of Online and Experiential Learning at Wilmington University. Since 2000, she has guided the implementation of educational technology into the classroom and lead the development of online course offerings with over 100 fully online degree programs available today. Her doctoral degree is from the University of Delaware in Higher Education Leadership with a focus on Curriculum and Technology.
Matt Davis has worked in Online Learning for over 10 years, first in Adult Secondary Education and then in Higher Education. He holds Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Communication from the University of Delaware and a Doctorate in Leadership and Innovation from Wilmington University. His dissertation focused on factors predicting student success in an online adult education program. In addition to serving as Director of Online Learning at Wilmington University, Matt also teaches online in the Ed.D. program, including Disciplined Inquiry I and II and Problem-Centered Research.

Extended Abstract

Learning Goals:

Participants will have the opportunity to:

  1. recognize the impact of the growing online student population in higher education.
  2. understand the role of student/administrative affairs in supporting online student retention.
  3. learn about innovative ways to engage online students in the university community via virtual spaces.

Program Format:

  1. Introduction of Presenters and overview of topic
  2. Interactive audience poll using Poll Everywhere with mobile devices
  3. Overview of the institution
  4. Theoretical underpinnings for increasing online student retention through virtual student services
  5. Presentation of  strategy (collaboration with student, academic and administrative affairs)
  6. “Speed Cloud Share” activity
  7. Presentation of success, challenges, and next steps
  8. Closing remarks and Q&A


From 2002 to 2011, online enrollment in postsecondary institutions has grown 319%, with over 6.7 million students taking at least one online course in fall 2011 (Allen & Seaman, 2013).  Moreover, online enrollment comprised 32% of total postsecondary enrollment in fall 2011, while comprising less than 10% of total enrollment back in fall 2002 (Allen & Seaman, 2002).  This rapid shift in the national enrollment picture has been reflected over the past decade at Wilmington University (WU), where online enrollment now comprises about 37% of total enrollment. 

In light of the drastic increase in online enrollment, and particularly 100% online learners, WU examined the existing student service model through the framework of Burnett’s (2002) Four Generations of Service Model, which includes 1) Content 2) Content in Context 3) Customization, Personalization, and Community and 4) High Tech/High Touch.  The aim was to implement a plan to achieve generation 4 services for the rapidly growing online learner population. WU leaders also drew on the (WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technology’s (WCET) Learning Anytime Anyplace Partnership (LAAP) program’s visual organization of services into “suites” (Shea, 2002).  This visual,  (imagine a spider web of connected services), shows the LAAP view of Online Student Services.  The LAAP view solidified the cohesive and cooperative function of existing student affairs and student service departments in participating in the development of online student service initiatives.  Additionally, this led to the creation of the Online Student Navigator position. 

The Online Student Navigator is the conduit that fulfills a non-traditional support role and that has transformed student engagement at a distance.  The core tenet of the position is to engage online learners in the University community.  This is achieved by various strategies, including partnering with key campus groups to create engagement opportunities for online students (i.e. online events, career services, co-curricular activities, etc.), creating a virtual environment for engagement (Online Student Association in the Learning Management System), and harnessing social media to engage online learners (Facebook, Twitter).

The presenters will detail the implementation of the Online Student Navigator position, including the delicate process of building cooperation between departments and the detailed planning process and results-oriented approach in evaluating the effectiveness of the position during implementation.  Participants will engage in idea-sharing and planning for their own environment and leave with strategies that can be readily implemented in a variety of diverse student affairs settings.

Allen, I.E. & Seaman, J. (2013). Changing course: Ten years of tracking online education in the United States, 2012. Babson Survey Research Group.

Burnett, D. J. (2002). Innovation in student services: Best practices and process innovation models and trends. Innovation in Student Services: Planning for Models Blending High Touch/High Tech. Ann Arbor, MI: Society for College and University Planning, 9.

Shea, P. (2002). WCET LAAP project beyond the administrative core: Creating web-based student services for Online Learners.

Relationship to Theme:
Reaching students at a distance via virtual and electronic methods has created an opportunity to expand the university’s scope of services.  “It takes a village” is apropos, as the collaborative efforts of student, academic, and administrative affairs has clearly supported the retention of our online student population. Creating an Online Student NAVIGATOR position was a COURAGEOUS move and not originally seen as a benefit but a turf war. With careful planning, communication, and data-driven results, we have created an inclusive online higher education environment with students coming back for more.

How Audience Members will be Involved:

The program will be interactive where participants will share their own challenges and successes relevant to engaging online students in university and community activities.  Audience participation will be captured using virtual/technology modes for immediate assessment and future reference.