Reach Out and Touch Someone: Virtual and Physical Techniques to Create a Supportive Environment for Students

Concurrent Session 2

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

In this session we will share a set of practices to create a high-touch environment for online students. Participants will learn a set of low-cost, high impact techniques involving both virtual and physical outreach that build connection and trust between students and those who support them.

Sponsored By


Dr. Beth Rubin serves as the Dean of Adult and Online Education for Campbell University. She has conducted research on a wide range of topics, from the effect of Learning Management Systems on online learning, the effects of proctoring on student behavior and outcomes, and the Community of Inquiry as well as pedagogical approaches to teaching the Holocaust. She has published works in journals such as Online Learning, the Internet and Higher Education, International Review of Research in Open and Distributed` Learning, and the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration. She currently serves as Senior Assistant Editor of the journal Online Learning. Her prior positions include Assistant Provost for eLearning at Miami University (Ohio), and Director of SNL Online at DePaul University’s School for New Learning. A professor of Psychology, Dr. Rubin holds a B.A. in Psychology from Cornell University, and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Michigan State University.

Extended Abstract

One of the major challenges facing online students is that they are geographically isolated - from their peers, their instructors, and from the support personnel and advisors who help them. With all interaction mediated by computers or telephones, students can question whether the support staff -- those who guide them through their academic choices and programs, who provide advice about financial aid and military benefits, who help them address disabilities, help them process forms for everything from course registration through graduation -- know them, care about them, and even are real people. University systems and procedures can be extremely opaque and frustrating, and the inability to meet people face-to-face adds barriers that student services personnel can struggle to overcome.

Without trust and connection, problems can get blown out of proportion. Ambiguous emails are more likely to be interpreted negatively, creating frustration, resentment and hurt feelings.

Just as online faculty need to create a sense of closeness and trust in their classes, the advisors and support staff who work with online students need to create closeness and trust in the overall environment. According to the research on the Community of Inquiry (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 1999), professors in online classes need to create “social presence” in an online course, where students perceive that others in their classes are real people who they come to know and develop trust in, in order to have successful learning experiences. By the same token, we believe that student retention and satisfaction are enhanced when support staff create a sense of “social presence” with students.

This session describes both virtual and physical ways to do this throughout the student life cycle. Interactive activities will help participants to develop and share their own ideas for building connection and community, and the presenters will share a set of techniques that have produced 70-80% term-to-term retention, and over 60 % one-year retention, among highly mobile adult and military students in a set of fully-online programs offered by Campbell University Online (CU Online).

Starting Out in the Program

Many online universities offer orientation courses; they have been found to support student success (Derby & Smith, 2010; Lee & Choi, 2011). What aspects of orientation programs not only provide cognitive knowledge of the skills and behaviors needed for success, but also create trust? Participants will brainstorm, using post-its and the “think-pair-share” technique, about how to use such orientations to create a high-touch, trusting environment. This may include techniques that they use, those they would like to use, or new creative ideas. Different color post-its will be used to distinguish virtual techniques from physical techniques.

After ideas are generated and shared with the group, the presenters will share the CU Online approach. Key elements include the following.


  • All students must take the orientation courses in their first term, and all orientation courses are taught by program support staff. This provides a high degree of control, and instructor presence from teaching carries over into social presence from the support personnel. The regular interaction throughout the term helps to develop personal relationships between students and those who will support the them over time.


  • After students complete the course, their instructor sends a physical note congratulating them on finishing the course.

Throughout the Program

After students have completed their orientation, they receive a widely variable amount of guidance in most online programs. Particularly in non-profit universities, students must reach out and initiate contact in order to get support from university personnel.

Thinking about student progress through their program, participants will again brainstorm using post-its and the “think-pair-share” technique about how to proactively create a high-touch, trusting environment. Again, this can include actual practices, ideal practices, or creative new ideas; participants will be advised to be creative and consider new technologies and strategies. Again, different color post-its will be used to distinguish virtual from physical techniques. After ideas are generated, the presenters will share the CU Online approach. Key elements include the following.


  • After each term, all staff members sign notes, which are sent along with a small branded item of “swag” (such as a pen) to all students who achieve a 4.0 for the term. The cards say “Your 4.0 is noted,” providing rewarding recognition.

  • Similarly, we send out birthday cards signed by all staff to all active students on their birthdays. We do the same for instructors, building the same sort of connection.


  • We send use a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) tool, Radius, to segment and customize messages to students in different situations. This can include all students in a specific major, all students taking internships, or all students across the board. This customization eliminates the problem of mass communiques that clutter up inboxes and make students feel like a number rather than a unique person. We use text messages rather than email, as students are more likely to read and respond. Examples include texts just prior to the start of classes each term to remind students to login to log in, and alerts to students in specific classes about standardized assessments that will be required as part of the course. Another example is reaching out to students at mid-term who may be struggling in their courses to remind them of our tutoring services.

  • We use a chat tool on our website and share the responsibility for responding, so students can get an answer to questions within 10 minutes. This makes them feel valued and communicates that we care about their time.

  • We use websites to communicate that we are people. Like many schools, we put staff introductions and pictures on our website. In addition, student support staff post regularly on our Facebook page, combining suggestions with personal images. For example, one thread had staff sharing pictures of their dogs and responding to one another. The genuine emotion and personal honesty convey that staff are real people, and resulted in numerous “likes” and five-star ratings from students.

Concluding The Program

Participants will be asked to think about students’ needs and feelings as they complete their programs, and brainstorm one last time using the same techniques. After ideas are generated, the presenters will share the CU Online approach. Key elements include the following.


  • We send congratulations cards, again signed by all staff, and t-shirts to all students who are about to graduate.

  • We offer a physical graduation and invite all students to attend.

  • We offer snacks to graduating students who are picking up graduation regalia.

Participants will develop a set of new possibilities to create a high-touch, trusting environment by sharing ideas about virtual and physical outreach. The CU Online time-tested ideas are inexpensive, quick, and have been proven to create a strong sense of connection with our students.



Derby, D.C. and Smith, T. (2010). An orientation course and community college retention. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 28(9), 763-777.

Garrison, D.R., Anderson, T., and Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Lee, Y. and Choi, J. (2011). A review of online course dropout research: Implications for practice and future research. Educational Technology Research and Development, 59(5), 593-618.