What About Me? Understanding the Needs of Online First Year Students and the Strategies to Best Support Them

Workshop Session 1

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

What if you could change the trajectory of your online learners by strategically supporting them in their first-year experience? This is an important question, but one not often asked for online students. Providing online learners with early supports tailored to their diverse needs can greatly impact both their success and persistence. In this session we will explore online first year experience (OFYE) strategies that meet these learners where they are in order to help get them where they want to go.


Jamie Holcomb serves as the Associate Dean of First Year Experience at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) College of Online and Continuing Education. She has spent her entire career in education with experiences in both public and higher education. Her work at SNHU focuses supporting students by leveraging partnerships within the university, intentional communication strategies, and developing educators skilled in supporting students through leveraged technology and rapport building strategies. She has also worked to develop a thriving Online Student Learning Community that is designed meet the diverse needs of FYE online students. Jamie believes that working to meet the needs of nontraditional learners is a fundamental component in making the dream of higher education a reality for her students.
Tess Diver is the Assistant Director of First Year Experience and Student Engagement at Southern New Hampshire University. In this role she provides operational support for the First Year Experience unit within the College for Online and Continuing Education (COCE). She designs and directs the online orientation programming, ensuring students are more prepared for their academic coursework. She collaborates with other departments to direct curriculum and implement new initiatives to increase student success and retention. Prior to joining SNHU, Tess worked at the Lean Enterprise Institute, educating lean implementation leaders across industries. Tess holds a Masters degree in Organizational Leadership and a Graduate Certificate in Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations from Southern New Hampshire University.

Additional Authors

Matthew Belanger serves as the Assistant Vice President of Academic Operations and First Year Experience at Southern New Hampshire University’s College of Online and Continuing Education, which currently serves over 100,000 students. In this role he manages and coordinates the operational areas of new program launches, portfolio management, process improvement, and project management. He also has responsibility for student orientation, first year student success, retention, and curriculum. His background also includes curriculum development, instructional design, CBE program development, and K-12 classroom teaching.

Extended Abstract

With the number of full-time distance learners now totaling 3 million students (Seaman, Allen & Seaman, 2018), and the number of students taking at least one distance course nearing one-third of the total collegiate population, online education is quickly becoming the norm. With that said, however, very little is understood about the online first-year experience (OFYE) for students. Yet we know that students’ first experiences can greatly impact both their short and long-term success and their persistence.

Often in contrast to traditional students’ direct pathway of high school to college, online learners typically have a multitude of life experiences between high school and college, which contributes to extended time out of the classroom. This gap in learning, coupled with traditional first-year challenges, necessitates a variety of supports and strategies at the institutional and individual faculty level be implemented to help assure success. Looking at learner needs holistically, and from a variety of vantage points, enables strategies to be implemented that positively impact the online first year experience for students.

Supporting online first year students starts with understanding their needs and motivations. To address these, one might begin by exploring the first-year student experience by asking some simple questions:
• What do learners want from their education?
• What are their immediate needs (in and out of school)?
• What kinds of supports do they need, and when do they need them?
• What connections are they looking for, and what kinds of connections impact them the most?
• What are technical or information barriers that impact their success, and how can we help eliminate those so that first-year students can easily navigate their experience?
• What do first-year students struggle with, and how can our approach within the classroom help mitigate those struggles?
While the questions themselves may seem simple, the answers are often more complicated. Online students by nature are diverse in many ways, and meeting the foundational needs of these students requires a full menu of options, strategies, and resources along with a commitment to continually adjust in an effort to stay current, and in full alignment, with student needs.

The first experiences students have with an institution can ultimately determine their long term success. Without a well-planned “first” step, many students are at risk of not completing their second.

In this presentation, attendees will learn about supporting online learners through:
• Institutional Supports
• FYE Faculty Model
• Sense of Belonging
• Career Relevance

Activities integrated within the presentation will include:
• Short paired discussions: Provide opportunities to discuss topics and explore strategies related to online-first year students.
• Guided Brainstorming: Participants will work through a structured brainstorming process to examine possibilities within their own institutions and course offerings.
• Hands-on technology exploration (BYOD): Attendees will create items using technologies showcased in the session to engage online first year students. This technology exploration is “hand-on” or can be observed. We will move step-by-step and will use Adobe Spark (free technology).

Seaman, J. E., Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2018). Babson Survey Research Group. Retrieved January 23, 2018, from http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/highered.html