Meeting Students Where they are: Leveraging Social Presence in an Online Advising Team Model Rooted in the CAEL Principles for Effectively Serving Adults

Concurrent Session 1
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Brief Abstract

Presenters will guide a discussion on designing and implementing a communication strategy that centers on establishing social presence in virtual advising teams for online students grounded in CAEL’s ‘Ten Principles for Effectively Serving Adults’ to foster student success (improved engagement, persistence and student satisfaction).


Dr. Kathleen Embry currently serves as the Online Program Chair for General Education at American InterContinental University. She holds a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education from Capella University and has presented and co-authored on the supervisory relationship with virtual faculty members. With more than 20 years’ experience in on-line and face-to-face higher education teaching and administration and an additional 15 years in marketing, management, and entrepreneurship, Dr. Embry brings a plethora of experience to her engagement with online faculty and students, and within the online classroom. Positions held in higher education include adjunct instructor, Program Chair, Dean of Design Studies, and Director of Education; with additional corporate experience in Regulatory Compliance.

Additional Authors

Dr. Bhalla holds a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Virginia and has published and presented in the areas of spatial perception, body image, and the pedagogy of teaching and assessment, especially with regards to serving the non-traditional/post-traditional learner. She is active in the American Psychological Association's working group on Undergraduate Education in Psychology. For over two decades, she has served traditional and non-traditional students, both campus-based and online, in the capacity of faculty member, department chair, undergraduate dean, and vice-president of academic affairs. She currently serves as the Dean for General Education at American InterContinental University.
Anna Selga currently serves as the Online Program Chair for New Student Experience at American InterContinental University. She holds an MBA with emphasis in Organizational Leadership from National University. As a leader and manager, Anna has experience in training, coaching and development spanning 15 years that focused on staff development and operations management. This is in addition to more than 15 years of experience in higher education – both in online and ground campuses serving traditional and post-traditional learners, Anna held positions ranging from lecturer, Program Chair, Director of Education, Dean of Academic Affairs, and Campus Director.

Extended Abstract

With the rapid evolution in technology, constantly changing requirements of the job market, and a population that is aging and increasingly diverse, more and more universities are starting to serve non-traditional/adult students. In fact, estimates suggest that 40% of the current undergraduate population at American colleges and universities are non-traditional (CLASP, 2015) and expected to grow faster than their traditional counterparts.

While age is the most common factor used to identify the non-traditional (or post-traditional) learner, a student is considered post-traditional if s/he:

  • does not enter school in the same year as high school graduation or
  • attends part-time for at least part of the academic year or
  • works more than 35 hours per week while attending school or
  • is considered independent by financial aid offices (is 24 or older, married, a veteran, has children or other dependents) or
  • has dependents (children/siblings/parents) or
  • is a single parent or
  • does not have a high school diploma (has a General Education Diploma (GED))

Cross (1981) identified 3 categories of barriers all of which affect the post-traditional students’ ability to access and complete learning activities: Situational, institutional and dispositional. Situational or life factors relate to the unique life circumstances of the nontraditional student such as conflicting roles, limited resources, and limited support systems. Institutional factors relate to campus culture and institutional practices, procedures and policies which are often designed only for the traditional learner. Dispositional or attitudinal factors pertain to the individual characteristics or qualities internal to the individual, such as learning styles, self-perceptions and attitudes, self-confidence and prior negative educational experiences.

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) has formulated a set of ten principles for effectively serving adults, areas of focus that enhance student retention and completion:

Principle 1: Adaptivity

Principle 2: Assessment of Learning Outcomes

Principle 3: Financing

Principle 4: Life & Career Planning

Principle 5: Outreach

Principle 6: Strategic Partnerships

Principle 7: Student Support Systems

Principle 8: Teaching and Learning Process

Principle 9: Technology

Principle 10: Transitions

Situational factors like limited geographical mobility and limited time and resources have resulted in a large majority of such students taking some or all of their coursework online. One of the biggest challenges an institution serving online students is the ability to establish social presence. Coined by Short, Williams, and Christie (1976) as “the degree of salience of the other person in the interaction and the consequent salience of the interpersonal relationships.” This concept is relevant to online teaching and advising given the findings of Gunawardena & Zittle (1997) who found social presence to be a significant predictor of audience satisfaction within computer-mediated forms of communication, and Richardson and Swan (2003) who found that overall perceived learning was predicted by perceived social presence in online courses. Based on this research we can assume that advising for online students need to ensure that students feel genuinely connected to their advisor/s and the advisor-student relationship feels ‘real’. Post-traditional students lead busy lives and rely on media such as email to communicate with their advisor, and don’t have any or as many opportunities to connect with advisors in person or even voice-to-voice. Thus such computer-mediated communication by its very nature can easily become task-oriented and impersonal.

The following questions will drive the focus of this session (conversation):

  1. What barriers do adult, online students encounter at each of our institutions?
  2. How can we establish social presence with advisees when using computer-mediated communication?
  3. What other best practices in advising can be adapted for use by institutions as they look to serving adult learners specially in an online environment?

Participants in the session will be encouraged to take into account Cross’ (1981) three categories of barriers encountered by post-traditional students while brainstorming how to leverage the CAEL Principles for Effectively Serving Adults to inform efforts at developing a robust advising model suitable for their specific students. At the heart of the exercise will be the goal of genuinely ‘connecting’ with remote students or establishing ‘social presence’ in an online environment, so that when difficult conversations need to happen, the student will be comfortable working with his/her advisor/s.

The goal of this session will be for participants to come away with at least one practice they can implement for their institution whether at a personal level or departmental or institutional level, that they believe will positively impact student success (e.g. in the form of greater engagement, increasing persistence/retention rates, higher student satisfaction, etc.).

To aid in this exercise, we will share one large institution’s efforts to provide wraparound, high-touch advising to its online, post-traditional learners drawing from CAEL principles. The focal point of our student support system are our ‘Graduation Teams’ which consist of the admissions counselor, the financial aid advisor, the student services advisor assigned to the student as well as the faculty who teaches the first class the student takes. Grad Team members collaborate and coordinate with each other in assisting the student to see him/her through graduation. Frequent, relevant and personalized contact is used to keep the student on track. At the center of these endeavors is an effort to establish social presence, via all means available: Phone, email, text messages as well as contact through the university’s internal two-way messaging system (called Messenger). Initially the goal of student contact is to establish a relationship with the student, and get to know their students and their specific situational and dispositional factors so the coaching provided can be customized according.

Having a team that provides student support services that stays with the student throughout his or her educational journey helps provide the steady support the student may otherwise lack. In addition, as opposed to merely being available when the student reaches out for assistance, each member of the team conducts consistent and individualized outreach to students starting at enrollment, helping the student navigate through admissions paperwork and decisions regarding financing their education, as well as new student orientation, and later (throughout the program) with course selection and scheduling, and life and career planning.

Since the post-traditional student tends to exhibit significantly higher levels of self-doubt and anxiety and low self-esteem (Laher, 2007; Pathways to Success, 2012), the nature of the communication is structured and systematic and large tasks are broken out into smaller, more manageable ones so they appear less formidable. Additionally, feedback on classroom performance is detailed, constructive and respectful. Even when presenting negative feedback, the tone is caring, positive and motivational, not punitive or dismissive. Establishing social presence allows the Grad Team to establish a close working relation with the student and communicate to the student that s/he has a champion and a mentor in his/her instructor and not an adversary and a gatekeeper seeking to keep them out of higher education opportunities (Allen, 2002; Quina & Kanarian, 1988).

While a lot of the Grad Team contact is relational, the student services advisor and faculty take the lead in initiating action-oriented communication (via phone, email, text, and Messenger) to help students identify academic gaps and connect them to the appropriate learning support in the form of tutors or librarians. Multiple modes of communication help us tailor our contact strategy to the mode most convenient to the student given that they need to juggle multiple roles and responsibilities and have limited resources.

Technology is leveraged to coordinate the outreach conducted by various members of the Grad Team: Since several major areas fall under the umbrella of advising, and involve various departments (student services, financial aid, academics), a single student information system which all members of the Grad Team use to input and retrieve student information supports a coordinated communication approach. Since all communication with the student is recorded and located in a single location and is viewable by all team members, it helps avoid redundant contact which may overwhelm or confuse the post-traditional student who is limited on time and energy. It also conveys the message that it is a cohesive team working on supporting the student. If one member of the team enjoys better rapport with the student than others, then that is also leveraged in order to reach the student.

Data analytics is another aspect of technology that helps us identify at-risk students. Classroom performance indicators such as missed assignments, low engagement and poor grades are all predictors not just for failing a class but of dropping out of the institution. Thus this data is monitored weekly for entry level classes for the first 180-days of the student life-cycle. Identification of such at-risk students triggers actions on the part of the advisor and faculty to reach out to the student to offer assistance and troubleshoot for the reasons for the less than satisfactory performance whether they are situational, institutional or dispositional. Advisors and faculty take on roles beyond those suggested by their titles in helping students address gaps in technology proficiency or serving as role models, even when the student may be a few years older than them.

Data will be shared from initial results that show positive outcomes in the form of increased engagement/responsiveness especially with texts and Messenger exchanges and increased student satisfaction.