Going the Distance: NCCU’s Multifaceted, Collaborative Approach to Supporting the Distance Learner

Concurrent Session 4

Brief Abstract

Join NCCU’s Division of Extended Studies and explore how to collaborate with campus stakeholders to provide a network of support across the physical and virtual campus. Session participants will engage in institutional inventories of resources, entities, and services and self-assess current practices to develop a framework for distance learner support.


Dr. Racheal Brooks is the Coordinator of the Office of e-Learning and a Spanish and graduate-level research methods instructor at North Carolina Central University. She also serves as Co-Chair for the University of North Carolina System Quality Matters Council. Dr. Brooks is a member of the NCCU Distance Education Advisory Council, NCCU Quality Matters (QM) Coordinator, QM Master Reviewer, QM Program Reviewer, Course Review Manager, Face-to-Face and Online Facilitator of the Applying the Quality Matters Rubric (APPQMR) workshop, Face-to-Face Facilitator of the Improving Your Online Course (IYOC) workshop, iQM Association member (Spanish), and member of the QM Instructional Designers Association. She also established a series of learning communities on NCCU's campus that assist faculty in certifying their courses with the QM program. Her research interests include online instruction, online curriculum development, digital accessibility, instructional technology, qualitative research methods in education, Spanish language acquisition at HBCUs, second language learner beliefs, and minorities in Spanish language studies. Her recent publications include "Course Design, Quality Matters Training, and Student Outcomes" published in the American Journal of Distance Education and “Online Counselor Education: Creative Approaches and Best Practices in Online Learning Environments” published in Research on Education and Psychology. Dr. Brooks earned a BA in Spanish from North Carolina Central University, an MA in Spanish Literature from Georgia State University, and a PhD in Educational Research and Policy Analysis with a specialization in Higher Education Administration from North Carolina State University.

Extended Abstract

Online and distance education provides institutions opportunities to expand their reach to a variety of learners representing diverse socio-economic, geographic, and cultural backgrounds. It offers us pathways to employ innovative and efficient strategies that create meaningful and robust learning experiences for our students embodying all abilities. Moreover, online and distance education can support institutions in overcoming geographical and financial limitations that may restrict many learners from otherwise engaging in these educational experiences.

With all the opportunities online and distance education have the potential to bestow, these benefits can only come to fruition through an intentional commitment to holistically supporting the distance learner.  The North Carolina Central University (NCCU) Division of Extended Studies supports the mission and vision of the University by providing support to the entire virtual and distance learner from the initial stages of inquiry (prospective student); admission process; advisement; enrollment; matriculation; retention and graduation. Our dedicated staff work collaboratively to forge the foundation of positive relationships between prospective students and the University and administer programs that assist distance learners in achieving their goals. This effort is grounded in serving as the point-of-entry for all students who apply to online degree programs and site-based (off-campus) programs. Critical to fulfilling this responsibility are the unit’s Student Support Specialists, Online Admissions Officers, Academic Advisors and Counselors. Together, these onboarding professionals strive to give each applicant the full attention they deserve via prompt inquiry responses and dedicated Distance Education Coordinators who review application documents and make admissions decisions. To facilitate a transparent application and admissions process, prospective distance learners receive support through a hands-on approach to navigate campus resources and tools, while providing reassurance and encouragement, when necessary.

The Division of Extended Studies also utilizes various systems (Blackboard, Banner, Blackboard Hubspot, UNC Online), tools to effectively communicate and engage with our students (Constant Contact, Navigate, Mobile Apps, Websites, Call Center, WebEx, Social Media Platforms) and effective advising models (centralized advising and DE Coordinators for each online program) to support the virtual and distance learner life cycle at NCCU. In our investments, we ensure students are successful prior to enrolling in an online course with students completing the Online 101 course, an online readiness instrument and resource. Students also have access to a 24/7 Blackboard Helpdesk to troubleshoot any of their technical questions regarding our learning management system and a virtual computer lab and technical assistance provided by Information Technology Services.  Extended Studies collaborates with our campus partners such as the Shephard Library, Writing Studio, University Registrar Office, Undergraduate Admissions, Career Services, Information Technology Services, Student Accessibility Services, University Bookstore, Financial Aid and Student Accounting to ensure students at a distance receive the same services as if they were on-campus. 

To foster an academic experience conducive to the success of the NCCU distance learner, the Office of e-Learning, a branch of the Division of Extended Studies, facilitates faculty training and networking to promote excellence in our online educational environments and impactful faculty development. The Office of e-Learning builds capacity in faculty to create high-quality, sustainable and innovative online learning and educational resources. It has developed a comprehensive e-learning strategy for the University integrated with the NCCU Strategic Plan and NCCU Academic Affairs Strategic Plan. This office employs inventive tools and professional development resources to use emerging technologies for expanding online learning and educational resources. Furthermore, the Office of e-Learning utilizes the Quality Matters (QM) Higher Education Rubric as the process for the continuous review and evaluation of online courses and programs. The Office of e-Learning furthers the mission of the Division of Extended Studies to promote a transformative distance learning experience by guiding faculty through the intricacies of the analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation phases of the course design process. Additionally, this office introduces faculty to best practices regarding teaching strategies, learning activities, interaction, collaboration, engagement, feedback, and authentic assessments with adult distance learners in mind.

This commitment to quality for NCCU’s distance learners does not end when they log off of the online classroom. Recognizing the importance for continuous support to minimize distance learners’ perceived transactional distance, the Division of Extended Studies has a team of committed DE Coordinators who connect with learners weekly, coordinate admissions efforts with specific departments and programs, train academic advisors on the unique needs of their learners, and advocate for the interests and needs of the distance education student. These Distance Education professionals are responsible for recruiting and retaining students, assisting faculty in utilizing technology to effectively communicate with learners, and staying abreast of changes to distance learning courses and materials, programs, services, and applications.  Our DE Coordinators are skilled in employing learning analytics to make informed decisions regarding DE program initiatives in order to support faculty, staff, and students toward the goal of retaining distance learners and promoting completion.

Through the Division of Extended Studies’ combined efforts with campus stakeholders, we have successfully altered the fabric of our institution in both policy and practice to ensure quality permeates each aspect of our distance learners’ experiences. An example of this transformation is how we have explicitly interwoven the QM Higher Education Rubric’s General Standards 7 (Learner Support) and 8 (Accessibility and Usability) into our advertisements, communications, and online interactions with prospective and matriculating distance learners. Specifically, the Division of Extended Studies spearheaded the taskforce that developed the NCCU Accessibility Policy for Course Design (POL – 40.01.4) directly resulting from our QM learning community’s findings during the first iteration of the Course Review preparation process.

The expansion and growth of our distance education programs and online enrollment has shifted our campus partners to refine their processes, update their forms from paper to virtual formats and incorporate new systems of doing business. Extended Studies has contracted and invested in vendors, tutors, graduate assistants, coordinators, faculty and staff to ensure the distance learner is supported in their educational endeavors and success at NCCU. Extended Studies continues to collaborate with our campus partners and academic partners for continuous improvement as we adapt to the multifaceted distance learner at NCCU.

Join North Carolina Central University’s Division of Extended Studies, and explore how our unit works collaboratively with campus stakeholders to provide an intricate network of support across the physical and virtual campus. This highly engaging session will emphasize the strategies employed by the Division of Extended Studies, resolutions created to overcome obstacles, and how we successfully shifted the institutional culture to address the unique needs and interests of our distance learners. This session will also highlight the factors that contributed to the conception of NCCU Online, a continuously evolving online support platform for NCCU’s distance learners, and identify exciting distance learner initiatives, such as student support web conferences, information sessions, and toolkits. Session participants will engage in inventories of their own institutional resources, entities, and services and will be led to self-assess current institutional practices to develop a framework for supporting the holistic needs of their distance education learners.