First Impressions Matter: Strategies for Creating an Online First-Year Experience (OFYE) that Lasts

Concurrent Session 1
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Brief Abstract

As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression, so make it count!  From orientation to first-year seminars and social integration, this presentation will provide practical onboarding strategies that impact online student success and persistence during the first year of college.


Dr. Jeff Hall is focused on supporting new online students in the first-year experience and empowering adult learners who have traditionally been underserved by higher education. He has been in the education field for 20 years, serving students in both K-12 and higher education. He currently serves as the Lead Faculty for UNIV 104, Colorado Technical University's student success course. Prior to his time at CTU, he held progressive leadership positions at Ashford University, most recently as an Associate Dean (AD) in the Division of General Education. As an AD, he provided leadership in the facilitation of several online, high enrollment college success, and social science General Education courses. His significant accomplishments at Ashford include the development of a college success course for the 21st Century adult learner as well as comprehensive revisions of other core General Education courses to support the persistence of at-risk students. Before his arrival at Ashford in 2011, Jeff served as an Academic Advisor and Program Coordinator in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies at the University of South Florida (USF) Tampa Campus. Jeff also has two years’ experience as an Instructional Designer, both at USF and the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Dr. Hall holds a Doctor of Education in Higher Education Leadership and a Master of Education in Instructional Technology from the University of South Florida. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Business and Office Education, also from the University of South Florida. His most formative collegiate experiences were at the University of North Florida (UNF), where he earned an Associate degree through UNF’s Honors program. As the first in his family to earn a college degree, Jeff is driven by his work with first-generation college students and believes that self-awareness (metacognition & self-regulation) is critical to success in college and the workplace. Jeff is a certified trainer in the Let Me Learn Process, an advanced learning system, experienced by more than 150,000 online learners during his time at Ashford University.
Dr. Ryan Korstange has served as Assistant Professor in the University Studies Department at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) since 2017, where he coordinates the university’s academic first-year seminar program. Korstange holds a Ph.D. and an M.Phil in Hebraic and Cognate Studies from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. He earned his M.A. in Biblical Studies, Biblical Language and Biblical Interpretation from Trinity Western University. His current research focuses on understanding student learning in college and building effective programs to prioritize high-level student success. His work has appeared in the Adult Learning, the Journal of Student Success and Retention, The Journal for College Orientation, Transition, and Retention, The Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, and the Journal of Faculty Development.

Extended Abstract

All incoming students have a first experience with their institution. In online education, however, many students are not making it to the finish line and leave the institution during the first year. This may be due to competing priorities, lack of academic preparation, motivation, or personal connection to the institution. 

Completion and graduation rates for online programs continue to lag those for face-to-face programs (Mulijana & Luo, 2010; Murphy & Stewart, 2017). In response to these retention and completion rates, a plethora of student support services has arisen. These efforts are based on principles popularized by first-year experience efforts for traditionally aged, on-ground students. However, the strategies developed to support the transition of traditional students in face-to-face instructional settings have undergone significant modifications to address the unique needs of adult learners in the online learning environment.

This presentation will explore three high impact practices that have been proven successful at multiple institutions, which include orientation programs, first-year seminar courses, and integrating new online learners into an academic environment. Outcomes for the presentation include:

  1. Define the “Online First-Year Experience” (OFYE) and why all institutions with online programs should offer one.

  2. Describe various approaches to the orientation (or onboarding) process for new online students. 

  3. Differentiate approaches to the first-year seminar course, also known as the college success course.

  4. Discuss the social integration process of new online students in order to create a sense of belongingness.

Intentional OFYE programming is essential. Now more than ever, it is imperative that students not be treated as aggregate numbers but that they experience a more personalized approach that begins on day one. Through collaborative partnerships, those who provide services and instruction to new students at the outset of their collegiate journey can provide a meaningful online first-year experience that transcends the distance between learners and their learning experience. While these supports follow a typical path, no two online students or are identical, nor are institutions providing online instruction. Therefore, OFYE programming is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Rather, these best practices must be customized at each institution in order to further the educational aims of their student population.



Mulijana, P.S., & Luo T. (2019). Factors contributing to student retention in online learning and recommended strategies for improvement: A systematic literature review. Journal of Information Technology Education, 18, 19-57. DOI: 10.28945/4182