Helping online students succeed: Identifying and addressing gaps in technology and support services

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Brief Abstract

We used institutional data and surveys of students and faculty to assess the needs of our online students. Based on our results, we implemented specific improvements to online student resources, and developed a plan to follow up and gauge their impact.

Extended Abstract

How should colleges and universities address the needs of their online students? This is a major concern in higher education, and simply knowing where to begin can be a significant challenge. Much of the existing literature focuses on adult learners, and often concerns only specific programs. Having evidence specific to one’s own institution, with its unique population of online students, is useful in updating the available resources and supports.

The COVID pandemic brought forward a number of issues affecting the success of online learners. For instance, academic and student support services are traditionally designed for and promoted to fully in-person students. This can be the case even for institutions with large online student populations. When the pandemic temporarily forced most in-person classes into various online formats, academic and student support services likewise required a dramatic shift to online delivery. As a result, we have seen what is possible under duress; now is the time to consider continuing and improving key resources for online students. We just need to determine where to focus our efforts and construct a plan for assessing the success of the measures that are implemented.

We used a combination of institutional data and surveys of online students and faculty to find areas where we could work to improve student success. From institutional data we were able to identify which of our online student groups were most in need of support. In particular, we learned that the first year for undergraduate online students is crucial. Fully online first-year students had lower course pass rates compared to those who were only partially online (i.e., taking at least one course in person). In contrast, not only was the course pass rate for sophomores greater, but there was also a less marked distinction between those who were fully vs. partially online. These results suggest that some students, particularly first-year undergraduates, may benefit from being on campus at least part of the time. However, in-person learning is not always an option.  Having more resources available online, and raising awareness of resources already available, could help to narrow the gap between online and on-campus students.

With the surveys, conducted in the fall of 2021, we specifically examined student readiness for online learning as it concerns access to and fluency with technology and awareness of and willingness to use academic and student support services. We also learned about faculty experiences with online instruction and captured their assessments of online student needs.

Technology was a focus area because of its vital role in interactions within online courses. Students who do not have consistent access to required technology, such as a stable internet connection and a computer or tablet, are at a disadvantage. Those who are not fluent with technology skills and practices, such as using communication and media tools appropriately, are less likely to succeed. We compiled a list of the most used types of technology tools in our institution’s online courses. In addition to the LMS and MS Office, these included video cloud platforms, audiovisual conferencing platforms, and academic integrity tools. From the list, we identified specific areas in need of attention.

Another survey focus was the support services available to online students. These include academic support services, such as library services, advising, the writing center, and tutoring; and student services, such as counseling, financial aid, admissions and registration, and accommodations for students with disabilities. We sought to gauge student awareness of and willingness to use these services. Certain supports by necessity are only available in-person at our institution, including the food pantry and career closet. Other services, such as the writing center, offer both in-person and online services. We learned that slightly more than 40% of our online students were fully online at the time of the survey. The remaining students were still on campus at times for in-person learning and so could benefit from campus-based services if they were aware of them. We noted positive responses from online students who had used the on-campus services, indicating that raising awareness might result in increased use of such services, at least for students who could make the occasional trip to campus. Likewise, students and faculty tended to respond favorably to questions about remotely offered services, although there were suggestions for improvements. For example, the library database collection was highly rated, but survey respondents indicated a desire for more training in its use. The Help Desk received overwhelmingly positive responses, but a need for extended hours was repeatedly noted.

Technology and support services are areas where our institution could quickly implement improvements. We have undertaken certain steps to provide resources for online students based on our findings. We collected links to established resources such as tutorials for common technology tools used in online courses. We commissioned a series of short instructional videos to help students with common technology-based processes, such as setting up webmail as a new student, and using the library’s databases. We ordered a collection of infographics addressing topics such as learning opportunities and support services available to online students. Faculty and students repeatedly expressed the wish for a central online location for all student resources. In response, a single web page functions as a hub dedicated to online students and their needs.

It is worth noting that students and faculty alike were affected by the shift to online instruction driven by the pandemic. Not all faculty surveyed taught exclusively online courses prior to that time; in fact, only about 35% reported that their teaching modality was unaffected because their courses were already either fully or partially online. Only approximately 60% of the students surveyed had at any online course experience prior to the spring of 2020, so the rest had their first experience learning online due to the pandemic. Institutional data from that time is predictably knotty, but we look forward to the availability of data from more recent semesters and onward to compare to our pre-pandemic data. We will continue to use a combination of institutional and survey data to gauge the impact of our improvements over time and identify additional areas where we may work to increase online student success.

Level of Participation

The asynchronous virtual presentation will be a short slide presentation (10-15 minutes) with voiceover. We will avoid dense text in favor of uncomplicated visuals (suitable for online viewing) and brief text points for emphasis. To help drive discussion, we will intersperse question prompts and opportunities to reflect among the informational slides.

Session Goals

Attendees will identify several possibilities for increasing online student success at their institutions. We anticipate the session will be of broad interest to administrators, faculty, and staff. We would be especially appreciative of students who share their perspectives in the discussion.