Familiar Faces: An Innovative Approach to Promoting Persistence in an Online Academic Program

Concurrent Session 7
Streamed Session

Brief Abstract

The efficacy of online learning is well established. Educators must now address the complex issues surrounding persistence in online programs and the creation of effective emotional connections with students. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) has introduced an innovative video initiative that suggests new approaches to grounding students in an online program.


Will Brooke-deBock, Associate Dean of Faculty for Undergraduate Healthcare Administration at SNHU.
Kirstin Bibbiani is the Academic Process Manager for the Nursing and Health Professions Team within the College of Online and Continuing Education at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). Kirstin joined the team in November 2014. During her tenure with the department Kirstin has worked on a number of initiatives aimed at creating an emotional connection with students in the online environment. She is currently enrolled in the Masters of Operations and Project Manager at SNHU; her perspectives as a staff member and student have greatly contributed to the development of the Familiar Faces pilot program.

Extended Abstract

Developing an instructional presence in online courses has long been a challenge for educators. Grounding students in an online program compounds those challenges and adds new wrinkles and opportunities for deans, administrators, and faculty alike. While course-level success is important, our attempts to prepare students for career success will fall flat if our students do not make it through the sequence of courses that make up a program. As professionals know, persistence is not determined by a single factor but is rather a composite phenomenon made up of many factors. Traditional campus-based schools often leverage social structures (student unions, student services, informal groups, etc.) to ground students in their educational culture. Online institutions have developed strategies aimed at fostering loyalty and connection, including robust academic advising strategies and proactive career services, but they have not completely addressed the underlying student need to feel connected and part of a program’s academic community and culture.

In traditional campus-based programs, students gain a sense of connection and loyalty to a program through things as simple as having a shared space, seeing familiar faces, and having positive and motivationally reinforcing conversations over the course of a term. These factors may be countervailing considerations when students are thinking about withdrawing from a program. Re-creating that exact experience in an online program designed primarily for working adult students is certainly a challenge. In fact, it is such a challenge that some leaders in higher education would have us believe that adult online students only want efficient, stripped-down courses. Persistence rates in online programs versus traditional programs belie (or at least call into question) this assumption.

In the spring of 2016, the presenters started developing the video series called Familiar Faces, a series of short, professionally produced videos that are strategically threaded throughout a student’s progression in Southern New Hampshire University’s Undergraduate Healthcare Administration Program. The project introduces students to a professor and a student who will become their “familiar faces” throughout their program of study. Student outreach is initiated upon admission to the program and follows students through their journey to graduation. Students will encounter the duo in 40+ videos that are tactically deployed in the program.  

While we understand that this initiative will not completely emulate the tangible experience that a student feels in a campus-based program, the project is based on some foundational assumptions:

  • Creating an emotionally resonant experience through video is possible. The project was built on the notion that a basic, positive emotional connection with students can be fostered by giving the program a face. Students will get used to seeing the familiar faces and will recognize that there is something of value to be gained by watching. Each video is a small burst of positive reinforcement and connection to the program at strategic points in a student’s experience.

  • Empirical data informs us how to best deploy the project. Video development and delivery were based on a careful analysis of students’ experience in the program. The team analyzed submission rates, pass rates, and student feedback on assignments while deciding on video content and where the videos would be of most benefit to the students.

  • Nudging a student to stay on track in a program is preferable to larger programmatic interventions. The team considered theoretical findings that supported a positive and indirect approach being more effective than a mandated approach. Messaging is not overly prescriptive or heavy-handed; instead, the content is engaging, energetic, and open. It is our goal to guide and influence a student’s self-perception, and to encourage adjustments and behaviors that students can make to stay positively engaged with the program (Thaler & Sunstein, 2009).

  • Style matters. Tone, clarity, and delivery are not side issues. Clark and Mayer’s personalization principle was employed with particular attention paid to insights regarding pedagogical agents (Clark & Mayer, 2008).

  • Content matters. We employed consistent strategies as we developed content. These include interweaving big-picture thinking, practical tips and reminders, and clear aspirational content grounded in research on motivation.

In this presentation, Will Brooke-deBock, Kirstin Bibbiani, and Dr. Jan Wyatt will screen samples of the videos and provide an integrative discussion that will focus on the strategic assumptions and underpinnings of this robust project, as well as many of the tactical considerations that went into the development of the project. Topics will include:

  • Strategic messaging design: What did we want to say? When in a student’s experience would it be most useful and appreciated to see a familiar face?

  • Operationalizing scalability: How did we approach translating the goal of creating a familiar-face experience in a fast-growing program that serves thousands of students every term?

  • Building buy-in: How did we ensure that we have buy-in from important stakeholders, including academic advising, faculty, admissions, instructional design, marketing, and others?

  • Lessons from scripting: How did we translate academic writing (and ingrained academic writing habits) into short, meaningful video-delivered messages?

  • Success: How do we know if a program like this is successful and worth the effort? How do we define success?

The sessions will prompt attendees to:

  • Contribute to the larger academic discussion of persistence in online programs in higher education

  • Encourage thought about the strategic considerations for initiatives of this type

  • Raise awareness of the practical and tactical considerations for the implementation of initiatives of this type

  • Understand our approach to data and preliminary findings

  • Participate with the presenters in an interactive discussion of the project through videos and a demonstration and description of underlying tools and techniques


The SNHU, College of Online and Continuing Education, Healthcare Administration program was launched in the fall of 2014 and is currently one of the top enrolling undergraduate programs at the university. It is situated in the Nursing and Health Professions Department, which is one of the fasting growing verticals at SNHU.

Will Brooke-deBock, Associate Dean of Faculty for Undergraduate Healthcare Administration at SNHU.

Kirstin Bibbiani, Academic Process Manager for the Nursing and Health Professions Department and a master’s student at SNHU.

Dr. Jan Wyatt, Senior Executive Director for Nursing and Health Professions, Social Sciences, and Education at SNHU.


Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2008). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New York, NY: Penguin Books.