From Counter Space to Cyber Space: How to Provide Engaging Online First-Year Seminars

Concurrent Session 3
Equity and Inclusion

Brief Abstract

We want to share our unique narrative about our entry-point experience at a fully online, asynchronous university that serves working adults. If you are looking for a traditional first-year seminar where students meet their professors in the quad and chat over lattes, then this presentation isn’t for you!  


Dr. Allison Rief is an Associate Professor and Associate Director in the Academic Engagement Center at the University of Arizona Global Campus. Allison earned a Doctorate of Education with a specialization in Teacher Education in Multicultural Societies from the University of Southern California; a Master of Education from the University of California, Los Angeles; and a Bachelor of Arts in Literatures in English at the University of California, San Diego. Dr. Rief began her career as an elementary and preschool teacher. She maintains a National Board Certification and was awarded the Teacher of the Year for both the Los Angeles Unified School District and Los Angeles County. Within higher education, she has had experience launching new programs and revising existing programs, developing courses, providing professional development, and working with collaborative teams across the university. Currently, Dr. Rief is a member of the Change Advisory Group, Student Conduct and Community Standards Committee, Forbes Center for Women’s Leadership, Turn the Tide, and oversees the partnership with No Excuses University schools. Beyond the programs she leads, she also serves on Doctoral committees and teaches the Doctoral In-Residence.

Additional Authors

Dr. Jennifer Vogel is an associate director in the Academic Engagement Center at University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC). She holds a PhD in Educational Equity from American University in Washington, D.C. Dr. Vogel has been an educator for 25 years. She began her career in K-12 before moving on to higher education. Prior to University of Arizona Global Campus, Dr. Vogel taught non-traditional adult learners at a community college for more than a decade. In 2010, she was awarded the Teaching Excellence Award from the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development at the University of Texas at Austin. She is also an honorary faculty member of the Alpha Sigma Lambda Honor Society. Dr. Vogel is a published researcher whose interests include online learning pedagogy, adult learning theory, and faculty learning communities. 'Teaching adults and providing them with educational opportunities and access to higher education is my passion,' she says. 'Institutions like UAGC help to democratize higher education by making it affordable and accessible to working adults. I am proud to be a part of that mission.'

Extended Abstract

High-Impact Practices (HIPs) are educational practices shown to increase rates of student retention, student engagement, and persistence for all students across diverse backgrounds. Among the many HIPs, the First-Year Seminar (FYS) serves in a unique role, acting as a student’s “handshake” or introduction to the world of higher education. First-Year Seminars place a strong emphasis on critical inquiry, frequent writing, information literacy, collaborative learning, and other skills that develop students’ intellectual and practical competencies (American Association of Colleges and Universities, 2022).

In traditional settings, many schools build into the curriculum first-year seminars that bring small groups of students together with faculty or staff on a regular basis. Transforming the experiences to an online modality requires a focus on the aligned learning outcomes and the key HIP elements as well as innovative approaches to engage and support students. At our fully online, asynchronous university, we serve non-traditional, working adults: over 77% of our students are employed full time, 56% receive Pell Grants, 24% are associated with the military, and 57% have dependents. Oftentimes, our students have neither the time to dedicate to a separate seminar nor the funds to pay for a course that is not supported by financial aid. The first-year experience at our university is overseen by the Academic Engagement Center, a group of faculty and leaders with extensive college teaching experience and a variety of content-area expertise who design the courses and creates the co-curricular aspects of our online FYS.

For this presentation, we focus on entry-point experiences specifically designed to meet the needs of our adult online learners and help cultivate a sense of belonging. This comprehensive approach consists of scaffolded coursework, embedded orientation, and co-curricular support. The asynchronous coursework covers a variety of college readiness skills including strategies for student success, digital literacy, and information literacy. The course sequence is intentionally planned through thoughtful, faculty-driven course design and informed by student success metrics and data. A new student orientation, grounded in course content, is embedded throughout the courses. In addition, students take part in a variety of synchronous co-curricular events such as “Meet the Majors” where they are connected to faculty in their degree program early in their coursework. Students also take part in required, synchronous learning sessions that bring to life course content and provide students a virtual learning community with face-to-face interaction with faculty and other students.

For centuries, the FYS has served an important role in orienting new students to the world of higher education.  A high-quality FYS is comprised of “an intentional combination of academic and cocurricular efforts” (Koch & Gardner, 2002). Further, the FYS should emphasize critical thinking and inquiry, writing, information literacy, collaborative learning among students, and other important skills and competencies that students need to develop (American Association of Colleges and Universities, 2022). With increases in technology, the FYS has needed to adapt to meet the needs of the changing student population, many more of whom are considered digital natives. Offering a completely online FYS has the potential to increase student engagement and address diverse learning needs. In order to do so, the FYS needs to be designed with intention and supported by research.

As the needs of students are changing, so too are demographics.  We can also see how FYS can help address the equity gap which is based on disparity in educational attainment.  Over 52% of students enrolled in postsecondary education are white, as compared to 15.2% Black/African American and 19.8% Hispanic (American Council on Education, 2016).  While the percentages of Black and Hispanic students enrolling in postsecondary education are lower than their White counterparts, their dropout rates are significantly higher- Black 42.8%, Hispanic 32.8%, and White 23.5% respectively (Shapiro et al., 2017). Schneider and Albertine (2013) found that HIPs, including FYS, can lead to equitable achievement of outcomes for diverse student populations. 

Situated at the beginning of a student’s college experience, the FYS has “the potential for substantial educational and equity implications for higher education” (Keup & Young, 2018). An online-only FYS has the potential to reach students more effectively through the use of technology, removing possible barriers to accessing a traditional FYS.  Although FYS have been in existence for centuries, online-only versions have not been thoroughly documented or researched. Keup (2018) points out that research regarding “interactive engagement with the course content and the classroom community” is paramount to the success of FYS; however, very little research has been done in online and hybrid settings (p. 18). As online FYS are increasing in number, conversations and research about best practices need to be discussed and shared.

While formal research about the impact of fully virtual First-year Seminars is not abundant, we will share our story, which is driven by data.  But we also hope to learn from participants.  We believe in social-constructivism and that everyone in the room brings their own unique experiences and knowledge that, when shared, helps to build our collective thinking.  With this in mind, we plan to have audience participation through the use of interactive polls and group discussion.