In order to ensure online learners are provided with the tools and skills they need to be successful, a proper orientation and ongoing support must be provided to all students. Bay Path College’s Center for Distributed Learning employs a dedicated Online Student Support Coordinator who is responsible for providing these services to online learners. This person provides integrated, single-point-of-contact support services and creates a proactive learning partnership with online students.
The level of training and support students receive from their educational institution can greatly affect their success in their courses and programs. At Bay Path College, we strive to provide an encouraging and supportive environment for all of our students. When we began offering fully online programs, it was clear that a comprehensive, accessible support system would be needed for our students and faculty. This need led to the establishment of the Center for Distributed Learning (CDL), an integrated IT and academic support organization on campus. To best meet the needs of new online students, the CDL developed an interactive student orientation course that is required of all online learners. When students are well-prepared, they tend to be more satisfied with their online learning experience, which translates to better retention rates and higher levels of student success. The orientation is facilitated and highly interactive, providing students with practice in using the LMS as well as information about how to be successful in an online learning environment.
To ensure that the ongoing support needs of our students are continually met, the position of Online Student Support Coordinator was created. This individual serves as the facilitator for the orientation course, and also acts as the first point of contact on campus for all online student support needs, creating a partnership with students to help them achieve their academic goals. This individual provides a wealth of support services including assistance with LMS-related technology support, assisting those who are struggling with online learning, and monitoring students as they transition from the orientation to their online courses, proactively assisting students where needed. Students can also rely on the Online Student Support Coordinator to answer other questions about the institution and point students in the right direction when they need other types of assistance, such as financial aid or registration questions. This allows the student to primarily interface with a single person for their support needs rather than having to keep track of whom to call for what type of assistance.
The combination of the orientation program and the services provided by the Online Student Support Coordinator has proven to be a valuable resource for the CDL. Since the Fall 2007 semester, nearly 1600 students have completed the Orientation to Online Learning course. A recent survey showed that 89% of students felt that the orientation experience was helpful in preparing them for their first online course. Our faculty also report greater student preparation in their online courses than they noted before the Online Student Support Coordinator position was created. This allows faculty to focus on the content of their courses, knowing there is a resource in place for students who need technical or online learning assistance. Online students also feel more connected to the campus; knowing that there is a “live” person they can call who will assist them with any questions or concerns they have throughout their time at the College. This helps alleviate the feeling of isolation from the campus community that can occur when students do not live within a close proximity to the campus.
We are pleased with the successes we’ve seen to date with our efforts to support our online students. Surveys conducted by the Center for Distributed Learning indicate that faculty feel they can focus on the content of their course, rather than worry about the technology. They also feel that the Online Student Support Coordinator provides students with an ally who is there to assist them through any challenges they face from orientation to graduation. In comparing pre- and post-orientation survey data, our students indicate a 19% increase in their own perception of their readiness for online learning, and a 13% increase in their comfort level with using the LMS. Following completion of at least one online course, 92% of students felt they were highly successful in their first online course. Many of our students decide to go on and take additional online courses, and of those who do, 87% stated that the support services that are available to them at least somewhat influenced their decision to take additional online courses. Many of our online students (66%) also feel they are a part of the Bay Path campus community. In a recent survey, a student noted “I would have withdrawn from the course had he [the Online Student Support Coordinator] not been there to help me. I needed a great deal of help during the entire first month. He was patient, clear and available.” Surveys are conducted regularly in the Orientation course and the data is used to improve the program.
This practices aligns with the Sloan pillars in many ways. In terms of access, this practice helps ensure that all students enter the online classroom prepared to learn. The orientation provides them with the skills they need to be successful, and the Online Student Support Coordinator provides the ongoing support that many students need. The program is scalable in that additional Coordinators can be added when growth and the number of students necessitates it. It is cost effective as the added tuition revenue generated far exceeds the additional salary costs that come with adding additional staff. Faculty and student satisfaction is high with this program. Faculty feel they have someone to assist their students with technical issues, and that there is someone else looking out for the well-being of their students. Students feel supported and feel like they are part of the campus community. They are prepared with the tools they need to transition to a new type of learning environment successfully, and this helps them reach their personal academic goals.
Following the initial development and implementation of the program, the only ongoing costs that are directly associated with this practice are the salaries for the Coordinators. The number of Coordinators will vary based on the number of online students at the institution and how much support those students need. Institutions with students that greatly take advantage of the Coordinator’s services will need to have a smaller student to coordinator ratio.