Online Student Services: 3 Tips for Supporting Student Needs

Distance learning isn’t new. In fact, it was already increasing in popularity before the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2015, nearly one-third of higher education students took at least one distance education course (and 84% of them were undergraduate students). This is good news for schools turning their focus to online learning amid coronavirus concerns because there is already significant research on what services best meet the needs of this growing population. We looked into the research and best-in-class examples of online student services—what works, what students want, and considerations for online-only learners. Here’s what we discovered.

The Need for Online Student Services

Online students want online student services. About one-fourth of current online students reported that they use school support services, and another 50% indicated they would use these services if available, according to a survey of 1,500 online college students.

Student services, defined as “the academic, administrative, social, and psychological policies and practices to enable and facilitate student success,” are critical services that create a supportive and nurturing environment to help students thrive.

The need for student services has always existed, but they’re arguably more important now than ever. Online learners are missing the inherent sense of community that comes from an on-campus environment at a time when they need it most. Especially new students, who are completely new to the college experience and may be attending online classes for the very first time. Online student support services are essential to help these students feel informed, supported, and connected.

3 Considerations for Planning Online Student Services

Create a Strong Sense of Community

Distance learners have challenges to overcome such as physical separation, feeling of isolation, lack of support, and feeling disconnected. Research shows that creating a supportive community with a sense of belonging, membership, and engagement can improve the student experience and lead to increased attrition.

Some key principles that have been shown to increase a sense of community among online learners include:

  • Spirit – Allow opportunities for virtual learners to connect with one another and feel a sense of connectedness. This can happen in the virtual classroom, but also in orientations, clubs, and online events.
  • Trust – Give online learners confidence that they can rely on their college community. Professors generally have some built-in trust, but it’s important that students can also rely on their peers and other campus members. Ensure students feel supported, and that they know where to go when they need support.
  • Interaction – Because the quantity of interaction is likely lower in online learning, the quality of any interactions becomes even more important. Online student services shouldn’t be “good enough,” they should be meaningful and well-executed.
  • Common expectations – Be clear and purposeful in expectations, and create shared value in learning and growth to help students feel their educational needs are being satisfied.

A common misconception is that online learners prefer to be isolated, or that they have to be. Students have the best chance of success when they feel connected and supported.

You may not be able to decrease physical distance, but you can decrease psychological distance by facilitating open dialogue and creating a strong sense of community among all students, professors, administrators, and staff.

Ensure Online Student Services Are Accessible

Distance learners are looking for online student services that are easy to use and available at their convenience.

Let’s talk about usability. Even if you know all students have computer access, you can’t assume they will be accessing and using online student services from a computer. Fifty-six percent of current and past online college students use a smartphone or tablet to complete at least some of their online course-related activities, and 3 in 10 students own a laptop, a smartphone, and a tablet. A student may be using a smartphone to access support due to preference, convenience, or requirement (perhaps they’re away from their computer or don’t have wi-fi access). No matter what device they are using, they should have a positive experience without frustration or roadblocks.

Time is also an accessibility factor. Your online students may be available at different times from traditional students, particularly if they work a full-time job. Not all services can be available 24/7, but it’s important to consider times that are best for your specific student population.

Consider Unique Needs and Desires of Online Learners

Remote learners have unique needs. For example, tech support is more pressing and essential for these students. Not having tech support in a timely manner can get in the way of a student’s ability to do their work and attend classes. Consider extending hours for these services, including weekend support when students are likely to need help, and ensuring you have ample self-help resources when one-on-one support is unavailable.

Four additional online student services that prospective online students showed a large interest in include:

  • Money management (56%)
  • Study skills development (51%)
  • Time management assistance (46%)
  • Health/wellness assistance (40%)

It’s valid to note that the survey this data came from was administered before COVID-19, so although health/wellness assistance was already highly desirable to online students, it’s likely increased now.

It’s not surprising that a recent survey by BestColleges found that among students impacted by COVID-19, 81% were experiencing increased stress. College counseling centers were already struggling to keep up with demand as over half of students sought counseling in 2019. To address the mental health needs of online students in 2020 and beyond, colleges are turning to solutions such as telehealth counseling visits and virtual college mental health trainings, which can help build resilience and promote peer support and self-care.

Want to discover how Kognito’s suite of higher education simulations can fit into your online student services to promote wellbeing? Learn more about our approach to comprehensive mental health prevention and access a free demo of our student training here.

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