Evolution not revolution: strengthening student services online

Digital technologies are more than a short-term emergency tool; they provide an opportunity to enhance student support services long after a return to campus, explain Steven Goss and Amy Greenstein


Manhattan College,Metropolitan College of New York
26 Jan 2021
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Use digital technologies to enhance student support services

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As debate continues over online versus on-campus teaching, many in higher education argue the “distance-learning revolution” hasn’t taken hold because online learning just isn’t as good.  

This attitude highlights why many colleges were disoriented when they had to quickly evacuate in 2020. It underscores a serious problem: many academics perceive digital education as encroaching on the traditional collegiate experience.   

But those of us actively engaged in online education would argue this is not a revolution seeking to uproot traditional models. Instead, we are seeking to expand how institutions attract, teach and cultivate students accustomed to digital communication and collaboration.   

For institutions to assume that a return to campus bypasses the need to strengthen technological capacities to better serve their communities is short-sighted. Continuing to portray online communication and collaboration as a less effective alternative to on-ground engagement only serves to delay and disrupt the evolving use of digital technologies that enhance higher education for students.   

It’s not just about the classroom  

As higher education moved off campus due to Covid-19, many institutions focused their energies on modifying instructional delivery. While this response addressed the immediate teaching and learning needs, it did not extend to the non-academic resources that contribute to student success.  

As institutions plan for 2021 and beyond, digital and online services for student support must be taken into consideration. Students expect and need access to the offices of tutoring, advising, registrar, bursar, library, diversity and community, access and disability. These units play an essential role.  

They increase opportunities for students to succeed in academic pursuits and they provide programming to strengthen their connections to the campus community.   

To suggest offering services online is less effective makes those services less accessible to all students and goes against the mission that guides these services.  

Institutions that are considering how to support students remotely, especially those that are doing so because of the pandemic, may not be aware of how essential it is to adapt these services online.  

However, research demonstrates that comprehensive online experience contributes to a positive impact on student success and satisfaction. Consider the following: 

  • Strengthening student retention and circumventing attrition 

Students must have access to typical support services in order to feel connected to an institution, research shows. These resources have been identified as both academic and non-academic services including registration, tutoring, and policies and procedures. Without access to these services, students may not register for classes or withdraw from the institution. These decisions ultimately impact the perception and value of the college and its ability to retain and graduate students. 

  • Increasing access 

Institutions are hesitant to make necessary changes to existing services and resources before the online educational offering has proved successful. This creates a vicious cycle that precludes students from receiving the support they would need to improve their experience and thus build a positive reputation for the institution’s online offerings. 

  • Supporting community 

Learners, especially those in online programmes, require services and resources, including regular feedback and interactions with faculty and instructors, to be available in digital format. They also desire additional ways to connect with the institution and other members of their programme or course to prevent feelings of isolation. These options must be offered in a way that is compatible with their online student status. 

While many institutions are grappling with how to best use technology to enhance their student services, implementing change doesn’t have to be complex or costly. Here are a few practical suggestions that student affairs professionals can consider when embracing the digital: 

Want to strengthen retention and prevent attrition?  

Consider offering more opportunities for students to connect synchronously. If you are already hosting virtual orientations and advising meetings at the start of the term, how about offering more occasions for students to check in throughout the semester? You could schedule a series of sessions to offer expert advice and guidance on issues that help to retain students, such as time management, study habits, peer feedback and administrative Q&As. 

Looking to increase access for students whether they are online or in the classroom?  

Invite a colleague from the academic support team to be a part of your course, giving them access to your collaborative spaces. You could ask someone from academic support to compose a weekly post on effective writing skills in the course forum. You could embed a librarian into the course environment to assist students on appropriate research practices. Or maybe integrate a virtual guest-speaker series with a representative from the multicultural centre? 

Want to support community building and student development online? 

Start by supporting the formation of academic and social groups that specifically target online students. Then encourage existing on-campus clubs to adopt a hybrid model, hosting every other meeting online. Expand hybrid options for important student milestones, such as welcome events and graduation ceremonies. Develop online opportunities for students to engage with one another beyond the classroom, such as virtual mentoring and networking programs.  

These suggestions demonstrate a few possibilities open to student affairs professionals to make their services more accessible to all students, online or in-person. While these are not all easy-to-implement solutions, the pandemic has presented a chance to grow student services online. If institutional leaders ignore this opportunity to evolve academic and non-academic support services via digital channels, they may find themselves discouraging and disenfranchising the very students they worked so hard to attract and serve.  

Steven Goss is dean of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, Manhattan College, and Amy Greenstein is vice-president of enrolment management and student affairs, Metropolitan College of New York.



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