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Kristen Betts and Maria Lanza-Gladney, Drexel University


Editor’s Note: The following article was developed from a presentation given at the NACADA Annual Conference in San Antonio, October 2009.


Kristen Betts.jpgMaria Lanza-Gladney.jpgOnline education is now an integral part of higher education in the United States. Allen and Seaman (2008) reported that “online enrollments have continued to grow at rates far in excess of the total higher education student population, with the most recent data demonstrating no signs of slowing” (p. 1). Ambient Insight (as cited in Nagel, 2009) noted that nearly 12 million post-secondary students take some or all of their classes online, with more than 22 million students projected to take classes online in five years. Although online enrollments increase annually, student attrition in online education is reported to be higher than traditional on-campus programs, ranging between 20% and 50% (Diaz, 2002; Frankola, 2001) and even reported as high as 70% to 80% (Dagger & Wade, 2004; Flood, 2002).


To proactively address student attrition, Drexel University’s online Master of Science in Higher Education (MSHE) Program has integrated Online Human Touch (OHT) into instruction and programming to engage students and personalize the online educational experience. Results include high student retention rates, high levels of student satisfaction, and active alumni engagement.


The OHT concept was developed and integrated into the MSHE Program in 2005. The OHT concept builds upon five research areas: (1) student engagement, (2) community development, (3) personalized communication, (4) work-integrated learning, and (5) data driven decision-making.The OHT concept asserts that students are more likely to persist in an online program if they (a) are engaged in and outside of their courses and (b) receive a personalized educational experience (Betts, 2008). This holistic approach begins with potential students during the application process and continues throughout students’ enrollment to foster a lifelong bond with the institution.


The MSHE Program was launched in fall 2005 with a cohort of 26 students; enrollment has increased to 209 students in fall 2009. The overall student retention rate between fall 2005 and fall 2008 was 83%. Results from the 2009 MSHE Annual Student Survey reveal that OHT strategies engage online students and connect them to Drexel University. In fact, the data shows that MSHE students seek opportunities to become more connected to the University.


Results from the 2009 MSHE Annual Student Survey revealed that while MSHE students do not come to campus, OHT instructional and programming strategies connect online students to the faculty and the University. Over three-quarters of the MSHE students responding to the survey felt connected to the faculty and more than half felt connected to their classmates and the University. Personalizing the online educational experience is very important; a majority felt that faculty use of their names, in email and in Discussion Boards, along with the use of faculty photos, were important ways to bring the campus to them.


Building upon the OHT concept, the MSHE Program developed the Online First-Year Experience. Over three quarters of the surveyed students stated the Online First-Year Experience was important to student engagement and two-thirds said it was important to student retention. Although the Online First-Year Experience is optional, almost two-thirds of the students said it should be required. When asked which factors were most importance to the overall MSHE experience, students identified academic rigor of courses, instructional quality, academic support from faculty, quality of academic advising, and accessibility of the academic advisor as factors.


The role of the academic advisor is essential in creating a sense of community and connecting online students to the institution. Based upon the OHT concept, we suggest ten academic advising strategies to engage, connect, and retain online students.


  1. Online Open Houses: Engage prospective students through online Open House events. This is an ideal venue to introduce potential students to the program director, academic advisors, current students, alumni, and future peers.
  2. Congratulatory Calls and Emails: Personalize the acceptance process. In addition to sending official acceptance packets, academic advisors should send personal emails to incoming students congratulating them and providing program information and a plan of study. The program director should personally call accepted students to further develop a sense of community prior to matriculation.
  3. Orientation: Develop orientation materials that introduce students to online expectations and provide points of contact before courses begin. Orientation materials should include a detailed email from the academic advisor directing students to the information needed to be successful in the program. In addition, students should complete an orientation to any course content management system.
  4. Online First-Year Experience: Connect students to the institution through an Online First-Year Experience. Innovative strategies and events should bring the campus to students, e.g., virtual tea, alumni lecture series, and guest lectures.
  5. On-campus Venues:Provide opportunities for online students to attend on-campus events, e.g., convocation, graduation, leadership lecture series, that are simultaneously broadcast through the Internet using streaming platforms.
  6. Mondays with Maria: Designate specific times when students can chat with their advisor using instant messenger for direct question/answer.
  7. Resource Portal: Develop a portal to serve as a hub for information and provide a blog for updates, information, resources, and to encourage student engagement.
  8. On-going Reminders: Send updated program information, important dates, events, and news on current students and alumni through a quarterly newsletter, email, or posts on the resource portal.
  9. Mentoring Program: Establish a mentoring program to connect new students with experienced students or recent program alumni who can provide new students with support and networking connections.
  10. Data Driven Decision-Making: Collect and utilize formative and summative data for continuous quality improvement. In addition to course evaluations, conduct an annual survey regarding the program, support services, expectations, and satisfaction.


Online education is an integral part of higher education. While online students may not physically come to campus, the MSHE data indicates that online students want an educational experience that is personalized, where they are addressed by name, can interact synchronously/asynchronously, and are provided reminders just as they would receive in a traditional classroom. Technology allows academic advisors to reach out and engage online students and bring the campus to online students using OHT strategies.


Kristen Betts
Associate Clinical Professor
Master of Science in Higher Education Program
School of Education
Drexel University


Maria Lanza-Gladney
Academic Advisor and Program Coordinator
Master of Science in Higher Education Program
School of Education
Drexel University




Allen, E., & Seaman, J. (2008). Staying the course: online education in the United States 2008. The Sloan Consortium. Babson Survey Research Group. Retrieved from www.sloan-c.org/publications/survey/pdf/staying_the_course.pdf


Betts, K. S. (2008). Online human touch (OHT) instruction and programming: A Conceptual framework to increase online student engagement and retention in online education, Part 1. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 4(3), 399-418. Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol4no3/betts_0908.pdf


Dagger, D., & Wade, V. P. (2004) Evaluation of adaptive course construction toolkit (ACCT). Retrieved from  https://www.scss.tcd.ie/Owen.Conlan/publications/eLearn_2005_dagger.pdf


Diaz, D.P. (2002). Online drop rates revisited. The Technology Source. Retrieved November 3, 2009, from http://technologysource.org/article/online_drop_rates_revisited/.


Flood, J. (2002) Read all about it: Online learning facing 80% attrition rates. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 3(2). Retrieved from http://tojde.anadolu.edu.tr/tojde6/articles/jim2.htm


Frankola, K. (2001). Why online learners drop out. Workforce, 80, 53-5.


Nagel, D. (2009, October). Most college students to take classes online by 2014. Campus Technology. Retrieved from http://campustechnology.com/Articles/2009/10/28/Most-College-Students-To-Take-Classes-Online-by-2014.aspx

Cite this article using APA style as: Betts, K., & Lanza-Gladney, M. (2010, March). Academic advising: Strategies to increase student engagement and retention by personalizing the online education experience. Academic Advising Today, 33(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2010 March 33:1


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.