Steven Starks, University of Phoenix
Online education is growing so fast that by 2018 it is paced to supplant face-to-face instruction as the preferred learning modality (Nagel, 2011). In this new era of online education, traditional models of academic advising may not be suitable for advisors serving nontraditional students. Consequently, the relevance of distance advising to institutional retention efforts is greater than ever before. Steele (2005) noted that topics relevant to distance advising can be divided into three primary categories: (a) distance learners, (b) distance advising considerations, and (c) the use of technology in advising. Ranging from cross-cultural communication at a distance (Keller, 2011) to best practices for advising online students (Gravel & Esposito, 2010), NACADA’s distance education and advising (DEA) commission has led the way in generating resources on such topics. For NACADA to continue anticipating “the academic advising needs of twenty-first century students, advisors, and institutions” (NACADA, 2011, ¶ 2), members must contribute to the current discussion on distance advising. In particular, information regarding the unique characteristics of online students and strategies for advising them is much needed.
Key Characteristics of Online Students
The concept of the traditional college student between the ages of 18 and 22 who lives on-campus no longer exists (Stokes, 2006). In fact, Siegel (2011) stated that “more than 50% of all entering college students are nontraditional” (p. 10). With online learning driving nontraditional student enrollments, students who are over the age of 24, who have full-time jobs, and who have children are fast becoming the norm in higher education. Distance advisors should know that the demographic characteristics of nontraditional students are also risk factors that can impede their progress toward graduation (Kantrowitz, 2010). Thus, retention rates for online students tend to be significantly lower than their face-to-face counterparts (Varney, 2009). As champions of institutional retention efforts, distance advisors have a responsibility to understand the students they serve; they must know that online learners who succeed are self-driven experts in time management who are technologically savvy (Steele, 2005).
Considerations for Communication Skills at a Distance
In an environment devoid of face-to-face contact, building strong relationships with online students warrants special considerations. Nutt (2000) observed that communication skills are among the most significant competencies for developing close advisor-advisee relationships. An empirically-based model of interpersonal communication skills particularly helpful to academic advisors is the microskills model (Barnett, Roach, & Smith, 2006). Microskills are the specific behaviors that constitute active listening (e.g. attending behaviors, open-ended questions, paraphrases, summaries); they are observable and can be learned in a relatively short amount of time. In a recent survey of student affairs professionals regarding the most important helping skills related to working with students, microskills were among the top 15 (Reynolds, 2011).
Distance advisors practice microskills when they are mindful of three important considerations. First, for distance advising scenarios that require verbal communication, vocal qualities should be considered analogous to body language. When speaking to students through various communication technologies (e.g. phone, voice chat), distance advisors must use their voice to convey emotion, empathy, and sincere interest. The tone, rate, pitch, and volume of one’s voice can dramatically change the intent of the message, especially without the ability to add a warm smile or a make appropriate eye contact. Even the timing in which one adjusts certain vocal qualities can influence the way a message is transmitted and received.
The second consideration for distance advisors is that the words one chooses can impact the development of the advisor-advisee relationship. Kramer (2011) indicated that the words one chooses can be punitive or positive depending on how statements are constructed. For example, an advisor who uses punitive language might say to a student "you failed your math course and must retake it.” On the other hand, an advisor who uses positive language might say “although you received a non-passing grade, you have an opportunity to retake the course to improve your GPA.” Kramer (2011) pointed out that interpersonal communication should focus on strengths, reflect feelings, clarify concerns, and use open-ended questions to elicit student responses. Although these skills apply to traditional advising models, their significance is amplified in distance advising sessions because of the increased opportunity for miscommunication.
The third consideration for distance advisors is sequence. Sequence refers to the order in which advisors respond to student concerns. For example, when a student requests tutoring for fear of failing a class, the advisor who realizes the importance of sequence attends to the student’s anxiety first and provides information second. The advisor can make an empathic statement (e.g., “I can tell you really care about learning the material”) prior to providing instructions for accessing tutoring services. Distance advisors must pay special attention to the order in which they attend to concerns if they want to build strong relationships.
In a few years, online learners will no longer be considered a subpopulation of students, but rather the majority within higher education. Clearly, distance advising will be a central element to retention strategies, especially considering the risk factors associated with nontraditional students. By practicing sound communication strategies such as microskills, distance advisors can overcome the challenge of building relationships in the absence of direct, face-to-face contact. Moreover, when we pay attention to three important considerations, vocal qualities, word choice, and sequence, distance advisors can interact with students more intentionally. In a distance advising model, every student interaction should be considered an opportunity to strengthen the relationship. NACADA members who have experience with distance advising should share their ideas on how to achieve this goal. In doing so, NACADA will continue to shape the future of academic advising into the 21st century.
Senior Academic Counselor
University of Phoenix
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Cite this article using APA style as: Startks, S. (2011, September). Distance Advising: An Invitation to Join the Discussion. Academic Advising Today, 34
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