Charles Liu, Michigan State University
Robert Cermak, University of Louisville
The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbates the need for academic advisors to meet students where they are through whatever technological means necessary. Several years into the pandemic, academic advising work has entered a new phase of utilizing virtual meetings and other online platforms to communicate with students while maintaining a work-life balance for advisors (LeDonne-Smith & Keith, 2022). Yet, important components were left unaddressed in this transition—cultural nuances and socio-emotional disconnection—to fully humanize students’ academic advising experience and guide them to where they are supposed to be. To address this emergent issue, tenets of the humanized advising approach can (re)focus online advising on caring for each student’s well-being to sustain their motivation to persist in college (Liu & Ammigan, 2021). Situated at the nexus of the entire curriculum (academic affairs) and co-curricular college experiences (student affairs), academic advisors play a central role in humanizing the college experience—academic pursuits, networks of resources, and community belongingness—for students in online learning environments. This article provides a conceptual framework, grounded in humanized academic advising, to guide practitioners in utilizing online communicative technologies with students.
Humanized, or humanistic, advising is rooted in “cultivating meaningful relationships that allow students to view advisors as real human beings or even friends” (Museus, 2021, p. 26). In such relationships the student, as well as the advisor, is viewed as a complete person—more than their education or role, bringing their unique identities, cultures, backgrounds, aspirations, and emotions to interactions. Therefore, humanized advising is prefaced on mutual and authentic trust and empathy (Bermea, 2022). While the conceptual framework that follows is grounded in humanized advising, the common thread in all academic advising approaches (developmental, proactive, appreciative, etc.) is “building relationships and encouraging students’ holistic development” (Kelly, 2018) making the framework broadly applicable.
Online Advising and Communication
Communicative technologies, when used effectively, can serve as a bridge for a human-to-human connection online. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the use of such technologies dramatically increased across all higher education sectors and altered the academic advising profession (Habley et al., 2016). While academic advisors are used to emailing, calling, and texting students for advising-related information, now academic advisors are using Zoom, Google suite applications, and other virtual platforms to dialog with students in online and virtual spaces. Developing tools for effective online advising is of particular importance given the heightened student anxieties during the recent shift to online learning across higher education. Academic advisors play a pivotal role in communicating with students and helping them use emergent communicative technologies, leveraging students’ unique experiential resources and lowering their stress (Liu & Ammigan, 2021; Steele, 2016).
Conceptual Framework: Humanizing Online Advising Connections
Researchers have offered definitions of humanized advising (Museus, 2021) and even models for its application in in-person interactions (Bermea, 2022), but the following conceptual framework is uniquely formulated to guide practitioners in humanizing their communication with students in the online environment. The framework combines insights from the scholarly literature on both humanistic and online advising as well as decades of combined professional experience advising postsecondary students virtually and in person. This conceptual framework consists of three interconnected, stepwise phases:
- Cultivating authentic empathy and trust,
- Facilitating technological readiness, and
- Purposefully engaging students online.
The humanistic elements of authenticity and empathy cultivate the advisor-advisee trust needed to work toward students’ technological readiness. Comfort, or readiness, with communicative technologies, in turn, empowers academic advisors to purposefully engage students in the emergent online advising environment. In combination, these phases leverage technology to foster student learning, development, and growth throughout each learner’s entire academic and personal journey. A visualization of the framework is pictured below (Figure 1).
Humanized Online Communication
Authentic Empathy and Trust
Authentic empathy is defined as a genuine interest in and care for students as whole human beings. Empathy is a strong neural indicator of how human beings thrive in society, including institutions of higher education (Riess, 2018). When advisees feel that their advisor is an authentic person who empathizes with them, trust is not only given, it is earned. In online academic advising, authentically empathic and trusting communication is critically important. Empathy and trust create human safety; safety creates authentic dialogues; authentic dialogues create deeper online learning; and deeper learning creates dignity for every human being in both virtual and physical spaces.
Technological readiness in hardware (i.e., computer) and software (e.g., virtual communication platforms) must be instilled in learners if they are to operate in an effective and timely fashion as higher education pivots to digital learning. This is especially important in communication with minoritized learners who often lack the same levels of access to and experience with online technologies and smart devices as their peers (Kimble-Hill et al., 2020). By starting with tools students are comfortable with, advisors can iteratively work with advisees toward a greater digital facility. For example, Mei (2019), in a study of international students, suggested that utilizing a familiar online platform (i.e., a micro-chat app) that students are already using can serve as a bridge to these students, engendering a sense of belonging and care. Such approaches are a first step in purposefully engaging students online and connecting them with additional technological and community resources.
Purposeful Online Engagement
Once trust has been established and advisees are technologically ready to engage online, the final phase of the framework concerns how advisors engage with students online. Purposeful online engagement is the ability to scaffold a generalized group academic advising setting and to sustain a community environment of support and care in virtual spaces. Examples of purposeful online engagement include
- Cass and Hammond (2015) found that using virtual group advising fostered a sense of community among military-connected commuter students and helped them to interact with affinity groups in a more efficient manner.
- Zhang (2016) found that when advisors provided online spaces through social media channels for international students to communicate and interact with one another, these learners felt more supported.
The use of communication technologies must be purposeful to engage students with their advisors and others by placing the student, the whole person, in the middle while technology is the bridge to that engagement. Purposeful online engagement requires that advisors maintain a strong online presence to support and care for their advisees.
Today’s college students are ever more diverse and bring their intersecting identities with them to their learning—such as outside work or military service, parenting while learning, and serving as caregivers—all of which compels higher education to embrace humanized advising, particularly given the challenges of relating with learners in online and virtual spaces. Hence, online communication with each student needs to put the person, the human being, at the center while technology serves as the bridge to meet and engage the learner. While the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant feelings of disconnection persist, the novel humanized online communication framework offered here has the potential to help academic advisors enhance students’ success and sense of belonging in the virtual advising milieu.
Charles Liu, J.D.
Neighborhood Student Success Collaborative
Michigan State University
Robert Cermak, Ph.D.
Clinical Assistant Professor
College of Education and Human Development
University of Louisville
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Cite this article using APA style as: Liu, C., & Cermak, R. (2022, December). Humanized online communication: A conceptual framework for academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 45(4). [insert url here]