Academic Advising Resources

by George Steele

In attempting to define advising at a distance, several perspectives need to be considered. With the growth of distance learning throughout higher education in North America, there is a new and growing population of students who need academic advising services. These learners are considered at a 'distance' because they receive their instruction through various means ranging from asynchronous use of Web-based course management systems to correspondence courses. These distance learners have characteristics and issues that are unique to them. An interested advisor needs to be aware of their characteristics and the issues surrounding this student group who are not unlike other special student populations such as undecided students or student athletes. Clearly, not all learners taking instruction at a distance receive their advising at a distance anymore than all students who receive advising at a distance take their instruction at a distance. Most advisors have advised student enrolled in traditionally offered courses via e-mail but distance learning (instruction) is not the same as advising at a distance even though the use of technology is shared by both.

The distinctions raised here comparing distance learning and distance advising serve as a means to organize resources relatedto distance advising. Three main conceptual groupings have been selected: Distance Learning Students, Advising Considerations, and use of Technology. Under each of these main categories, there are several sub-topics that aid with better organization of the information and resources. NACADA members interested in this topic are encouraged to participate in the NACADA Distance Education Advising Commission.

Distance Learning Students
The number of students taking instruction through asynchronous technology has grown rapidly. The Sloan Consortium (2004) reported that there is no evidence of a plateau in online student enrollments as schools predicted a 25% growth rate in students taking at least one online course. Sloan also reported that student satisfaction with this form of instructional delivery is positive. A large majority of institutions reporting to Sloan agree that students are as satisfied with online courses as they are with face-to-face instruction. Online learning outcomes continue to be judged as equivalent or superior to face-to-face instruction at most institutions. On many campuses this means that there will be a growing population of learners who will need to be advised by means other than face-to-face meetings.

Defining Distance Learning
Definitions of Distance Learning vary. The United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA) defines Distance Learning as: 'The acquisition of knowledge and skills through mediated information and instruction, encompassing all technologies and other forms of learning at a distance.' The excellent University of Wisconsin Extension Website includes distance learning resources and a variety of different Definitions of Distance Learning. Wikipedia also has a section that provides definitions and lists resources for distance learning

Who offers distance learning content?
There are many sources on the Web that provide access to distance learning content. Below are some examples.

What are some other general resources for distance learning?

Advising Considerations
As distance learning grows as a means of increasing educational access, it is critical that we know more about the students who choose distance learning. What are some important considerations related to advising these students?

What are the characteristics of students who choose distance learning?
Students who engage in distance learning are a very heterogeneous group. The motivation and characteristics for selecting this method of instruction correspondingly widely differs. Many adults who are seeking workforce training or degree completion have embraced distance learning as a means of achieving their educational goals. Traditional learners who reside in residence halls, at residential campuses, use this method of instruction for its flexibility. In addition, many institutions have incorporated elements of the technologies used with distance learning into their traditional course offerings to enhance learning and provide greater flexibility of delivery. These blended courses have further blurred the distinction between distance learning and traditional learning. In short, the diversity of learners taking distance learning courses combined with the new methods of delivering content must be consider whenever one attempts to define the characteristics of this population.

There are several journals that specifically address these subjects. 

AACE Journal (AACEJ)
American Journal of Distance Education
CADE: Journal of Distance Education/Revue de l'enseignement a' distance
Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology
The Chronicle of Higher Education, Information Technology Section.

A more extensive list can be found at the University of Wisconsin-Extension Website that provides overviews of journals, book and articles that address distance learning. Another good resource is the United States Distance Learning Association Research Information and Statistics.

What do distance learners need to know?

The University of Wisconsin Extension has created a small Web module to address issues of distance learner characteristics and issues that need to be considered. This site is a good starting source for students, advisors, instructors, or administrators who might be unfamiliar with issues related to distance learning. The information provided and questions posed in this module can help institutions with content selection when designing Web sites or marketing materials for their distance learning programs. The module also provides a model for creating an indigenous resource for one's own distance learning advising program.

What are key student readiness issues related to distance learning?
There are several issues that are re-occurring regarding student preparedness for distance learning. Critical issues include: 1) the need for good time management skills, 2) being a self-motivated/paced learner, and 3) having a minimum level of technology competency. There are several examples of interactive Web tools or modules that help students assess their levels on these topics.

What are issues related to FERPA and distance advising?
Advising at a distance adds a level of complexity to adhering to FERPA. Unlike face-to-face advising, authentication of the person communicating with an advisor electronically is more difficult. While institutional polices differ, there are several common policy elements that include:

  • Clarification of the differences between public and private information; making sure that the advising staff is trained to know these differences.
  • Responding only to requests that use institutional e-mail addresses for private information.
  • Before responding to a request seeking private information, advisors should use probing questions to solicit specific personal information for identification. If the probing questions are not answered correctly, then private information should not be shared.

For more information, go to the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site that addresses FERPA issues.

How are distance-learning students similar to other special populations?
Learners taking their instruction at a distance share many characteristics with other special populations of students. The NACADA Clearinghouse can be very helpful in this regard. Many students engaged in distance learning are adults who choose this method of instruction because they cannot attend traditional classes. Many of these adults use distance learning to re-start their education. As such they be unaware of their direction or what options are available to them. In this regard, they might share characteristics similar to first-time students,Undecided Students or need career advising assistance. They might also need help with decision-making skills. In short, once an advisor addresses some primary advising issues specific to all distance learners -- the need for good time management skills, being a self-motivated/paced learner, and having a minimum level of technology competency -- advisors will generally find themselves relying on the vast resources and literature associated with other special population groups.

Providing Web Services
There is a growing consensus that to serve distance-learning students, a wide array of student services should be available at a distance. Edu.Tools, a project of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications ( WCET ) lists several key areas of student services that are essential.

Consideration of services for students offered at a distance can include the following:

  • Department Information
  • Accreditation, Important Quarterly/Semester Dates
  • How Do I Get Started?
  • Policies of Distance Learning
  • Log on to Online Courses
  • Register for DL Courses
  • Off Campus Sites
  • Testing Information
  • Overview of Distance Learning Programs.
  • Course Catalog of Distance Learning
  • Online Course Information, Degree/Certificate Programs
  • Online Transfer
  • Online Bookstore
  • Student Communication
  • Learner Resources
  • Library Resources
  • Continuing Education
  • Access to Online Advising.

Use of Technology
The use of effective technologies is critical to distance advising. Yet, an overview of the academic advising field suggests many institutions have a long road to travel before they can offer successful distance advising programs. Habley (2004) concluded that 'the technology revolution has not yet consistently reached advising systems' (p. 96). He reached his conclusion by noting that only 2 of 10 technologies used to support the work of advisors were found on more than 50% of campuses. These were online registration (60%) and degree audit systems (57%) (p. 25). The only synchronous delivery technology found on more than half of the campuses was the, old, but reliable telephone (72%) with the next closest being the FAX machine (35%) (p. 26). Correspondingly, the only asynchronous delivery technology found on over 50% of all campuses was E-mail (85%) (p. 26). When respondents were asked to evaluate their satisfaction with the effectiveness of their institution's advising system, technology was tied for second to last with 'implementing training programs for advisors' and 'systematically evaluating the effectiveness of advisors' with a 3.03 rating on a 5.0 point scale (p. 84). The critical importance of Habley's analysis is that if distance advising is defined as the use of asynchronous technologies to assist both traditional and distance learners identify and achieve 'their maximum educational potential which enables them to reach their educational goals,' then many students will not engage in effective distance advising.

What technologies can advisors use for distance advising?
There are a number of sites that advisors can use to review, assess, and acquire suggested techniques for using different technologies in Distance Advising. Three very comprehensive sites are the NACADA Advising Technology section in the Clearinghouse, the NACADA Technology Commission Web site, the University of Southern Maine on-line training module for advisors, and the University of Wisconsin Extension Website on technology selection.

George Steele
Ohio Learning Network


Habley, W. R. (Ed.). (2004). The status of academic advising: Findings from the ACT sixth national survey. ( Monograph Series #10 ). Manhattan, KS: National Academic Advising Association.

Sloan Consortium, The (2004).Entering the mainstream: The quality and extent of online education in the United States, Retrieved from

Overviews of issues surrounding advising at a distance

Cite this using APA style as:
Steele, G. (2005).Distance advising. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources website:


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