for Success in Distance Advising
Cindy is so excited! She has just been accepted in an online bachelor’s degree program and cannot wait to get started. Her kids are in school; her employer is supportive of her educational efforts and has even offered tuition assistance of $3000 per year. Cindy knows the semester starts in a few weeks and is anxious to get registered, purchase her books, and start reading. She was working on a bachelor’s degree ten years ago in a traditional college, but her family’s financial situation forced her to drop out and take a full time job to help make ends meet. She is nervous about returning to school and has never taken an online course. Even her kids know more about computers then she does! Cindy believes that if she can just find someone to help her get herself registered, purchase the books, and learn some basics about online education, then she will be all set…
Some thoughts about Distance Education
Online students are becoming an entirely new subpopulation of higher-education learners (Diaz, 2003, as cited in Hartman, 2008). These students primarily attend part-time, are largely interested in degree completion options, work full-time and self-report a low to moderate degree of technology abilities. Retention rates for distance education students are estimated to be 15%-20% lower than for face-to-face instruction. Low retention rates are attributed to a number of student factors including:
- educational perparation, motivation and student academic self concept
- situational factors e.g., family and employer support and changes in life circumstance
- educational system factors e.g., quality and difficulty of instructional materials and academic support (Gibson, 1998, as quoted in Hartman, 2008)
What is Distance advising?
Distance advising is described as being able to offer a minimum set of core services relating to academic advising which assist distance learners in identifying and achieving their maximum educational potential. The institutional philosophy of a distance advising support services program must be to strive to respond to learner needs rather than the learner adjusting to an institution’s established organizational structure (NACADA, 1999).
Challenges to advising at a distance
“Adults, perhaps more than any other student population need someone within the institution who cares” (Bland, 2003, p. 1). The primary challenge when advising from a distance is connecting with the student in such a way that he or she identifies the advisor as the person within the institution who cares. In face-to-face advising, this is accomplished through interpersonal communication; this level of care and connection is a more difficult to convey from a distance. Alternative strategies and tools need to be examined to help students feel connected to their institutions, promote student persistence and increase graduation rates (Luna & Medina, 2007).
Strategies for distance advising success
Kuh, Kinzie and Schuh and associates (2005) noted that “advising is viewed as a way to connect students to the campus and help them feel that someone is looking out for them” (p. 214).” Sizoo, Agrusa and Iskat (2005) observe that one of the features that adult learners find attractive in higher learning organizations is the ability to make connections with both other students and staff. One of the most important strategies for success in distance advising is to build relationships with students wherever they are. Bland (2003) observes that “every individual is unique, and the advisor’s recognition of that student’s personal attributes and life situations can strengthen the relationship” (p. 8). The goal of a distance advising program should be to replicate the intimacy of a face-to-face advisor-student relationship from a distance.
There are several strategies advisors may use to develop a strong relationship with students. One is to begin the relationship from the student’s initial contact with the school. Advisors who are involved in the admissions process -- whether to discuss program specifics or potential careers post graduation -- make connections with students early in the student’s academic career. Distance education adult students, in particular, are concerned with the quality of advising and other services and how closely these services replicate those offered on campus (Luna & Medina, 2007). An easy way to convey a sense of availability and concern for students at a distance is to end every email with an offer from the advisor to call the student if it is more convenient or would better convey the information (Luna & Medina, 2007). Another way to build meaningful connections with students early in their academic careers is to offer a comprehensive orientation that includes an explanation of systems, technology, planning sheets and anything else students need to know in order to be successful. Hartman (2008) suggests that a retention strategy for adult learners is to create online orientations for both students and faculty, as well as creating an online master schedule. Easily accessible, user friendly orientations let students access information whenever their schedules allow. Podcast video explanations of planning sheets and other potentially confusing tools may be uploaded to the student community system.
Another strategy distance advisors may use to build and solidify relationships with students is to develop and utilize some type of early warning system to identify students at risk. Hartman (2008) suggests that one strategy for retaining online students is to improve systems for tracking at risk online students. Early reach out to these students may both improve their academic performance and increase their persistence rates. Connecting with these students may also improve student engagement, particularly when the faculty member is involved in the conversations about student performance (Hartman, 2008), as well as help get the student back on track by providing a support network that adult students find attractive (Wasley, 2007, Sizoo, Agrusa & Iskat, 2005, Hartman, 2008). Online tutoring is also an effective tool to help distance students both alleviate concern they might feel before taking difficult courses like math or accounting, and improve their academic success. If tutoring is not available through the school, outsourced programs such as Smart thinking enable schools to offer valuable services to students.
A third strategy for effective distance advising is to be as proactive as possible with student questions and concerns. Try to anticipate student questions by keeping track of commonly asked questions and include information on these frequently asked topics or important information (such as graduation deadlines) in the signature section of the email. Investigate other methods for communicating with students. Use the phone whenever possible, but when that is not practical, consider communicating either via Skype or Facebook©.
Keep track of students and outreach to them at various checkpoints:
- Have new students registered for the next term?
- Do they know about a class coming up that they need to take before the rest of the course sequence is offered?
- How are they handling the technological learning curve?
- Would they benefit from the advisor logging into the class with them and helping them navigate the online course environment?
- What about empowerment: how much latitude to advisors have in shepherding students through their education?
- If a student begins a course and finds it is too difficult, is the advisor able to change the student's enrollment to another course?
- How connected is the advisor to the department chairs, and how accessible are the chairs to students?
An advisor blog my prove beneficial in not only communicating deadlines but in improving student connections with the school. Students could describe to the blog through RSS feeds that would alert them every time the advisor posted something new. Advisors could include information about campus events, sports teams, or anything else that students from a distance many find interesting and help them connect with the situation. Students could be given the ability to publicly ask questions on the blog.
“Academic advising synthesizes and contextualizes students’ educational experiences within the frameworks of their aspirations, abilities and lives to extend learning beyond campus boundaries and time frames” (NACADA, 2006). Advising from a distance is not that different from advising face-to-face. The most important strategy for success with online students is to form solid, meaningful connections from orientation to graduation and to use these connections to help students feel connected to something larger than just the computer, their online course, or the school’s Web site.
Assistant Director of Advising
Southern New Hampshire University Online
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