How Academic Administrators Can Improve Online Learning: The Student Experience

This article is part of a series on the impact of administrative decisions on the online classroom. Be sure to check out the other articles in the series, which address the faculty experience and the administrator experience.

When we think of instruction in higher education, we often think about it from the point of view of the professor and student in their classroom, whether traditional or online. The discrete interactions that occur between students and instructors at the course and lesson level are at the core of learning; however, we must also be aware of the organizational machinery behind the scenes that supports these interactions. Decisions made at the administrative level impact the experiences of students, faculty members, and the administrators themselves, whether for better or worse.

This series of articles provides best practice recommendations for how academic administrators such as deans and program coordinators can create a dynamic, meaningful experience for themselves and the faculty members and students in their care. This article discusses the student experience.

Student Experience Factors

To a certain extent, the student experience in higher education is subjective because it’s heavily impacted by student–faculty interaction. However, building the appropriate infrastructure around these interactions can maximize the effect of positive interactions and mitigate the effect of negative experiences. Below, we’ve outlined four core areas of the online student experience and some steps administrators can take to enhance it.

Onboarding

Onboarding refers to transitioning students into an online learning environment and preparing them for success in this modality. Although institutions can use a variety of methods to help onboard students, here are some steps for how to build an ideal infrastructure:

  • Outline a common progression plan within all online degrees for students from enrollment through to completion.
  • Identify all policies and procedures that students will be required to comply with, and draft corresponding language in a unified student handbook.
  • Clearly and consistently communicate the online procedures throughout all courses in areas such as syllabi, e-mails, and so on.
  • Create a student orientation module or landing page that contains tips and best practices for student success, and direct all new enrollments here prior to the beginning of their first course.

Whether you follow the steps above or create a different path for onboarding, what’s important is that students are set up for success from the moment they enter the online learning environment. By laying a solid foundation for students to build upon, administrators can help ensure that students ultimately achieve their goals.

Support

Support refers to how well an institution monitors and adapts to students’ academic needs as they progress through their degrees. Examples of support infrastructure at the course, program, and institutional levels can include:

  • Outline and communicate the needs of online students to relevant faculty and staff members who work with them.
  • Revise policies where necessary to better support online students in their programs.
  • Identify and make available any appropriate on-campus assets (tutoring, advising, career services, etc.) to online students, including drafting necessary accommodations to improve access.
  • Create tools and resources to ensure that students are aware of policies regarding academic honesty, plagiarism, and copyright infringement in the online environment.
  • Create and implement a detailed process for identifying, monitoring, and supporting at-risk online students through targeted interventions.

Whereas onboarding refers to setting up students for success at the beginning of their online program, support infrastructure ensures that students will be able to continue to succeed throughout their course or program. By implementing tools and resources that meet students’ changing needs, you help them maintain momentum as they make their way through their program.

Authenticity and Value

A common stigma of online education is that it is somehow inferior to a traditional face-to-face experience. This stigma can pervade the culture of an institution, causing it to come true. Administrators should take steps to ensure that the online experience is equivalent to that of on-ground programs and unique in its own right. Examples include:

  • Ensure all online offerings are properly accredited and eligible for appropriate financial aid benefits for students.
  • Ensure that online courses are primarily developed by, or under the direct supervision of, the institution’s full-time faculty members or trusted adjuncts.
  • Write or develop original content (not from a publisher) for each online offering.
  • Compare the outcomes of online offerings to those of on-ground courses, and work to make necessary adjustments to ensure equivalence.
  • Build in opportunities for students to have regular, meaningful interactions with faculty members and receive substantive feedback on their work.
  • Provide online students with opportunities to develop positive and lasting relationships with the institution’s faculty members beyond the confines of the course shell.

By taking steps such as these, institutions can ensure that their online offerings meet quality standards and receive the same attention as their face-to-face alternatives.

Curriculum Maintenance and Relevance

Faculty members teaching in lecture halls make iterative changes to their lesson plans each time they teach to adjust strategies that aren’t working or address new developments in their field. Because institutions often build online courses in advance, this process may not be so simple for online programs. During online curriculum development, institutions should consistently monitor and update courses to ensure alignment with the changes occurring in the field and the needs of their students. Some steps administrators can take to meet this goal include:

  • Articulate a process for evaluating online programs and regularly updating the content and approach to facilitation.
  • Properly incentivize faculty members for updating courses as you would for building new curriculum from scratch.
  • Collect and disseminate appropriate student data (feedback, grades, drop rates, etc.) to better inform the design of online courses.

By doing these things, administrators will be aware of changes they need to make and will be better prepared to meet and adapt to students’ changing needs.

Conclusion

The student experience in an online program is of critical importance. Because students are the consumers of what an institution offers, ensuring student success in an online program helps ensure that the institution is able to meets its goals too. By providing students with what they need at the beginning of their program, meeting their ongoing needs throughout the program, investing in the authenticity and value of their experience, and maintaining an online program, administrators can guarantee an outstanding student experience.

For more information on how academic administrators can positively impact the online classroom experience, explore the other articles available in this series:

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