By Lurene Kelley
When a CBU student is having trouble in statistics, she can walk into the Cooper-Wilson building and find tutors at the Math Center. If she is nervous about telling her academic advisor she wants to change majors, she can enter the on-campus Student Success Center and receive advice from a familiar face.
But what about the student who lives in Millington, works full-time and has been taking most classes online? He could obviously search the website and hope to find what he needs. But locating the right contact for a specific problem can be a frustrating process, especially if you don’t have someone to turn to for guidance.
Now imagine if this same online student already knew exactly who to contact on campus to help resolve just about any issue that might be standing in his way.
That’s happening at universities across the country, as higher education looks for ways to increase student satisfaction, completion and retention rates, especially for online students who often feel isolated from the college experience. At many institutions, these difference makers are called Online Student Success specialists or coaches. They work with online students to solve the problems that might be slowing or even preventing completion of their degree.
As the Online Learning & Educational Technology (OLET) office works to launch CBU’s first fully-online degrees, this Student Success model is at the core of its development.
At CBU, our Online Learning & Educational Technology team is working with administrators across the university to prepare our first fully-online degrees. And part of that preparation is considering how to meet the needs of students who don’t come to campus.
We’ve been working with Library Services, Career Services, Academic Services, the Student Success Center and others to determine which tools online students can already access and which will need to be enhanced with technology, such as video conferencing, to serve online students.
The work that should yield the most rewarding outcomes, however, is the personal attention given to students both when they reach out for help or when we reach out to them. These are the phone calls, the emails and text messages that will not only give a nudge and a helping hand to a student who is not logging into class but also reminders about important university deadlines. It will also mean that we contact our online students just to let them know that we are here, available and that being online with CBU means you are not just a number.
The University of Central Florida is the second largest higher education institution in the country serving more than 67,000 students. UCF has been providing online education for the past two decades and takes pride in setting the standard for online teaching. All faculty that teach online must go through two semesters of intensive training.
But in the competitive space of online education, UCF knew it had to do more. In 2015, UCF Connect was launched. This ambitious initiative matches every fully online student with a personal Success Coach.
The student and coach are paired from first term through graduation. Each online UCF student still has an academic advisor, but the Success Coach plays a different, yet complementary role. This coach collaborates with students to develop strategies for homework and class attendance, directs students to university and community resources, and even provides support and ideas to alleviate some of the stressors in their busy, daily lives.
UCF Success Coaches are part mentor, part counselor, part advisor and the student’s biggest cheerleader on campus. They do not take the place of mentors, counselors or academic advisors, however, and will send students to these specialized professionals when the need is specific and requires more expertise.
This July, as CBU’s first Online Student Success Coach, I was invited to participate in UCF Connect’s inaugural “Introduction to Coaching Bootcamp.” Coaches and administrators from five colleges participated in the 3-day bootcamp. UCF Connect intends this course to be the foundation for a new Coaching Academy that is currently in development.
Dr. Jenny Sumner is the Executive Director of UCF Online Connect Center & Strategic Initiatives for UCF Connect. She was part of the initial group of academics and UCF staff who collaborated to develop their Online Connect Center that works one-on-one with students at the point they even show interest in online learning. The Connection Center then walks them through the admissions process and coaches them through the ups and downs of being a college student and the difficulties they encounter balancing academics and life outside the university.
“The coaches help you through ‘the how.’ How will you juggle school with working full time, having kids, sometimes sick kids! How will you be successful with all of that,” said Dr. Sumner in a podcast interview Higher Ed Marketing Lab. “The coaches give them the resources and support mechanism that they need with all the things going on in their lives. It’s very rewarding for the student we work with.”
In the three years since the Online Connect Center launched, enrollment and retention of online students have far exceeded expectations. Dr. Sumner believes one of the keys to their success (and that of their students!) is how well Success Coaches can help people feel connected to UCF – even when the only tangible connection is through a computer and a telephone line.
“We want students to engage with us in ways they might not otherwise be able to do online,” Dr. Sumner, “If we can’t make that connection, that’s how we lose a student.”
Reality check: We are not a large, publicly funded university like UCF, and we already face challenges meeting student needs based on limited resources and infrastructure. The idea is not to take what is being done at UCF and plop it down here. Rather, it is about working with the resources, culture and talent we already have at CBU to do what we do so well — connect with students. What’s next is enhancing that connection with technology.
Academic Services, the Student Success Center and several tutoring centers across campus have continuously worked on new and better ways to serve student needs and provide quality academic support. This commitment to improve student outcomes is at the center of the search led by Academic Services to identify, purchase and implement a robust advising and retention platform with a targeted launch in time for the 2020-2021 academic year. This will help CBU offices, faculty and staff collaborate electronically and provide a more seamless student experience and identify and address student issues in class or in their lives before they become overwhelming obstacles to success.
As the OLET Team builds toward a population of fully online learners at CBU, our plan is help these students feel connected to our campus, our culture, our faculty and staff. This role of an Online Student Success coach, along with a new advising platform, will allow our campus staff and faculty better know a CBU student who only learns online.
The OLET team has another goal: That by working across departments to build the infrastructure and processes necessary to create, implement and evolve a technologically facilitated pedagogy that learning outcomes will improve, regardless of course modality. So, whether a student learns in a classroom, online or in a hybrid environment that utilizes both, an education at CBU will continue to mean an educational experience that considers the whole person.
At CBU, we already know that learning does not take place in a vacuum. Whether a student is learning in a classroom or from their own home, we realize that education often takes a back seat to the many and varied other commitments and concerns in their lives. Our Student Success Center and the counseling, mentoring and tutoring services CBU already provides are a testament to our sense of service to students.
By taking this responsibility online, we are saying that creating an online program is not about making more money or increasing our numbers. This initiative is about opening the doors of CBU to students who might otherwise not have access, because their lives are too full or complicated to commit to being on campus at specific times. With this population in mind, we are building online learning that works for people in ways that traditional classroom learning might not.
At its core – we must commit to designing a structure that sets all students up to succeed, even those who only enter Plough Library or speak to their professor via an electronic connection.
Lurene Kelley is the Student Success Specialist for OLET