In the wake of COVID-19, widespread online learning has gone from improbable to essential in a matter of weeks, driving millions of students off campus and into virtual classrooms for the remainder of their semesters. As students’ living rooms have become their lecture halls—intensifying the already daunting social distancing measures they’ve been required to take—universities are under pressure to navigate how to provide a high-quality learning experience for students remotely or risk them leaving and not paying tuition for a second-rate education.
This demand for universities to prove the value of online education will become even more pronounced as we inch closer to the fall and students (and their parents) come under increasing pressure to make enrollment decisions. That value comes in the form of the expected, such as academic rigor, great faculty, and strong educational and career outcomes, but also the often-overlooked student support.
Instructors and administrators alike recognize the need for more robust student support in a virtual classroom. In a survey recently released by Bay View Analytics (formerly known as the Babson Survey Research Group), 826 faculty members and administrators across 641 U.S. colleges and universities were asked a set of questions to shed light on the shift from on-campus to remote instruction. When asked what assistance they could use to better deliver a quality educational experience to their students, “almost two-thirds of administrators said their institutions would benefit from information on successfully supporting remote students,” according to Inside Higher Ed.
At 2U, student support is a core part of the services we provide to our institutional partners and integral to providing a high-quality online learning experience. Especially in a rapidly changing environment, students need success advisors who can take on the role of a counselor, shepherd, friend, and hand when students fumble and fall. At 2U, our student success advisors strive to embody each of these roles every day for every student. Here are some of the best practices they recommend to support students throughout their remote learning journeys.
Coach with Empathy. Stressors in students’ lives are very rarely in the classroom—they’re bigger. They’re finances, career ambitions, and more. Invest in training student support on how to empathize with students in this broader context of COVID-19 when everything students are feeling is magnified. They can’t be trained to be social workers, but they should be good listeners and coaches who can proactively determine how best to empower and support students. They should know how to ask the right questions and how to provide soft guidance, all the while infusing coaching and context awareness into the support they provide.
Catalog Resources. Create a catalog of materials and experts that can provide ongoing guidance for students to ensure their success throughout their learning journeys. Anticipate what students might need and want and compile resources accordingly.
Offer Mental Health Resources. Ensure students have enough resources and a telehealth set-up and invest in beefing up those services and resources. Increased access to mental health support and services can help foster a sense of empowerment and resilience in students during these challenging times. For 2U-powered programs, we offer a student assistance program, which resembles what many companies provide: an employee assistance program.
Create Mentoring Networks. A sense of belonging is the number one driver of student retention, which is accomplished by helping students meaningfully connect with their peers. Ideally, every student has at least one classmate who would call or text if they miss a class and say, “Hey, I missed you today. Is everything OK with you?” Connect students to upperclassmen or graduates who can help provide perspective on what they might be going through or a particular class. Mentors can help students navigate the complex landscape of higher education, drive expectations for academic excellence, and prepare them to thrive post-graduation.
Provide Academic Support. As faculty publicize office hours—on-demand and scheduled—tutoring, and other support services, encourage students to take advantage of these opportunities to meet. By building close one-on-one relationships with their faculty, students feel more connected and heard, both on an academic and personal level.
Over my more than a decade at 2U, I’ve learned that student support is most successful if it’s treated as a service experience. The goal should not be to get students in the door—it should be to get them successfully out the door with a great learning experience and great outcomes. As the lifeblood of the higher education system, students must be prioritized, and COVID-19 is shining a spotlight on the need to invest in student support, now.
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