How to Make Your Online Students Feel Connected

The college student experience, even for graduate students, is much more than course assignments, so why is it that the online learner’s experience is often limited to logging in, reading assignments and posting on the discussion board?

As the online student population continues its double-digit growth rate, and some organizations are projecting that by 2020 students will take up to 60 percent of their courses online, forward-thinking higher education institutions are looking for new approaches to student engagement and retention to meet the needs of the online student population. It is a population that is often made up of students from different generations, ethnic backgrounds, professional experiences, and family responsibilities.

One institution that is taking an innovative approach to online student engagement is Drexel University, which has won awards for its online first-year experience program in its fully online Master of Science in Higher Education (MSHE) Program.

“Some of the online students will never set foot on the Drexel campus but they have a right to the same college experience as a person living on campus in a residence hall,” said David A. Ruth, PhD, dean of students at Drexel. “While some data might suggest that online students don’t really want that level of engagement or participation, we have found that if you invite them, they will come. … We want our students—no matter where they are, no matter what campus or what format—to feel and know they are part of the Drexel experience.”

In the online seminar Retaining Online Students with a First-Year Experience Program, Ruth and Kristen Betts, EdD, an associate clinical professor in the Goodwin College of Professional Studies at Drexel University, shared some program best practices for “bringing the campus” to the online students.

“We focused on the concept of Online Human Touch and how can we personalize the learning experience for that student,” said Betts. “What we’ve found through our research is students are more likely to persist in their online courses if they’re engaged in and outside of their courses and the educational experience is personalized.”

According to Betts, this involves much more than simply having students participate in discussion boards, communicate with faculty via email, or work in online groups. The Online Human Touch concept is a holistic approach that combines the efforts of the program director, faculty, adjunct faculty, and staff developing a personal connection between Drexel and each student.

For example, each student who’s accepted receives a congratulatory phone call from the program director or academic adviser welcoming him or her to the program. The students then go through an online orientation where the presenters include the Dean of Students and faculty, as well as representatives from the writing center, library, support services, financial aid, disability services and student life.

During week two, a time when many new online students start to feel overwhelmed, the program hosts a virtual tea party. Students receive in the mail a signed invitation with a sachet of tea inviting them to join their classmates for an informal chat with instructors. Typically, 75 to 80 percent of the students attend the virtual tea.