Is Your Online Program Meeting Students’ Needs?

New survey explores whether online student support teams see eye-to-eye with learners

As quickly as online education has advanced over the past several years (anyone remember when MOOCs were the next big thing?), the online student profile has evolved even more. 

In a field founded on access and convenience — bringing the benefits of postsecondary education to everyone, regardless of their background, goals, or 9-to-5 routine — there’s no “typical” online student. Today, leaders are questioning the conventional wisdom of what online learners want.

What about access? While geographical freedom still appeals to online learners, many are choosing to attend a school in their own community or region

Is the convenience of doing everything remotely — from your car, kitchen, or living room — still appealing? Perhaps, but students today are seeking more personal connections with faculty and staff.

Are online learners really so different from traditional students? Maybe not. As online education becomes the primary higher education modality for more students, many are seeking new ways to map traditional college experiences — like meeting spaces, libraries, and other resources — onto a digital world.

Investing in the right services and supports

Today’s online students come into higher education with a clearer sense of their priorities, anticipated challenges, and the support they’ll need to achieve their goals. But understanding the online student experience is an ongoing process. 

What program leaders assumed about a previous cohort may no longer apply. And with limited opportunities for one-on-one interactions, leaders and student-facing staff may not have many opportunities to hear student feedback firsthand.

Helping students overcome the challenges that keep them up at night is key to achieving strong enrollment, persistence and completion. Yet making the most of your student support support investment can be a significant challenge in a shifting educational landscape.

Identifying gaps between student needs and staff priorities

New research from InsideTrack and UPCEA offers detailed insight into the online learner mindset — and checks the learner experience against staff perceptions. Through a survey delivered to students and staff at 20 institutions to date, findings reveal how well online student support programs are aligned with the changing needs and expectations of their students. 

Staff and students were asked similar sets of questions about student satisfaction and experience, including biggest student challenges, priorities for student support and communication preferences. Findings are being broken down according to student demographics and institution types. While complete results will be released in early 2020, initial findings were presented to a small group at UPCEA MEMS earlier this month. 

A snapshot of findings

The survey dug deeply into student insights, tracking the impact of various factors on student demographics and the student experience. For instance, on the subject of motivation for program selection, the top four factors influencing decision-making for both undergraduate and graduate students were the availability of online courses, program offerings, institutional reputation and cost. 

Analyzing these factors according to funding sources revealed more precise nuances of prospective student decision-making. The availability of online courses was a more important factor for students paying through loans than for students whose family was footing the bill. When it came to the impact of cost on student decisions, students paying through loans were less likely to consider cost a motivating factor than were students paying via almost any other means, including out-of-pocket, through scholarships, through family or through employers.

To better understand the effectiveness of online student support, the survey also asked students to consider their biggest challenges in completing their program, and how well their institution helped them overcome these challenges. Students’ biggest challenge — with 50 percent reporting it to be “very challenging” — was time management and balancing school with other commitments. This challenge was also the area where students felt they had the least amount of help, with only 23 percent reporting they felt “very supported.” 

Staff responses to the same question add more evidence for the gap, with staff on average reporting that their institution provides a lower level of support for time management and balancing commitments than students report they need.

What’s next?

The surveys are continuing to collect responses from new institutions and analysis is ongoing. More complete results — as well as actionable insights to guide  online programs in optimizing their support — will be published early next year.

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What were online students worrying about back in 2017? What’s changed — and what hasn’t?

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