The Always-On Online Student

Get ready to type, tap, log on and pick up — students want to communicate with their online program using every channel possible. 

Twenty-first century eardrums are trained to decipher among an endless array of dings and pings. Our email alert and instant messaging notifications sound as different to us as a meow and a roar. Whether you hear a ringtone or a rattle, you know instantly how someone is trying to get in touch with you. And when it’s time for you to reach out, chances are, you know exactly the best way to get someone’s attention.

With the growing number of channels available, our communication preferences and patterns are becoming as unique to us as the thumbprint that unlocks a phone. Increasingly, we expect to receive tailored outreach on our favorite channels from everyone in our lives, including businesses and service providers — which means that, to reach as many people as effectively as possible, those providers need to be available and accessible on just about every channel imaginable.

When in-person connections are not a possibility, it’s even more important to make the most of every communication tool you do have. That’s why today’s online learners are expecting their programs to offer a range of options for communicating and connecting.

Real talk on student communication

InsideTrack and UPCEA recently conducted a survey of students and staff at 25 different online programs, asking about student challenges and the biggest priorities for student support. When students were asked to rate which channels were most useful in communicating with their program, the results were inconclusive — and that’s very telling.

Given six different communication options, including email, texting, phone and in-person meetings, the range between most and least useful was fairly small. More than 75 percent of students found every communication channel “very” or “somewhat” useful. 

Among student respondents, the most useful channel was email, while the least useful was in-person meetings. Staff agreed that the most useful channel was email, though they did value in-person events and phone calls more than students did.

While students and staff seem to be in general agreement on communication channels, the differences that do show up may be worth paying attention to. Twenty percent of students said that their biggest challenge in completing their program was a lack of communication and personal contact with their institution, making this the second most common response. 

Additionally, when asked which areas of student services were not meeting expectations, “poor communication” was the biggest area of disappointment, identified by 28 percent of students.

Those may not be large percentages. But given that issues around communication did surface among students’ top frustrations, improving communication could be an opportunity for institutions to make a strong student experience even better.

Can you hear me now?

In this case, “better” may mean “more.” Results from the survey indicated that staff may put too much emphasis on face-to-face and voice-to-voice contact. A range of digital channels could take their place, including on-demand resources, videoconferencing and texting.

In particular, texting can be an effective way to blend convenience and personalization. Busy students juggling multiple commitments may be unlikely to pick up the phone for a prolonged conversation. But texting can be a way to incorporate brief exchanges throughout the day. Students can receive the information and support they need without taking time away from other commitments.

Texting also makes it easy for staff to share resources and referrals. Ever tried to spell out a long URL over the phone? It can make for a comedy of errors. But links can be easily attached to a text message and stored for the student on their preferred communication device — which more likely than not is their cell phone.

As institutions learn more about what online students expect from their program, they can continue to build out and refine the communication channels that best suit their learner population. For online programs, an investment in multichannel communication options can yield better student outcomes long-term.

According to the survey, time management is the #1 worry of online students. Get the detailed findings and learn about support strategies here.

Please fill out the form below for access to our webinars.

Related Resources