Joseph Grilli: Strong Support Must Accompany Online Learning Programs

by Dr. Joseph J. Grilli

The demand for online learning among college students continues to grow unabated. From 2002 to 2011, the industry experienced a staggering 418-percent increase in the number of students enrolling in online courses – from 1.6 million to 6.7 million, according to a report by Inside Higher Ed. In one year alone, online learning grew by 600,000 students between the 2010 to 2011 fall semesters.

Dr. Joseph J. Grilli

A lot of the reason for the healthy growth in online learning is the continued development of online tools that facilitate instruction for academic classes and interaction among student and instructor. Online learning also appears to meet the needs of the 21st century student by providing flexible scheduling, formatting and convenience.

As the demand for online programs continues to grow, though, drop-out rates at some colleges have become an increasing concern. It is debatable whether or not this rapid growth in online learning will continue, but what has become clear is that colleges and universities must develop support mechanisms to ensure online learners have a better chance to succeed while also maintaining the same academic rigor that is present in the traditional classroom.

Colleges and universities must carefully examine the various support mechanisms available to students as a key component to retention, student satisfaction, and the ability to achieve course and program outcomes.

In a survey of 196 institutions conducted by the Blackboard Institute, support services for online learning are a critical component to student success, but they may also by very different than those provided in a traditional learning environment. The survey results revealed a clear connection between consistent student services combined with superior academic content working hand-in-hand to support student achievement.

The challenge for an institution is to develop a comprehensive, consistent student support services program that is available around the clock. Early intervention is important and should begin during the recruiting process – well before the first day of class. Clear communication of course expectations, enrollment assistance, advisory services, financial aid counseling, and a complete orientation to institutional policies and to the information technology system are all critical elements of a successful online learning experience.

Engaging student prospects several times throughout the application and enrollment process conveys a sense of security and begins to build confidence, particularly for those adult learners who have been away from school for a number of years.

Once classes start, an advisor who acts as a counselor and mentor should be assigned to the student through graduation. This relationship provides consistency and matches the advising services available to students on the traditional campus to the online learning. Technical support is also available at all times, affording the online learner with the ability to have live interaction with a technology staff person so issues can be quickly resolved. Online access to library and other research materials, reference assistance, and instructions on library use are critically important to the online learner as well.

Any discussion about a quality education begins with a program that is intended specifically to serve the online student. Misericordia University has embraced this concept for adult learners who choose to complete some or all of their course work online. The academic excellence and learning support that is available to traditional students is present in all online courses. The result will be increased student satisfaction, improved retention rates and successful students.

With more than 1,000 students projected to take online classes in 2013, it is critically important that Misericordia University and other institutions of higher education serve online learners with the same set of services and support that are afforded to the traditional student population.

Joseph J. Grilli, M.P.A., D.P.A., is the director of Corporate and Institutional Recruitment at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa.

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