We often write off online students as wanting to be anti-social and avoid people. But the reasons why people pursue digital education often deal with anything but. It can stem from work/life balance, not wanting to uproot your life to get a degree, family obligations, convenience, cost, not having to deal with commutes, and simply wanting to get the best degree from the best institution you can since you aren't limited by geography. The value of digital education is immense, so we're definitely seeing a lot of growth because of that both in terms of offerings from schools and student interest. You can learn on your own time, in your own way, at a price point you feel comfortable with.
Working for the past year and a half in digital education has been eye opening. I've learned so much about supporting students from afar and making sure they have a positive student experience. While we still have a lot to learn with the pursuit of digital education being so new, there have been some trends I've seen of what works well.
Student engagement in the digital realm takes more work, but these students still want connections to their peers, faculty, and the institution. We can help make those interactions easier, and we can help coach students to navigate everything they want and need while they're studying with us.
What I've seen be successful is proactive communication via email and other channels with relative information about deadlines, resources, and course offerings. Also, regular check ins to make sure students know you're there for them and willing to talk about whatever they need. Some students won't need you as much, or will prefer email over calls. Regardless, I've found that it goes a long way to know someone cares and is in touching base with you, even if any conversations are short. Students regardless of whether they're on-campus or online, are going to have a lot of competing priorities, so we shouldn't take it personally if they don't talk to us all the time. That doesn't mean though we should ignore them and wait for them to come to us. A lot of what I've written before about great student support and increasing access to student support efforts holds true here with students in the digital space.
My main takeaway for you here is to maintain the same values with students online that you would with those students who happen to be in-person. Don't be afraid of reaching out. Make them feel like they're a part of your community, no matter where they are. Create opportunities for these students to meet with each other in person or connect them with on-campus students, faculty, and staff. These students are typically strongly connected to your institution's brand, that's why they sought it out to get an education from there. If they maybe happened upon your offering another way, then take it as a challenge to build the affinity in them with great service and inclusive practices. Once it all comes together, these students will be proud ambassadors all over the country (and perhaps the world) who are able to get an awesome education from your institution without disrupting their lives.
If anyone is interested in learning more specifics of the work I do, or have cool ideas from the work they do in digital education, please connect with me! I always love talking shop.