Checklist: Taking Support for Online Students to the Next Level

by Lisa Endersby, Educational Developer, Teaching Commons, York University, National Chair, NASPA Technology Knowledge Community

“It’s important… to remember that online is not a type of student, rather, it is a mode of delivery for academic coursework.”
Susan Ohrablo, 2014

Photo: Lisa EndersbyThe changing reality of our student demographics means that the diverse demands of outside employment, caring for children or dependents, and even commuting to and from campus greatly impact how, when, and if students are able to access the very services we promote as both valuable and essential. We continue to wait behind desks and office doors for students to approach us, often left wondering why more students haven’t simply reached out for help when these myriad of offices exist. The competing demands for our students’ time and attention are not an indication that our students are any less invested or engaged with their learning; it simply yet profoundly means that we need to do better at reaching out to them as a partner in their success rather than wishing or hoping they will access something that may not be easily accessible given their daily lived reality.

Of course, it is one thing to understand and yet another to do. What might it look like to better engage and support our online learners?

I offer this checklist of critical questions to ask that will help you as you strive to:

  1. Know the actions to take when deciding on what online tools you will invest in.
  2. Know what your students want and need from online services.
  3. Consider how technology will enhance both the service-oriented and socially integrative educational experience.

1. Know the actions to take when deciding on what online tools you will invest in.

(Based on: Bates, A. W. (1995). Technology, open learning and distance education. London: Routledge.)

Access – Skills and motivation are important, but many technology solutions fall short when students don’t have access to the tools or resources (e.g. financial) to take full advantage of the technology you are hoping to provide.

  • How accessible is the technology to your learners?
  • Is this technology readily available and intuitive to use?
  • What barriers might get in the way?

Costs – Financial barriers can be a particularly important challenge for institutions, particularly when technology incurs both upfront and ongoing costs that aren’t always strictly monetary.

  • Where is the budget for this new tool coming from?
  • What resources might need to be diverted, increased, or reduced to make room for this technology?
  • How much of that cost will be passed down to students?

Teaching & Learning – Technology is both a tool for teaching & learning as well as an opportunity for skill development as students master the use of these new platforms.

  • Does this technology support rather than complicate teaching and learning?
  • Is this tool the best or a better way to share content and/or help students engage with course material (and each other)?
  • What skills might students be able to develop through using this technology that they wouldn’t otherwise?
  • How will you support this learning process, both for your students and the faculty/staff who will also use these tools?

Interaction & User Friendliness – No matter the potential of meaningful student interaction or faculty engagement, if the metaphorical car won’t start or no one can figure out how to get it in gear, it will never reach its intended destination.

  • Is this technology straightforward to learn and use?
  • What type or level of interaction does this technology support? Does this match your intended goals and/or learning outcomes?
  • Engagement can be both synchronous and asynchronous – What will work best for your content, your students, your staff, and your desired outcomes?

Organization – Technology cannot and should not be shoehorned into an institution’s daily life and long term vision. Consider the ripple effects this technology will create.

  • How does this technology support rather than destabilize your institutional structure?
  • Who will need to learn to do their job differently?
  • Where might students go, or no longer go, now that they can access you and/or your content online?

Novelty – The technology you choose may be new now, but its capabilities must last longer than any trend. Your technology choices should be driven first by intended outcomes, not bells and whistles.

  • Will the ‘newness’ of the technology remain useful and functional one year or five years from now?
  • Does novelty mean quality? Does the technology do what you want or need it to do, or does it only appeal to what you (think) is the current trend in student support?

Speed of Intervention – Students cite speed and flexibility as key desires for technological solutions or services.

  • How responsive is the technology to changing student needs, updates to course/program information, and revolving institutional priorities?
  • How flexible will your technology be as students’ needs change and faculty & staff priorities wax and wane?

2. Know what your students want and need from online services.

(Based on: Venable, Melissa (2007). Online career services: What do college students want and expect? 23rd Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning.)

Efficiency of Service – Content delivery must be fast, accurate, and responsive. Technology can help things move faster, but the tools themselves must be able to keep up.

  • Will you able to respond quickly yet accurately to students’ questions?
  • Can the technology easily and consistently access both the students you serve and the information they need?

Streamlined Educational Experience – Technology is meant to be integrative, not supplementary. An expansive reach and breadth of our students’ educational experience means that learning can happen anywhere, and access can be from everywhere.

  • How many (additional) steps might students need to take to access you, your services, and your institution? If it’s more than your current processes, it may be time to reconsider your chosen technology.

Active Learning – Students want to be engaged; engaged with what they are learning, engaged with you and your colleagues, and engaged with each other. Interaction is no longer only a product of face to face discussion, and technology offers students with different learning styles, preferences, and interests new ways of participating in what we already know supports a meaningful educational experience.

  • How will technology help to make students’ learning visible?
  • How will the technology provide spaces and opportunities for active engagement?
  • Where in and how will this new tool or on this new platform will students be able to demonstrate their ability to analyze, summarize, and/or synthesize what they are learning?

Structured Coursework – Where active learning is complex, the goal of structured coursework represents a desire for a deliberate, efficient path through a degree program. Within an individual course, technology can help to organize information and provide flexible options for collecting, sharing, and evaluating student work.

  • Where and how can you better display information, provide resources, and help students access staff who can guide them through and in their coursework?
  • How will the technology create a clearer rather than more cluttered pathway to information?

“Around the Clock” Availability of Services – While classrooms may still be location-bound, learning is no longer temporally-bound.

  • What services require direct human interaction, and what services can benefit from students’ more autonomous engagement?
  • How can technology help you,and your students, make better use of time away from the classroom or institution to better serve your goals for in person engagement?

3. Consider how technology will enhance both the service-oriented and socially integrative educational experience.

Community matters, and connection is more than a wifi signal –  Just because students are not physically present doesn’t make their social integration any less important for their retention and success. Beyond the one-to-many traditional model of service-provisioning, technology can provide personalized interaction that offers depth for discussion and breadth of community. Students are already connecting with many more of their peers and an even wider array of strangers online.

  • How will you harness the power of this unexpected community to offer and encourage social support?
  • How will you cultivate and encourage, rather than only monitor, the community your students are now a part of?
  • Are you a member, or strictly an observer in these communities? There is a place for both, but not always for, or in, the same place.

We are now both professionals and partners on our students’ journeys – Consider how technology can flatten rather than build up organizational hierarchies. Information is powerful, but should no longer be a symbol of power. Our role has become, in part, to help students make sense of what they are learning and experiencing, which we cannot meaningfully do if we hide the tools they need most behind inaccessible archives and complicated platforms.

  • How, where, and when are you putting this power back in the hands of your students?
  • Where are you choosing to meet your students – when and only where it is convenient for you, or when and where your students might need you most?

Students are socially engaged and personally invested in their education – Consider how you will encourage students to develop as individuals within a deeply communal setting. For example, discussion forums not just as a place for written discussion but also for community engagement. Encourage your students to interact, not just report.

  • How can technology extend and encourage the student development work we have done all along?
  • Can discussions continue beyond or begin before students enter the (physical or virtual) classroom?
  • How will you help students personally navigate their membership in the educational community?
  • What digital tools will offer a map and resources for this journey?

Learn More

In my recorded webcast Translating Your Student Development Services for Online Students, I share information to help you create a pathway to transition your most important student services to meet the unconventional needs of online students. Included with the digital recording is a resource packet to help you as you transition student development services online, including:

  • Articles
  • Institutional examples
  • Case studies

I also recommend these three references for further reading:

  • Bates, A. W. (1995). Technology, open learning and distance education. London: Routledge.
  • Ohrablo, S. (2014, March 14). 7 Ways Advisors Can More Effectively Engage Online Students. Academic Impressions.
  • Venable, Melissa (2007). Online career services: What do college students want and expect? 23rd Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning.


Get Susan Ohrablo’s Handbook for Academic Advisors