July 27, 2022

Optimising the digital higher education experience: delivering outstanding support for online learners

The higher education sector is experiencing a period of rapid transformation. With demand for more flexible access options catalysing significant growth in online, hybrid and blended delivery models, universities must not only design new, more adaptable, degree programmes, but must also review and strengthen the support services that are essential to sustain a student body that’s more diverse – and dispersed – than ever before.


As students embark on what, for many, will be a lifelong journey learning (and relearning) the skills and knowledge that will help them to thrive personally and professionally in the years to come, they’ll need ready access to personalised support services at every stage. However, with student numbers rising, HE institutions everywhere are facing fresh challenges – not least that of effectively delivering these essential services to an online cohort, as well as on campus.


However, effecting a parallel support infrastructure that mirrors existing provision, at the same time creating an agile response network tailored to online students’ specific needs, is a highly complex task. Remote students will, rightly, expect to anchor their academic development through the same group discussions, careers activities, enrichment opportunities and pastoral care programmes as their campus-based peers.


The best solutions will go beyond the kind of cursory refresh that may have provided an interim stopgap during the early days of the pandemic – replacing face-to-face meetings with Zoom, for instance. Rather, they’ll harness technology to create a multi-layered system that’s infinitely customisable.


Getting it right will require not only vision and tenacity but also an effective edtech strategy.


Establish a personal connection

It goes without saying that underfunded and under-resourced services won’t have the scope to support students in any meaningful way. But it’s a problem that can develop almost imperceptibly as greater numbers of online students fall between the departmental cracks and fly under the radar of key support staff.


Allocating a key contact to each student – someone a student can rely on as a trusted conduit for information and advice on a wide range of subjects throughout the academic year – is a crucial early step. This contact should be well placed to offer immediate frontline support, as well as to help students escalate specific issues or to signpost experts where students need more focused, specialist input.


Offering the reassurance of meaningful, human interaction will enable students to quickly feel connected to their university, even if they can’t be geographically present, and will open up a two-way channel from the outset, giving students the support they need to overcome the challenges that lie ahead.


Create multiple touchpoints

Frontline contacts should be supplemented by other team members who can jump on to an online or telephone chat when necessary. This secondary support layer gives students a back-up option and enables them to interact in the way they feel most comfortable.


It does mean investing in robust tech solutions that facilitate contact across a variety of media. The best systems use artificial intelligence (AI) and analytics tools to detect and respond to students’ needs with real-time feedback and support, as well as to identify students who show signs of being at risk so teams can accurately target outreach.


Early intervention of this kind prompts the conversations that will help students address issues before they escalate.


Prioritise wellbeing

There’s plenty of data to back this up. According to a 2020 report by HR specialist Randstad over a quarter of UK students experience a negative change in their mental wellbeing when they start university, with more than 20,000 – circa 1-in-16 – dropping out before their second year of study. Effective support services play an important part in sustaining wellbeing and in mitigating the many pressures and stresses students experience.


It’s about more that offering a helping hand in a crisis, though. Feeling part of a community that’s a place for social and cultural – as well as educational – exploration is key to students’ ongoing physical and mental wellbeing, as well as contributing to individual personal and professional development via a wealth of transferrable skills that ease the college-to-workplace transition.


Engaging with the broader university population – by participating in clubs and societies, playing sport, and attending cultural events – provides context and texture to the learning experience and helps students form important bonds with their peers. The New Realists 2019 report from HEPI and Unite Student found that students believe ‘peers play a pivotal role in a successful student experience’.


Schedule shared events

Universities should find as many ways as possible to provide access to these enriching experiences, wherever students are physically located. One of the ways this can be facilitated is via the creation of the kind of shared, collaborative virtual events that are part and parcel of the traditional university experience.


Livestreaming informal activities – like video games, quizzes and music listening parties – is often simple to arrange. But forward-thinking universities are looking to engage members of the online learning community in more imaginative ways – through activities like virtual exercise programmes and community gardening clubs, and by connecting students with events and volunteering opportunities that are local to them.


The type of activity isn’t important – as long as it promotes the proliferation of personal interactions, offering students the chance to connect with each other, whether through digital or in-person gatherings that support wellbeing in the broadest sense possible.


Build a mentor network

A well-thought-out support infrastructure doesn’t just improve student wellbeing, integration, and retention during the university years, but also has a positive impact on post-HE outcomes. Among the factors often linked to long-term professional success are experiential learning – the opportunity to apply theoretical learning to real-life situations – and mentoring.


Most universities have access to rich pools of potential mentors – not least from their own alumni base, which is likely to number many times any current undergraduate roll. Recruiting alumni to mentor students can, and should, become an automatic part of every institution’s development plan.


Mentor opportunities can also be boosted by peer mentoring schemes which bring students together from different year groups. The encouragement and support mentees receive from older students can not only offer important insights into their ongoing journey but can also help them to develop strategies for tackling personal and academic issues. At the same time, mentors have a chance to explore their own leadership and communication skills.


There’s no reason for online students to miss out, as distance or ‘e-mentoring’ programmes enable mentees and mentors to schedule sessions flexibly around other commitments.


Create a culture of inclusion

One of the most challenging aspects of HE support provision is understanding need. Students who’s sole, or primary, interaction with their university is online, have an additional hurdle to overcome – that of not being ‘visible’ within their community.


It’s a problem that can have far-reaching implications. For example, even though thousands of students across the country have a disability, a mental health condition or learning difficulties, not all of these students will be aware they could benefit from a Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) to support their studies. It’s a more pressing issue for online students who could slip through the net unless their disabilities are flagged at the outset.


Universities must be proactive in engaging with students to discover and understand individual needs so they can facilitate access to the resources that can make the difference between graduating and dropping out. Creating a more open culture will promote greater inclusion and address potential barriers to learning.


Accessibility for all students is crucial, but for none more so than those studying remotely, where isolation can compound other factors, including socio-economic status, ethnicity, mental health, and sexuality. These students will be counting on their university to be a trusted ally. To support them throughout their HE journey and help them explore and achieve their full potential.


Investing in the services that give the most marginalised students a real chance to succeed isn’t just a sound business decision, it’s a privilege.



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