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Academic Advising and Remote Learning: How Higher Ed Moves Forward

by Dr. Donald Hecht
Facing a global pandemic has changed consumer patterns tremendously. Every industry has had to pivot in order to survive this massive shift in the span of just a few weeks. Higher education is no exception. Over 40% of high school seniors are reconsidering their enrollment decisions due to the coronavirus according to research conducted by PLEXUSS. Students are considering institutions closer to home in order to save money and be closer to family members. They are also taking into account the way different colleges and universities have responded to the pandemic.
Students are sharing what they look for in a great college experience while learning remotely, and institutions who thrive in this uncertain time will be the ones that listen well. From academic advising to faculty adjustments and updated online Learning Management Systems (LMSs), institutions have a lot of work to do to ensure that students still receive the high-quality education they expect and deserve. This article outlines some of the methods we use at California Southern University (CalSouthern), a distance learning institution I founded in 1978. We became one of the first organizations to be 100% online in 2007, and we continue to challenge what is possible in higher education. Our methods have resulted in a consistent 95% satisfaction rate and up to a 95% completion rate in our degree programs.
Academic Advising
Academic advising plays a key role in student success and cannot fall by the wayside during a pandemic. On the contrary, academic advising became even more crucial when entire institutions rushed to move instruction online. There was so much uncertainty and confusion, and that uncertainty remains as institutions continue to grapple with different ways to adjust in the fall. Regardless of how universities decide to move forward, many students will continue to feel more comfortable meeting with advisors remotely. In order to adequately support them and ensure they have access to the resources they need, advisors must be proactive and engaged with each student.
At CalSouthern, we continue to have an ambitious approach to academic advising in order to adjust to learner needs and ensure that students do not have to put their futures on hold. Our advisors maintain consistent contact with learners throughout their time at CalSouthern. They help learners create plans for their degree or certificate program as well as plans for individual course success. At the beginning of a learner’s time at CalSouthern, advisors contact them frequently. As learners continue through courses, advisors adjust to each individual’s needs. Some learners need weekly check-ins, while others are comfortable just reaching out when they have questions. It’s crucial that academic advisors customize their approach based on the kind of support each student needs.
Other ways that advisors can remain proactive remotely are:
  • have frank conversations with students about their concerns and challenges;
  • leverage data gathered by LMS and other digital platforms to determine when a student has become less active and engaged;
  • share resources and key information with students even if you think they already know about them; give them an opportunity to ask questions;
  • create a plan with students and follow up on that plan to make sure they’re achieving their goals.
Going beyond the role of academic advising, many professors have chosen to adjust the way they structure their courses as well as the deadlines they set. Many instructors I have spoken to have expressed the need for flexibility in deadlines, which is a practice we have always maintained at CalSouthern. Learners receive a syllabus at the beginning of each course, just like other universities. However, the difference at CalSouthern is that we do not provide strict deadlines for each assignment. We share learning outcomes and how learners will achieve them through assignments and projects. Learners have the entirety of the course (8 weeks) to complete the assignments, and extensions are available as needed. This allows learners to complete coursework on a schedule that works for them.
During the pandemic, it has also been vital for learners to adjust when and how they communicate with faculty and staff. Flexibility in this regard is just as valuable as adjusting assignment deadlines. Students are facing varied challenges, such as teaching and taking care of their children during school hours, working from home, and/or maintaining busy work schedules as essential workers. It’s our job as institutions to adjust to their needs and continue to customize their experiences.
Institutions that have rushed to move their instruction online have largely used Zoom and other video conferencing tools to record lectures remotely. While this is one of the fastest and easiest ways to adjust, it does not work for many students. Online platforms outside of videoconferencing must be leveraged in order to truly support learners outside of the physical classroom. Exceptional LMSs have features that support learners and are necessary to ensure students are able to succeed. Having a streamlined online experience removes barriers to learning and saves time for learners, advisors, and faculty. Some of these features include: integration, content management, reporting, and testing. LMSs can also host several different kinds of content to support different learning styles. This is crucial especially in the context of remote learning because there is far less direct interaction and students often need different approaches in order to succeed.
Faculty can also facilitate interaction between students so they can support one another and network in the process. Building a community within courses as well as in larger program communities can help students bond with one another, encourage connection with the institution, and increase student success.
One way to encourage more connection is by using video to communicate. Even when conducting simple course updates or checking in with students, a short video can feel more personal than an announcement in writing. Instructors can show their personality which makes students feel more involved. They can also encourage students to use video and other expressive forms of interaction on discussion boards and other places. Some faculty have used emojis or gifs to encourage students to express themselves. This can help break the ice in an online space and further students’ sense of community.
The future of higher education is still uncertain. The changes we will see in the next ten years will be influenced by current student and faculty experiences. Many institutions have talked about returning to campus because that’s what they know. There is still a place for in-person instruction, especially for courses that require labs in order to apply learning. Other institutions will look for ways to maintain online instruction without losing educational value.
The traditional format for higher education places the professor at the center and the students at the periphery. However, the shift to remote learning has illuminated issues with this model and many students will continue to push for a personalized experience. Adopting a model that places students at the center will not only increase student success, but it will also help faculty feel more satisfied with their impact on the student experience. At CalSouthern, success is measured by outcomes rather than the amount of time a student spends on a subject. An online format with different learning content to help students customize their experience frees up time that faculty typically spend developing and delivering lectures. That means they will have more time to work with students who need additional support, while the students who need less interaction achieve learning outcomes at their own pace.
Experimentation is an exciting and important part of how higher education will move forward in the coming months. We have already learned so much about how to support students in varied environments and we need to continue to listen to learner feedback and adjust quickly. While this is difficult for higher education to achieve due to the way most institutions operate, organizations have shown during the pandemic that they are capable of agility. That agility must continue so higher education can continue to add value to students’ lives and careers. Outcomes will continue to be at the center of measuring higher education success, so outcomes are what must be measured.

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