September 19, 2016
There's a lot to think about when you're thinking about returning to school and choosing to go to school online may add to the questions you have to consider. Whether you have children to care for or a demanding job or any of a thousand commitments, choosing to continue your education is sure to make life even busier. Having recognized that, whole teams of people at Southern New Hampshire University have built support programs to help students new to online education make an easy transition.
Support for new students runs the gamut from academic advisors and an online writing center to webinars and tutoring programs. "We've been very deliberate about trying to build out this community, this network of support we can provide students with," said Matthew Thornton, associate vice president of Student Technology Experience.
One of the first things new students at SNHU will experience after enrolling is being contacted by their academic advisor. Some of the first conversations consist of the advisor reaffirming the new student's goals for going back to school. New student advisors take the time to get to know each new student so often ask some basic questions about lifestyle. Questions such as, whether you have children, if you work full-time or even more, or other demands that may come up over the course of the upcoming term. For instance, if you have children you may find yourself struggling when one of those children is sick or a babysitter cancels at the last minute and an assignment is due soon.
By talking about those challenges before they happen, you could have a list of friends or family members most apt to be able to help to quickly turn to. For those who may not have consistent internet access, especially active-duty military members, advisors can help them find download-able versions of their textbooks instead of web-based versions. "There are different approaches we can take as long as we know those things at the front end," Thornton said. "So it's a lot of relationship building early on to think about what those hurdles could be."
The conversation, in addition to establishing possible challenges a student may encounter, focuses on his or her reasons for pursuing an online degree. Many of SNHU's online students are interested in a new career path. Others are working toward a promotion in a field they are already working in, and some return to school simple because it's a personal goal. All of those motivations, plus a host of others, can inform an academic advisor about ways to encourage and support a student during their time at SNHU, Thornton said.
A new student's orientation also covers many of the technical aspects of attending classes online. Online classes at SNHU chiefly take place in Blackboard, a web-based content hosting platform that links students with their classmates, instructors and the course materials in a variety of forms. Instructional webinars to introduce Blackboard and how you will use it on a day-to-day basis are available periodically.
New student academic advisor Sarah McPherson described logging into the program as "like entering into your classroom," during a recent webinar. Each of the courses you're enrolled in are listed on Blackboard, and within each course is a plethora of resources. The main page lists announcements from the course instructor that can include relevant course information, reminders of important upcoming dates and articles and other material useful for students in the class, said Matt Belanger, assistant vice president of Academic Operations and First and Senior Year Experience.
The Blackboard program also includes links to a variety of support services, information about the course instructor and contact information for them, course tools, academic support options and more. A course syllabus is available along with a series of modules that map out the content and assignments that will be covered each week the course runs.
Many SNHU courses require some level of interaction on a discussion board and Blackboard is also where these boards can be found. Discussion board activity is the online equivalent of classroom participation in a traditional classroom. Typically courses will require students to respond to a discussion board post from the instructor by Thursday and to respond to two comments from classmates by Sunday, Belanger said. "There are questions for you to answer and you write a thoughtful response citing resources, really trying to have an academic discussion with your peers and your instructor," he said. "It eliminates some of that isolating feeling, where if you were going through an experience and you're taking a quiz, a quiz, a quiz and then the term is over and you didn't have any opportunity to engage - that might feel isolating depending on the content."
Online students submit academic papers, projects and other activities through Blackboard by using a simple attachment function, similar to attaching a document to an email. While there are deadlines for assignments to be turned into you instructor and discussion board posts, nearly all of the work can be done asychronistically, meaning there is no one time you need to login to Blackboard to participate in the conversation. That method was developed to take into account the fact that most of SNHU's online students are working adults, many with children and other responsibilities that impose on their time. "We kind of structured our environment in a way that kind of understands that these folks have going on in their lives," Belanger said. "We really built the environment so that it can be as flexible as possible."
Many students taking courses online for the first time are also enrolled in Success Strategies for Online Learning. This course is focused on helping students learn, hone or brush up on a variety of soft skills necessary to begin working toward a degree. The course covers a number of things, including academic research and writing, effective communication in an online environment, community learning and group collaboration, time management strategies, test and note taking and more.
It's not uncommon for teenagers to struggle during their initial weeks at college, away from home for the first time. Social integration and feelings of isolation can be difficult and sometimes prompt students to leave school entirely and return to their families. While the circumstances are certainly different, the same can hold true for online students, Thornton said, and why SNHU has put resources in place to help those students connect with their peers and develop a sense of belonging at the university.
"Online it's a very similar experience a student goes through in a different way. They can't figure out the online environment, they haven't made any friends, they don't have this network of support, if something goes wrong they're not sure who to ask a question of," he said. "So that social integration piece is really what SNHUconnect is built to do. It's built to get them connected so they know if anything does go wrong, they know exactly who they can talk to or at least where to ask the question."
SNHUconnect is an internal social media site designed to connect students who share the same interests, classes and geographic regions. The site also has a place to ask questions that other students are able to answer. It shows previous answers to similar questions and were voted the most useful by other users. "It's incredible to see that happen before the students enrolled because so many students panic in that period between the initial enrollment and the first day of class," Thornton said. "That kind of support really goes a long way."
Things like SNHUconnect and other outreach by academic advisors can go a long way to making a student hundreds of miles away feel like a part of the school, said online student Adam Schumacher. "I don't go to school on campus. I go to school online, maybe sitting here in Kingsland, Ga., nowhere near New Hampshire but I still feel like I'm part of Southern New Hampshire University. I still feel like I'm part of that campus. I still feel like part of the university," he said. "It's very user-friendly. The best part is, even if you're not sure what assignment's due, it's an email away to your professor or a discussion board link away to your professor. And you get instant response and feedback."
Another significant resource is the writing support available to students, Thornton said. In addition to a third-party 24/7 online writing assistance program, SNHU also recently developed an in-house Writing Center focused on SNHU-specific courses. Thornton said the Writing Center is unique because writing coaches don't simply wait for students to contact them for help. Instead they proactively contact students who may benefit from additional assistance based on the assignments they completing in their courses and feedback from their instructors.
Elizabeth Bonin, director of Academic Support, said SNHU's writing coaches, most of whom have PhDs and all of whom have extensive tutoring backgrounds, do much more than proofread papers for spelling and grammar mistakes. Instead they're focused on developing a relationship with students, she said, and teaching them over time to improve their writing. "Their focus is to make sure it's a personal experience. We want to develop a relationship," Bonin said. "We want the student to know they can come from week one. It's actually better if they come from week one because writing is a process. You're faculty are not looking for you to just have perfect grammar."
Through the online writing center students can submit a single question, submit an entire paper and get it back from a writing coach within 48 hours, or schedule a one-on-one session over the phone while going over the paper on a shared screen, Bonin said. "There's a misconception ... that we just proofread and we'll correct your paper for you. We're about teaching," she said.
With all of the resources already in place, new online students at SNHU are well setup to succeed. But the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that barely two-thirds of first-time students in 2012 were enrolled in college a year later, as Belanger wrote earlier this year. Between 30-40 percent of first-year students are not prepared for college-level reading, writing and mathematics, according to research he cited.
That's why SNHUconnect is just the start of the support services available to online SNHU students. Another feature of SNHUconnect is the online Learning Communities. These groups are essentially large study groups that include students taking all the sections of a given course, increasing the number of people contributing to the discussion about a topic far beyond the 25 or so students in your specific class. "Now it's this massive study group who can all learn from one another," Thornton said. Each Learning Community includes a faculty member as well as a peer leader to contribute to the conversation.
Other online resources for students include:
The key takeaway for students in their first year or those considering taking online courses at SNHU but who are hesitant because of the unknown, Thornton said, is that the resources in place and SNHU's commitment to working with every student willing to put in the effort to earning their degree means you will have every chance to reach that goal. "If they communicate with us, we will find a solution that works. That's probably the most important thing, is just make sure you're communicating with you instructor and your advisor and keeping us informed of what's going on in your world and we will work to support you through this," Thornton said. "We've got an arsenal of tactics ready to go when something goes wrong in their world. We just need to know about it."
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