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Familiar Faces: Making Connections with Students in Online Programs

Image of  Willem Brooke-deBock

A secret fear of many online educators is that their students are going to feel a deeper bond with their device than they do with the institution, program, faculty or peers.  These fears were validated by the findings published in 2017 study by The Learning House and Aslanian Market Research Group; of the 1,500 prospective students, students, and alums surveyed, “a quarter [of the sample] say online courses could be improved by more contact with their instructors and more engagement with classmates”. As we build and continually improve student engagement at Southern New Hampshire University, we want our online students to know that they are part of a larger culture, and although they may never meet instructors or classmates in a face-to-face capacity, we are here as a community to support their success while building an emotional connection with the institution.

The Familiar Faces project was created as a way to define and foster that sense of community in meaningful and relevant ways. Through a series of short motivational and instructional videos that are woven throughout a student’s experience from acceptance to graduation, we give life to the Bachelors of Science in Healthcare Administration.

Familiar Faces introduces students to a professor and a student who will become their “familiar faces” throughout their program of study. The project was built on the notion that a basic, positive emotional connection with students can be fostered by giving the program a face i.e. personas with whom the student can connect. Students become accustomed to seeing the familiar faces and will recognize that there is something of value to be gained by watching. Each video is a small burst of positive reinforcement and connection to the program at strategic points in a student’s experience. Video development and delivery were based on a careful analysis of student experience in the program. The team analyzed submission rates, pass rates, and student feedback on assignments to determine video content and placement.

Will Brooke-deBock, a dean and instructor at the university, plays the role of the faculty member in the video series. His persona was designed to provide students with a more holistic view of how the knowledge/skills/tools they are developing are important to their career. Will’s character provides warm anecdotes that makes the content relatable to students’ real life experiences. Kirstin Bibbiani, a recent alumna and staff member at SNHU, plays the role of a student who has a keen understanding of the available resources and timelines associated with a student’s progression throughout their program. Her persona drives home the importance of specific assignments and self-discipline by using psychological principles such as locus of control and cognitive rehearsal.

The idea of nudging, popularized by 2017 Nobel Prize winner, Richard Thaler in his book Nudge, influenced this project in significant ways. Thaler and Sunstein define a nudge as:

“any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their… incentives.”

Choice architecture, in this context, suggests a consciously constructed student experience that recognizes that a student needs to be actively in control of and responsible for his or her education.  It was our goal to guide and influence a student’s self-perception, and to encourage adjustments and behaviors that students can make to stay positively engaged with the program.

In our analysis of courses in the Healthcare Administration program, we looked at patterns of student behaviors in order to find places that a video nudge could help a student stay motivated, overcome fear, exert their locus of control, and reinforce the relevance of their choice to pursue this degree and to value the importance of the subject matter in this course.

Initial feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The project has been well received by peers and students alike. Each video’s webpage allows for student feedback. In the six terms since the first round of videos launched, 89 percent of respondents have stated that the videos were helpful. Several of the student quotes, captured below, feed directly into the main objectives of the project.

  • “This really made me think, and I enjoyed it. It makes me feel like I am getting started on the right foot for the remainder of my career.”
  • “The information was not new, however, I really enjoyed it and appreciate how SNHU works to personalize our experience and help connect those of us taking classes online.”
  • “I am going to use the helpful advice that was given and use it daily.”
  • “I like that they used a student at SNHU as motivation.”
  • “It’s always good to know you aren’t alone in your journey.”

Although improvements to student success and retention have multiple causes, Familiar Faces has been part of a series of initiatives that have contributed to an increase in the success rates of students in the Healthcare Administration program.

While we understand that Familiar Faces is not the be-all and end-all solution to concerns regarding a feeling of inclusion and connection with an online university, it is a step in the right direction. As the Familiar Faces pilot expands into other programs across the university, it is our hope that the students leave their respective program knowing that that they have an army of people and resources working behind the scenes to help them reach their end goal, and most importantly that they have the confidence to make their dreams a reality.