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UPCEA New England Recap: 3 Student Engagement Approaches for Online Programs

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The team spent our trek up I95 to the UPCEA New England regional conference in Portland, Maine in conversation about the variety of programs in attendance. We discussed the well-known schools who have seemingly mastered the art of delivering online education (looking at you, SNHU) and other schools who are just starting to grow their online programs into proud extensions of their parent universities.


Upon checking in and setting up our exhibitor space, I made it a personal mission to attend as many sessions as possible, to focus in on the bigger themes of the conference, and to understand the various challenges of programs in the professional, continuing, and online education industries.

I first attended a session by Chris Davis & Julie Longeran from the Harvard Extension School, which focused on student engagement through community creation. While the presentation itself was well thought out and engaging, and shed light on Harvard Extension's proactive approach to increasing engagement with their student populations, the conversation and Q&A following opened up a deeper investigation into an urgent trend for those in attendance.

“We know student engagement is important, but where do we start?”

Where do these programs start? Each one has a different model for delivering academic services, and they also need to deliver student services, career services, and other vital and time-sensitive information to students; ideally, they would do so in a way that is self-service, so as to better serve students online. Among the many challenges, one is that schools have different programs of study and, often, a diverse student population to cater to, which requires a heavy dose of personalization to deliver the right information to the right students. Everyone knows that student engagement can be tied to persistence and retention, but creating and sustaining the engagement necessary to impact either has been a mystery for many institutions.

Here are 3 compelling student engagement approaches for online and distance learners that were discussed at the UPCEA New England Regional conference.

  1. Winona State’s Online Advising Model
  • Challenge: The Warrior Success Center identified a need to facilitate face-to-face interactions with their students, especially those at-risk academically, or those who have inflexible schedules that prevent them from being physically present for in-person appointments.
  • Solution: The team found a webcam software solution that provided an easy way to connect face-to-face online. They then implemented protocols and communications guidelines to make it very simple to use, for students and advisors alike. They also leveraged the Communications Office to market their new service as option for specific student populations, like distance learners.
  • Result: Upwards of 100 web advising appointments scheduled and completed by two advisors in the first semester.
  1. Wentworth’s Learning Community Development
  • Challenge: Wentworth's College of Continuing & Professional Education identified difficulties in creating a learning community for professional adult learners, so that they could access classes and academic resources through the Institute's LMS.
  • Solution: Instead of creating a digital community for these students on Facebook or purchasing another software, the team built a learning community directly inside the LMS where the students already lived.
  • Result: A one-stop shop for engagement with the LMS resources necessary to success and more students from the program engaging with each other to foster student success.
  1. Southern New Hampshire University's 1st Year Experience Model
  • Challenge: With the increased success of SNHU's online and traditional programs, administrators found that higher enrollment numbers meant a growing need for additional advisors to support students throughout their college journey.
  • Solution: The First Year Experience and Retention team kicked off a new model of advising, focused on delivering specific services to first year students by pairing them with a first-year experience advisor responsible for educating and engaging them with the relevant student support services from day one (orientation) and then connecting them to a program-specific advisor later in their student journey.
  • Result: A holistic model, which has effectively bridged the gap between enrollment and the valuable people, offices, and other resources that drive student engagement and sustain student success - earlier in the student journey.  

What can we take away from these examples? Student engagement can happen anywhere and everywhere! Whether it's making engagement more purposeful in a single interaction (Winona) or finding a way to connect the dots on campus, from pre-enrollment to graduation (SNHU), the ability to identify the unique challenges on your specific campus is a crucial first step. The institutions above have taken that step, that that has led to meaningful results.

Want to learn more? See how Indiana University is integrating both academic and career resources into student communities to inform enrollment, persistence, and career readiness.

Bridging Classroom to Career with Indiana University Bloomington - Now with videos!
5 Things to Do While You're in DC for UPCEA'S Marketing and Enrollment Management Seminar

About Author

Ed McDonald
Ed McDonald

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