5 Questions to Ask About Student Services in Online Programs

via U.S. News & World Report

From career advising to library resources, student services are an essential component of higher education both in person and online, experts say.

"Online students are learning at a distance," says Susan Aldridge, president of Drexel University Online. "Student services make a difference in whether these students can be successful or not."

Drexel offers its online students ​career services, writing center resources and technical support, among other resources. But Drexel isn't the only school adapting its student services to the digital landscape, as many others take similar steps to ensure online student success.

Given the range of online programs and various types of student services,​ a student should ask many different questions, including the following, when evaluating an online program's services.

1. What student services are offered, and what ​needs should be met? The types of student services that online programs offer vary across institutions, experts say. That's why first and foremost, it's important for students to conduct research to determine the specific types of services available.

Students should also define their ​needs and the amount of assistance they might require, says Jennifer Sullivan, senior faculty and student support administrator​ at Boston University Online. The school has several student services coordinators, each of whom is dedicated to one or two specific disciplines to assist online learners as needed with academic, scheduling and other issues, she says.

"A lot of students are taking these classes in what little spare time they have," Sullivan says. "I think knowing what kind of student you are at that point and knowing what support you need is key."

2. Is the quality of the student services comparable with those offered in person? Experts say students who pursue their education online should have access to comparable if not the same student services as those who study on campus.

​For instance, ASU Online at Arizona State University offers, among other resources, access to and the ability to chat with career advisers who assist with resume-building and the job hunt, says Joe Chapman, director of student services at ASU Online. Online students can also participate in virtual career fairs.

Chapman, who also blogs for U.S. News, ​adds that ASU Online, like many other online institutions, monitors the quality of its student services through surveys every semester that help determine student needs and areas for improvement.

In addition, Amanda Major, interim director of LSU Online at Louisiana State University​, says it's ​​important to ensure that online learners have a central place where they can become part of the larger academic community – ​whether it's on social media or through other means – ​as they would in person.

La'Tisha O'Bear of White Castle, Louisiana, is enrolled in postbaccalaureate courses in construction management at LSU Online with plans to pursue a master's degree at the online school. The 25-year-old says the discussion boards the school provides its online students help her chat with her peers around the world, as well as instructors and career advisers.

"I'm able to communicate with international students and students not in the area, and people who already have the industry experience," she says.

3. On what platforms are these services available? Communication is key when it comes to student services online given that many students are located far away from the institution's physical campus, experts say.

In an ever-changing digital environment, they say, online programs should offer student services in formats beyond just the Web ​– whether it's by phone, text message, social media or email.

"Particularly in this mobile environment, it's important to be mobile-friendly so students can access this information readily," ​Drexel's Aldridge says. "More than ever, students are using iPads and mobile phones, and a lot of information on websites is not mobile-friendly."

4. During what hours are online student services available? Since students in many online programs are located across different time zones, Aldridge says they need to be able to access resources around the clock.

"What I tell people is that for every time zone you're in, you have to have extended hours in order to support your students, especially for tech support," she says.

5. Does the program offer tech support for online students? Online learning relies on technology to properly function, so technical support is vital for these students, Major says.

She says LSU has a help desk for students who may need assistance with the online learning management systems they use to attend class and submit assignments.

As online education evolves, services ranging from tech support to tutoring are becoming increasingly important for learners, experts say.

"We know students can’t do this alone," Chapman says.

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