Over the last ten years, online education has become an integral part of the higher education landscape. While there are unique benefits to an on-campus college experience, online education has opened the doors of higher education to millions of people worldwide who might otherwise, for one reason or another, have been unable to earn college a degree.
Earlier this week I met with a group of success coaches who work with online students to compare and contrast our jobs as well as to share strategies and advice. There are, of course, many similarities. First of all, we all share a universal goal: to help students successfully navigate the college landscape in order to achieve their goals. It is just as important, if not more so, for an online success coach as it is for an on-campus coach to establish a good rapport with students as well as a bond of trust that can facilitate open and honest communication between a student and his or her coach. I also discovered that online coaches teach many of the same skills time and time again as we do- skills ranging from time management and studying techniques to tenacity and perseverance.
Some of the major differences between on-campus and online success coaching are, of course, logistical. While I primarily meet with my students in person, most online coaches communicate exclusively through the use of technology (email, phone, Skype). While my biweekly sessions last thirty minutes each, the amount of contact these online coaches have with their students varies. I learned from our discussions that one of the first things online success coaches ask their students is, “how often would you like me to contact you?” The coaches I spoke with are required to contact their students by email or phone twice a week, but many students, it turns out, desire more. One coach told me that she had a student who requested that her coach contact her every day at the beginning. The coach obliged, and the two communicated at least once a day for four months before the student decided she felt she was doing well enough to reduce to twice a week.
Logistical differences between the jobs of online and on-campus coaches are in many ways about numbers. Because the number of students a typical on-campus coach can work with at any given time is limited by the number of thirty minute blocs in a day, my university currently only provides success coaches for students on either academic probation or academic warning. However, the school at which these coaches worked assigns each incoming student a success coach with whom they work for the duration of their enrollment. That means that, while I may have six to nine students at any given time, the average online coach’s caseload can be more like 125. The thought of working with that many students at the same time seemed almost Herculean to me, but I was amazed at the way these coaches used state-of-the-art software programs to help them keep track of each student effectively.
This software enables coaches to keep up with students’ grades, know which assignments a student has or has not turned in, and whether that student has logged-in to class or participated in a threaded discussion. It tells a coach if a student needs to register for next semester or if he or she is on financial hold. It even allows professors to contact coaches directly about their students. Another difference is the average age of our respective students. The average age of an on-campus student at my university is twenty, but the average age of an online student is thirty-four. Many of these students are attending college while simultaneously working full-time jobs, raising children, or both.
While the mentorship part of my job sometimes involves trying to get an immature 19-year old to see that sleeping through class and then copying the notes from a classmate is not going to fly, online success coaches have many more conversations about how to juggle school and a full-time, off-line life. They have more conversations with older students who might be apprehensive about attending school in this unfamiliar format…or about going back to school at all after years away. They have all kinds of questions about getting a college education hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away from their professors or closest classmate, and their success coach is their number one source for answers.
As I talked more and more with success coaches from the online world, I became almost envious of their seeming ability to bend space and time. While all of the success coaches with which I spoke are based in the midwest, the students they serve are literally all over the country. I learned that these coaches often work from early morning, when their east coast students are beginning their days, to late at night when their west coast students are getting to that discussion thread after a long day at the office or having just put the kids to bed. However, these success coach ninjas did discuss some unique challenges to the job. For example, I know (as do my students because I don’t let them forget) that I have multiple ways to contact them. If a student who is supposed to meet me doesn’t show, I can not only call, text, or email him but also I can contact all my other resources (professors, coaches, student affairs) in order to locate him and then physically walk over. (And as I tell my students: “I won’t be trying to embarrass you in front of your friends/girlfriend/roommate but…”)
Online success coaches do not have this luxury, so it becomes even more important, as one of the coaches said during our meeting to “forge a real-life bond in a virtual world.” This task requires more art than science, as online success coaches must forge this bond without the benefit of face to face contact. As anyone who has sent a text or email with one intended tone only to have had it interpreted completely differently can attest, it turns out that facial cues and body language do more heavy lifting in the communication department than many of us previously thought. That’s why online coaches have to be even more clear and precise in their tone of voice on a phone call or in the language they choose to use in an email. “That’s why,” according to one coach with whom I spoke, “we try even harder to communicate things in a positive way and to focus on solutions.”
Ultimately, as I said at the beginning of this blog, there are more similarities than differences in the work that on-campus and online success coaches do. At the end of the day we are facilitators, cheerleaders, mentors, and trail guides. But as online education expands its reach as well as its influence on the higher education landscape, we will need more and more good coaches to ensure that these students are just as successful in achieving their goals as all the rest.
Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007. The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.