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Communicating with online students

3 min read

Online students are typically self-starters looking to progress faster in their current job positions. They want flexibility and often lack support. How do you reach a diverse group of students who are more interested in education than campus life?

This article looks at the characteristics of online students and how some institutions address their needs.

Making a first impression

While traditional 4-year schools might be populated with students who are accompanied by helicopter parents, swooping in to provide support every step of the academic life cycle, online students tend to do everything themselves.

The majority of online students perform their own search for schools and fill out their own financial aid forms. The more you help them with the process, the better.

There are huge financial and time management benefits to attending an online school, but these non-traditional students do not have the advantage of daily, face-to-face interaction with fellow students and faculty. There’s still an inherent advantage of being “in the building,” getting quick answers to questions, and experiencing a sense of community.

You want your students to succeed (that’s why you got into higher ed in the first place) but it can be difficult to reach them. When a traditional student first visits a school, they’ll get a chance to meet instructors and ask questions. They’ll know who to trust and who to turn to. It’s a good idea to immediately reach out to your online students. An initial conversation where you learn their communication preferences (texts, calls, emails, etc.) helps establish that trust.

Navigating an online curriculum can be just as confusing as showing up to campus in the fall. An early relationship can build a foundation that increases retention and improves graduation rates.

Building an online community

Online students may not be interested in school programs or college activities, but that doesn’t mean they don’t crave a sense of community. You can help give them that sense by understanding and addressing their needs. Make students aware of any resources available to them.

Many online schools provide a student portal or knowledge base where students can go to share viewpoints, ask questions, and chat with people going through the same experience.

Benefits of an online community:

  • Students can learn from one another
  • Students are more comfortable sharing their insights
  • Students feel more like a person than a number

Consider establishing an online community and, if one already exists, make sure it’s being monitored to address your students’ concerns.

Know your audience

Communication is easier when all parties can relate to one another. If your staff is reaching out to online students, can they fully identify with them? There are a lot of stereotypes about online students but, as you know, many of those stereotypes fail to depict the majority, and some of them are just untrue (i.e. all online students are lazy kids!).

Knowing what it’s like to take courses online can go a long way to relating to this unique group of students. It could benefit your staff to know more about the experience of attending an online school. Online students want to feel confident about their decisions, so the more you can relate to them, the better.

Google is your friend

Is a potential student going to choose another online college because that institution offers tutoring? Does your school offer some sort of online community where students can share tips and information? Students will use Google to find what they’re looking for in a school, but you can do the same. Research what competition is doing to find out what your school is lacking in terms of attracting more prospects.

Not all online students are alike

The most important thing to remember when trying to understand the characteristics of online students is, there is no all-encompassing set of traits. You cannot use blanket statements to describe an entire demographic of students. Because every student is different, the best way to reach online students is with a multi-channel approach.

Some students will respond to emails, while other students prefer to be texted. Reaching out to a student via text to follow up on emails increases your chances of engagement. Schools that cater to students' communication preferences and utilize multiple tactics have the most success.

A growing segment

As higher ed institutions make adjustments to adapt to economic trends and more and more students seek affordable educational opportunities, the number of online students will grow. That will only increase the competition to reach online students. Taking steps now to improve the way your school reaches online students can give you a distinct advantage.

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