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360° Student Services: Engaging the SinclairOnline Student from Prospect to Degree

March 2012, Volume 15, Number 1

by Christina Amato

In an era where students increasingly expect their needs to be met without ever stepping foot on a campus, college staff are under increasing pressure to provide instantaneous assistance and access across a broad realm of college services. This dilemma has left higher education administrators with a difficult charge: engage students more than ever before, using diminishing resources. Sinclair Community College and its online division, SinclairOnline, faced a similar quandary in 2009. In the span of five years, the online student population at the college tripled during a period of simultaneous economic decline at the local and state level. This created a number of challenges for SinclairOnline staff. With antiquated, labor-intensive processes that favored a face-to-face interaction model, large numbers of online students were left to navigate the college remotely or fall through the cracks entirely. In 2009, SinclairOnline found itself at a critical juncture; with over 6,000 students online at Sinclair, the existing service model for those students would irrevocably fracture without systemic changes in the way online student services were conducted.

First Steps

Research was initiated to better capture shared characteristics of online learners at Sinclair, and subsequently, to group those students by need level. It quickly became apparent that prioritization of these groups would be necessary. With over 6,000 students in online courses, a small staff with few additional resources would require scalable services and prioritization of student need. What resulted was a tiered system of students (see Figure A.).

Figure A: Categories of SinclairOnline Student Population by Need

Students placed into Tier One were identified as “highest need” for proactive outreach and services, due to elevated risk factors for failure unless intervention was conducted. Three groups of students were selected for representation in Tier One, all fully online with no attendance in face-to-face campus courses. The first group included students who lived 60 miles or further from the main campus, and thus lacked  easy access to campus-based services. Also in Tier One were academically at-risk students, defined as students with below a 2.0 cumulative grade point average (Academic Intervention/Probation), or students enrolled in precollege remedial coursework online. Finally, students with fewer than thirty credit hours at the college, and students enrolled in Sinclair Community College 101 (the introductory first-quarter course for all new Sinclair students), weredesignated in a First-Year Experience group and were placed in Tier One.

Students placed into Tier Two were labeled as “moderate need” for outreach and services. All students in this tier were also fully online but did not meet the higher risk criteria for nonsuccess identified in Tier One. Finally, Tier Three students were identified as “reduced level of need.” Students populating Tier Three were those who were enrolled in face-to-face courses on campus and in online courses. These students were labeled as “reduced need” because they were on campus at some point during their quarterly studies and could likely reach out to local campus departments for services if needed.

Action Steps

Upon development of the tiered student system, a series of action steps was initiated to begin pairing student groups with services. A “Student Road Map to Success” was created, a visual map detailing all steps—from application to goal completion—a student would need to undertake in order to be successful. The Road Map covered highly visible steps students would likely take on their own without intervention, such as registering and paying for classes; it also covered critical steps to success that students were less likely to undertake without staff outreach. This included factors such as time-management and study skills assessment, connections with faculty and professionals in the student’s declared program of study, and long-term financial planning for college. The goal was to use the Road Map as a platform for building services and outreach to all groups of SinclairOnline students, with special customization aimed at the Tier One, highest need population.

In order to provide customized services and increased attention, Tier One students were subsequently targeted for entry into a case management system known as Student Success Plan (SSP), created internally by Sinclair’s Web Systems team. SSP is a holistic case management software platform that pairs student and coach together by placing the student into a coach’s caseload. Students selected for case management work together with the coach to fill out an initial intake form electronically (see Figure B); to collect information SinclairOnline had never asked of online students before, such as how they planned to pay for college and if they were first-generation college students;, and to self-identify greatest barriers to success.


Figure B: SSP Student Intake Function of SSP

Once this initial intake is completed, students become active on the coach’s caseload, and the coach can then create a simple action plan based on the information collected at intake. For instance, if the coach noted that a student had never filled out a FAFSA and the same student indicated that time management was a personal barrier for success, the action plan function of SSP allows the coach to send the student a virtual to-do list with target dates for completion (filling out a FAFSA, visiting a recommended time-management seminar online) before the student can meet with the coach again. (See Figure C.)

action plan.JPG

Figure C: The Action Plan Function of SSP

Another key component of SSP is the journaling tool. Each meeting between coach and student is logged using SSP’s journal function, creating a comprehensive recorded history between student and coach. Journal entries are accessible to other coaches in the online division as well, to reduce redundancy in providing services to the student, increase inter-department efficiency, and create a shared sense of ownership over the student’s college experience.

A final critical element of SSP is a reporting function that allows the coach to run reports based on his or her entire caseload. In order to streamline communications, for example, the coach can use SSP to identify all students in the caseload who may have fallen below a 2.0 GPA in a given quarter, or all students who have registered for a course out of sequence in their degree plan. Coaches can also easily identify students who have failed to register at all and send emails or make phone calls to those students.
In 2011, SSP was awarded a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to open-source SSP to the higher education community. Planning is currently under way for SSP to be open-sourced in 2012. Interested colleges can visit studentsuccessplan.org for more information.

Beyond case management of the Tier One students, it became apparent that  resources were needed to serve the remainder of the online student population. These resources would have to be scalable and accessible to all students regardless of assigned priority status, and they would need to use less staff time and fewer other resources. Again employing the Road Map to Success, resources were created and proactively disseminated to all students, regardless of tier. The resources were intended to guide the student into self-paced, self-directed education about online learning at Sinclair. “Navigating Sinclair Online” (see Figure D) was created internally by Sinclair staff as a landing place for all new online students, a virtual campus where new students could acclimate to life as an online student and prepare for studies at the college. All aspects of the Road Map up to and including registration in courses were covered in an interactive format. Avatars greeted students at each step of the enrollment process and allowed them to proceed at their own pace, illuminating all steps students needed to take to successfully begin their studies at Sinclair.


Figure D: Navigating SinclairOnline

For new students at the point of registration in online courses, a free mini-course was developed to better acclimate the student to the online environment. “How to Succeed in an Online Course” was developed through a collaborative effort by various departments at Sinclair and was designed to introduce students to the course platform and the structure and layout of online courses. For the first time, students were able to view an exact replica of a course shell at Sinclair and learn how to view the course syllabus, submit an assignment, correspond with other students and faculty, and take quizzes and assessments in the online environment (see Figure E)


Figure E: How to Succeed in an Online Course

This resource was also developed to benefit all students and increase preparedness, regardless of tier. Any student who has been accepted to the college may log-in to my.sinclair, the college’s student portal, and register for the mini-course for free.  In November 2011, the college made “How to Succeed in an Online Course” a mandatory prerequisite for any student wishing to enroll in an online course.

Positive Results

Since undergoing systemic changes in the structure of online student support services, SinclairOnline has seen positive early results. Over 2,000 students successfully completed “How to Succeed in an Online Course” in 2011 and went on to take online courses at Sinclair. In the first quarter pilot of case management of Tier One students in 2011, 88 percent were successfully retained at the college. The pilot case management project and subsequent online resources created for students also earned SinclairOnline the Instructional Technology Council’s “Outstanding Student Services” award in 2012. SinclairOnline support staff plan to build upon this success by expanding the case management opportunities to new populations of students in 2012 and by continued development of scalable, sustainable online services.

Christina Amato is Student Retention Coordinator, SinclairOnline, at Sinclair Community College in Ohio.

Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 03/13/2012 at 3:41 PM | Categories: Leadership Abstracts -