What Can Educators Do To Take Better Care Of Online Students?

The online education genie is now well and truly out of the bottle and it’s not going back in. Because of this, universities need to adapt their pastoral approach. We need to move from in-person arrangements to one more adapted to the online environment. Students need to feel like there is someone looking out for them, even when connecting remotely. The level of care should be the same. 

Creating this level of support, though, will be challenging. Universities will need to fundamentally rethink how they operate. The changes they initiate will be the largest in their history. Until fifteen years ago, there were no technologies that could render campuses obsolete. Now we take them for granted. 

Taking better care of online students is part of universities’ drive for a more equitable future. It is an opportunity for colleges to put their money where their mouth is and live the values they espouse. Pastoral care for the most vulnerable is a way to do this. 

In this post, we take a look at some of the specific actionable recommendations universities can put in place to improve care for online students. Here are some suggestions that fall within most institutions’ ethics. 

Find Out What Students Need

Universities often misunderstand students’ needs when they attend in person. These problems are exacerbated several-fold when learning takes place online. There is a tendency for less dialogue. 

For this reason, institutions should hold sessions with various student groups and engage with panelists, discussing the issues they face. Students should have the opportunity to discuss their needs and concerns with administrators and faculty. Members of staff should engage with students about their needs and how things are going. They should pick up on repeated themes and issues, and look for ways to address them. Critically, they need to record students’ concerns so they understand which issues they need to address as a matter of priority. 

Ensure That Adequate Support Is Available 

Universities also need to help students access all the resources they are entitled to, even if they are online. This means putting technology and equipment in place to reduce financial constraints and improve access to distance learning.

To achieve this level of support, educational institutions need to rethink how they organize resources. For example, in a conventional campus setup, students can access books at low-cost, or free, at any time. However, the same may not be true online. Faculty must make extensive course reading lists available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They must also make any PDF documents easily available across a range of devices, taking into consideration things like screen size and device type. 

Make Student Participation More Flexible 

Online students will naturally expect more flexible timetables. Rigidly sticking to a conventional university itinerary is neither necessary nor productive. 

Here are some ways that you can implement more flexibility in your syllabus: 

  • Avoid long-form traditional lectures, particularly those lasting two hours or more. Lecture series can be broken up into smaller, more manageable 40 to 60-minute chunks. 
  • Promote project-based assignments. Get students to work asynchronously to encourage greater participation. 
  • Allow students to take assessments flexibly, perhaps at a time of their choosing within a given window. 
  • Provide extra time for exam completion to account for online question and answer formats in some subjects

Be Culturally Inclusive

Beware of one-size-fits-all educational approaches. Students attending online classes often come from more diverse backgrounds than those attending in person. Particular teaching methodologies, subject matters or approaches may not be appropriate for their needs or cultural background, so be careful.

Ask yourself whether students from all backgrounds will find it easy getting help taking an online class. Does everyone have equal levels of access? Are there resources for students with accessibility requirements? Are your support resources color blind?

Also, look for ways to make all student experiences valuable. Look for ways to ensure that everyone is seen and heard. Value online students for who they are and make them feel like valued members of the community. Everyone has a role to play. 

Start Recording Lectures And Other Course Materials

Not all students will be able to attend lectures live. Many will be living in different time zones or may have to work to make ends meet. Therefore, record lectures, and video and audio content for your course. Make all resources available through shared portals. If you can, caption all your videos and add audio cues for lectures. This way, you can serve the needs of disabled students who may require additional support. Disabled students should have the opportunity to derive the same level of value from all your course materials as other students. 

Improve Your Digital Technologies

Universities could get away with mediocre computer networks in the past, but not anymore. Modern institutions need cloud-based IT that serves the needs of in-person and online students equally. There should be no differences in the quality of digital services. 

Services should accommodate two factors of online learning: students connecting from different time zones and using varying languages. Use tools such as high-contrast themes, larger cursors, and closed captioning. Make options available for alternative text and different languages if that is part of your institution’s policies. Ask your IT department to begin working on a broader range of cloud-based accessibility priorities. Get external teams to evaluate your systems and compare them to the best in the educational sector. Could you be doing more to improve online services and meet students’ accessibility requirements? 

Make Courseware Accessible

Lastly, you’ll need to make sure that you make all documents easily accessible across a range of dimensions. On a technical level, this means ensuring that students can easily download and print documents, if necessary. On a personal level, this means using sensitive language that includes students from a range of backgrounds. Make sure that the fonts are easily readable and that you use the right colors. If necessary, provide course materials in a range of digital formats that users can access from a range of devices and operating systems. 


BSAY / DEFY @ Yale