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There’s growing recognition that strong, student-centered support services are vital to successful online education. What’s more, this growing recognition could be signaling a new trend in online education, in which institutions are starting to exert a concerted effort to strengthen their online student support services.

I’ve read several news articles lately that have covered how online students require plenty of student-professor and student-to-student interaction, as well as academic advising, tutoring and library services, tuition planning, and other support to succeed. Here’s a handful of them.

  • A New York Times editorial cited a study of Washington State community and technical school students that found “those who took higher proportions of online courses were less likely to earn degrees or transfer to four-year colleges.” The editorial continued: “Lacking confidence as well as competence, these students need engagement with their teachers to feel comfortable and to succeed.”
  • The new NMC Horizon Report found that a major trend in higher education is “shifting education paradigms that encompass online learning, hybrid learning and collaboration.” To me, that naturally involves high student-instructor engagement and strong student support services, which I talked more about in a comment I left on David F. Carr’s InformationWeek article that covered the report.

Doug’s article really struck a chord with me, and as I said in a comment, students are students, however they are taking their courses. We’ve believed for years that the components that help make on-campus students successful are the same ones that help make online students successful — i.e., strong, student-centered support services and interaction.

That philosophy now appears to be gaining increased popularity. In fact, a new trend could be emerging in online education in which institutions put forth a national effort to strengthen their online student support services.

Such a trend would be a logical step forward for the online education industry, which continues to grow. Some 6.7 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2011 term, an increase of 570,000 students over the previous year, according to Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board.

In addition, as an outgrowth, I see educational partnerships taking on new importance — both in the traditional realm and online realm. The industry is facing a crucial moment, as budgets hang in the balance and critics continue to question whether a college degree is worthwhile.

However, we have an opportunity to demonstrate the value of a college degree and strengthen America’s global leadership position by making necessary improvements to our education models. Educational partnerships would help us maximize that opportunity by uniting as an industry to share and develop best practices for improving student support and engagement.

One of the next orders of business for higher education should be to extend online learning models beyond the curriculum and focus on the collegial interaction and personal attention that have long been hallmarks of the best traditional education environments. The better we can adapt those services to the online realm, the more successful online students will become and the stronger America will be as a nation.

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