5 Things We’ve Learned Navigating Student Support in a Crisis

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Over these last weeks, institutions around the globe have worked tirelessly to transition teaching and learning online and set up digital classrooms for the health and wellbeing of their students, faculty, and staff. The next step is to ensure students and staff have the right technical support they need to operate in this new normal. After you’ve made this transition and scaled your support effort, you may be asking, “Now what?” How do you continue to support your students?

In the midst of crisis, students look to their institutions for guidance and support. How you respond and engage with them can ultimately push a student to persist or stop out. It’s not enough to offer online courses. And you can’t stop at inbound support. To retain students and support their success, you need to proactively reach out to assist students in this time of great need.

Over the last 15 years, Blackboard Student Services has partnered with hundreds of higher education institutions in North America to support institutional and student success. In that time, we’ve supported our partners through outages, natural disasters, and other crises. Here are  five key things we’ve learned in this time:

1. Students are at-risk of dropping.

We know that most of student attrition occurs due to non-academic ­factors. Students find it hard to balance school with external commitments, they struggle to pay tuition and related expenses, or something throws them off and they’re no longer connected to their primary motivation for enrolling in the first place. In times like these, most of your students have at least questioned if they should persist. Add a major disruption or crisis like we’re experiencing with COVID-19, and more of your students may be at risk of dropping, especially those who were already teetering in their focus.

2. Students always need inbound support, but especially during times of crisis. 

A few days ago, I called a service provider with a question about my bill. Their voicemail greeting stated that all of their employees are now working from home and that I would need to email their general email inbox for support. As soon as I heard that message, I became frustrated and assumed that I’m probably not going to have my question answered anytime soon. In fact, I still haven’t sent that email. Imagine this being one of your students in need of support.

If a student is already questioning whether to continue in school, what happens when they try to get a basic question answered—whether it’s a technical question about remote learning, or question about their financial aid disbursement—and there is nobody available to answer their question or point them to the right resources?

During times of crisis, your inbound support lines will see significantly increased volume. Are you prepared to scale effectively and offer the support your students need? We know that your virtual learners will engage in their coursework at all hours of the day – are you prepared for 24/7 inbound support? 

3. Keep your students informed with proactive outreach. 

Yes, it’s important to provide inbound support, but it’s equally important to stay in contact with your students via outbound campaigns. In this current crisis, news changes quickly, and I anticipate your contingency plans are changing just as quickly too. Keep your students informed with relevant and up-to-date insights, and point them to how they can get the help they need. Proactive outbound communication shows students that you care and reminds them of the services available to them. Sometimes the students who need support the most are the last ones to reach out and ask. Proactive outreach ensures all students are aware of the support that’s available to them.

It’s not enough to post updates to your website and send emails. In a diverse student body, there’s one thing we can rely on students having in common: they’re never too far from their cell phones. In fact, our data shows that multi-modal communication plans (phone, SMS, and email) are the most effective at reaching students. A multi-modal approach broadens your outreach and adds additional touch points for communication. Expanding your outreach beyond an email to include texts and phone calls means you’re meeting students where they are with the information they need.

4. Use student engagement data to ease advisor caseload management.

As your students transition to a fully virtual environment, it’s more important than ever to use data to enhance the student experience and help with advisor caseload management. On the topic of student advising and outreach, we’re hearing two clear messages from our clients: 1) their advisor team is overloaded and/or are operating at less than full capacity right now, and 2) they need to know which students are engaging with their online course. We’re helping our clients during this time of need by providing them with these valuable insights.

It’s likely that your advising staff is also overloaded and a little overwhelmed. In most cases, it’s not possible for advisors to outreach to all students to check-in on how they are adapting to online learning. Use data from your LMS to understand which students are engaging and which are not. Regularly review log-in data, assignment submission data, etc. to help your team to focus their efforts to students at the greatest risk of dropping.

5. Ask students for feedback. 

This part, while often missed, is critical to effective student support. Surveying your students a few times per year might work during normal circumstances, but during times of crisis you need to be asking for feedback frequently to ensure you’re responding and supporting students in ways that are best for them. Deploy post-call surveys or embed links to surveys in your electronic communication. 

Ask students how they perceive the institution’s performance around communication and support and what you could be doing better. Ask them how they are doing with the transition and get a pulse for their sentiment and risk. This will not only help you improve on your crisis response in the future but also help you identify students who may be at risk of dropping, allowing you to step in with additional support as needed.

What’s next

As part of our ongoing commitment to partnering with the higher education community, especially in times of such large-scale transition, we want to continue supporting your efforts to make effective and rapid changes. We support institutional and student success throughout the student lifecycle, and we have some specific ways to help you right now.

If you’re ready to take the next step in effective student support, talk to us about our quick-to-implement outbound campaigns offering multi-modal outreach to rapidly disseminate key information, scale the effectiveness of your teams, and gather valuable feedback for continuous improvement.

To leverage data for student insights and decision making, we offer several analytics solutions you need to support a truly comprehensive, integrated, and evidence-based approach to student success. Unlock a clear picture of student data and use that data to enhance the student experience and drive institutional success.

To help you keep pace with increasing demand for inbound IT support, we also offer two Help Desk support models to ensure educators and students get the technical support they need. Our quick-to-implement IT Help Desk solutions expand your institution’s service capabilities and free up valuable resources for your support teams.