Quality academic advising, though not easily defined, encompasses a set of values and intentions that help students integrate their dreams, goals, and abilities into a unified sense of purpose. At the core of this process is the student-advisor relationship, which may develop and unfold in ways that are as unique and diverse as our advisees. Ideally, academic advising programs should be formulated to meet the unique needs of students, rather than expecting them “to fit within the established organizational structure” (NACADA, 2010).
As online programs continue to experience tremendous growth, institutions are struggling to implement student support services that offer the same level of support to their distance-learners as they do for their face-to-face counterparts. Consequently, online students are especially vulnerable to receiving a one-size-fits-all approach to academic advising and experiencing a sense of detachment from their educational experience because of the distance that separates them from their institution.
A personalized approach to distance advising may be inhibited by many factors, such as budget constraints, inadequate technology, limited numbers of staff, or even poor leadership. Thus, while distance advisors may wish to carry out the mission espoused by traditional academic advising models, they face challenges created by the limitations of a depersonalized system; an academic advising system that focuses primarily on course selection, degree planning, and progress toward graduation rather than relationship-building.
Distance advising is not about technology; it is about building productive, meaningful student-advisor relationships within a virtual realm. Traditional models of advising are not appropriate for nontraditional contexts. A university Facebook page with event announcements; an academic advising Web site with a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs); a Twitter account for broadcasting news and information relevant to campus life; email templates and web-based documents; these are all excellent methods of disseminating information but they do not constitute distance advising.
Distance-learners need to feel as though they are part of a community if they are to be engaged in their educational experience (see article on academic/social engagement networks). As Varney (2009) noted “the most important strategy for success with online students is to form solid, meaningful connections from orientation to graduation and to use these connections to help students feel connected to something larger than just the computer, their online course, or the school’s Web site” (2009, para. 11). The metrics for success, as they relate to achieving quality distance advising, must not be based on arbitrary or mechanical processes such as achieving a certain frequency of student-advisor interactions or completing a list of activities (e.g. responding to email, broadcasting announcements via social media). Such automated concepts of advising merely reinforce a systemic approach that treats students like numbers and advisors like robots.
Prompting a significant change in the delivery of online student services is unlikely without addressing the organizational or systems framework. An academic advising program in which advisors are available for assistance but do not proactively initiate contact with online students is inadequate for online learners. Traditional models of relational skills training do not address computer mediated communication (CMC) strategies and are therefore inappropriate for distance advising contexts. Of the three content components of academic advising (i.e. conceptual, informational, and relational), the relational aspect of academic advising is most significant in distance advising scenarios because advisors must compensate for the absence of physical presence.
Technology is only a tool that facilitates human interaction; it does not guarantee meaningful connection. Distance advisors must strive for genuineness, relinquishing pretense for realness, demonstrate positive regard, and express empathy for students’ viewpoints, acknowledging students’ autonomy while remaining available for guidance and support.
Institutions can support a personalized approach to advising by creating an organizational/systems framework that engenders a culture of high touch over high tech (Naisbitt, 1999). Fundamental to this goal is adopting a vision, a mission, goals, and objectives that produce a trickle-down effect so that advisor behaviors align with institutional values. Additionally, institutions can ensure that advisors are not bogged down by ancillary activities or unreasonably high case loads if they are to offer a more personalized approach to advising. As students progress through their program, they may also transition from needing high levels of support to becoming increasingly autonomous. Institutions can support this developmental framework of academic advising by allowing advisors to use their best judgment, along with consideration of student preferences, in deciding upon the level of contact appropriate for supporting online students.
Distance learning programs require that institutions reassess the delivery of online student services so that traditional models of academic advising are not applied to nontraditional students. It takes much more than a Facebook page or a Web site to create a sense of community for online students. Academic advisors are best positioned to create meaningful relationships with students so they feel connected instead of just “plugged in.”
NACADA. (2010). NACADA standards for advising distance learners. Retrieved from: http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Commissions/C23/documents/DistanceStandards.pdf
Naisbitt, J. (1999). High tech high touch: Technology and our search for meaning. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Varney, J. (2009). Strategies for success in distance advising. Retrieved May 29, 2012 from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site.