Online Orientation Designed to Boost Student Success

March 2, 2023  |  by Heidi Wells, Global Campus

Sophie Soden
Sophie Soden

Sophie Soden has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. She also works in the health-care field so she had a pretty good idea that, when she enrolled in an online degree program at the University of Arkansas, there would be an office that serves students like her with ADHD.

Taking part in the online orientation designed by Global Campus staff members showed her exactly how to contact U of A's Center for Educational Access and request accommodations.

Going through the online orientation before the start of their first semester is designed to boost new students' confidence, familiarize them with university systems and resources, and connect them with the university community. The goal of orientation, ultimately, is to help students succeed in their path to graduation.

Enrollment data shows that 83% of students who completed the online orientation were still enrolled at the end of the fall 2022 semester. The data suggests that students who complete orientation are more likely to successfully complete their first semester.

Traditional orientation sessions for students on a university campus consist of activities such as taking campus tours to find classroom buildings, picking up a student ID card and meeting with an academic adviser to sign up for classes. Online orientation occurs as a class taken in the two weeks preceding each semester to give new students in online degree programs a head start on what they need to know and do to be successful. And, it's all available online.

Before the online orientation course was offered, a new student checklist on the U of A ONLINE website gave students instructions and links to help them prepare for their degree program. The checklist still exists as a supplemental tool to online orientation.

Orientation for online students was born out of a collaboration between staff of Global Campus and academic units who saw an opportunity to support student success.

"Research supports strong orientation programs making a difference in student success," said Patty Milner, assistant vice provost for student outreach and innovation at the Global Campus. "That was a tool missing from our toolbox, and together with the colleges we built a really unique and effective model that is showing great outcomes for our students."

"I learned that there are a lot of resources offered and they're really accessible to me. There is always someone to help and that is really nice to know."

Online orientation student, From evaluation survey

Student Experience

Soden lives in Fayetteville, but she works full time at a psychiatric clinic and is mom to a 14-year-old daughter, so an online degree program serves her best. She is in her first semester of the LPN to BSN program offered by the Eleanor Mann School of Nursing in the U of A's College of Education and Health Professions.

Once she gets her registered nurse's license, Soden would like to work at the Arkansas Children's Hospital. She also plans to seek certification as a sexual assault nurse examiner. These are nurses who are called to emergency rooms and urgent care centers to interview people, collect evidence, and document the findings of sexual assaults, according to

Soden said the U of A online orientation was helpful to her even though she had previously taken some online courses through Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville.

"I thought that mostly it would be navigating the Blackboard (learning management) system and how to use the online classes," Soden recalled about online orientation. "It was more than that. I learned a lot about the resources that the university has.

"I have ADHD and I learned how to request accommodations," she continued. "The online orientation course connected me with resources I maybe knew the college had but wasn't sure how to connect with. It definitely did make me feel more comfortable."

After just a few weeks into the spring semester, she made two appointments with the Writing Studio, Soden said. In orientation, she also learned about the Kaltura system that can be used to record audio, do screen capturing, record webcam videos and upload them or existing media to Blackboard.

"I had to use Kaltura for one of my classes, and I pretty much knew how to use it from orientation so that made it really easy," Soden said.

"The more important thing I learned from this course was how to format an essay because I have been out of school for about five or six years so the writing assignment helped me get back into the swing of essay writing."

Online orientation student, From evaluation survey

Course Design

Carla Bourke began working at the Global Campus last August, just before the beginning of the fall semester. She is the online student orientation specialist, handling the administrative side of orientation. She enrolls students, communicates with them and with facilitators, who are typically staff members on campus as well as some academic instructors. She also works with instructional designer Charini Urteaga, helping create assignments and making sure all the links work in Blackboard.

"I make sure facilitators have what they need to support students and classes are on-track with things like grading assignments," said Bourke, who is a former high school English teacher. "I also am a facilitator, in orientation. We are not really instructing so much as serving as a guide and connecting point for students."

Online orientation follows the same format as online courses at the U of A, Bourke said. Students don't just learn to navigate systems they will be required to use in their courses; they also complete assignments based on what they are learning so they put the knowledge into practice.

"This model of hands-on, real-world learning really prepares students to start their first semester at the U of A on the right foot," said Milner. "They enter classes knowing what to expect and how to access the resources they need to succeed."

"In orientation, students have assignments with due dates," Bourke said. "One is to write a short research paper using the APA (American Psychological Association) formatting and finding sources for your paper. Students are encouraged to work with the Writing Studio on their papers, and we reach out to the Writing Studio to be sure they can be available to help online students. We send writing prompts to the Writing Studio and figure out good times for sessions to be held over the course of orientation."

The Global Campus conducts orientation each semester for new, online undergraduate students – about 200 students in January – but plans are underway to create an online orientation for graduate students studying online, Bourke said. The most recent session included a new module on diversity and netiquette, she said, helping new students understand how to interact respectfully in an online environment.

Students also received an invitation during orientation to join the new Online Student Union offered by the Global Campus to give students an opportunity to join communities of other students to find resources, ask questions and build relationships.

"In one assignment, students sign up and post in the union about talking to their friends and family about their new online academic journey," Bourke said, a critical step in successfully being a student for adults. Through assignments like this, students start to build community with their peers, and the support systems of the U of A make it easier to reach out for help and navigate through their educational journey.

"The students get support and information about resources they might not have known about otherwise," she said. "A lot of our students work full time, and maybe it's been a few years since they were in high school. They may be returning students to finish a degree. They might have forgotten how to write a paper, forgotten APA format, not be familiar with Blackboard. Online orientation is about learning how to use the resources that the university has to help them be successful as an online student."

"I always know I can reach out to my online coaches. I have already done that a couple of times and their responses are always helpful. That may be in fact the most useful thing to me this semester as I get back into the swing of college."

Online orientation student, From evaluation survey

Giving Support

Kati Williams is one of 10 facilitators for online orientation who have facilitated orientation since it began. She is also the online student coaching coordinator at the Global Campus, which offers both online student coaches and online student liaisons to help enrolled students and prospective students, respectively, find the answers to any questions they have.

In addition to facilitators from the Global Campus staff, others come from the Eleanor Mann School of Nursing, the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences, and the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.

Williams, who worked with students enrolled in the general business, accounting and supply chain management online degree programs this spring, and the other facilitators interact with students through Blackboard and check in with students by email to encourage them to see the course through to the end.

"They get an email the first day of the orientation course explaining how to log in and when the first assignment is due," Williams said. "It's so good for them to get exposure to what to expect in the upcoming semester."

Facilitators also email reminders and tips to help them stay on track and develop habits that will support them in their regular classes. Assignments in orientation are graded but grades do not go on transcripts, she said. The focus on orientation is having space and time to learn new skills and put them into practice in an environment where they can get lots of feedback and support.

"Whenever a student misses something in orientation, I ask them to go back and work on it again, and if they correct it, I don't deduct points," Williams said. "The grade is not as important as learning the information that will help them later. We want them to learn from the experience."

One assignment she often has to send a reminder about is uploading a calendar, she said. "We have them map out their week," Williams said. "They need to put in the hours required for their classes, two family events and two self-care activities. We want to emphasize the importance of time management and help them learn technical tasks they will need in their classes."

Orientation is updated each term to make sure it covers the skills that students most need to succeed in their classes. Instructors in first-term classes provide feedback to the orientation team about skills students need more help with or new technologies they would like students to encounter before they get to their class. Students starting classes knowing how to do specific tasks like saving a Word document as a PDF and uploading it to the system can save students and instructors a lot of time and frustration after academic classes start.

Williams said she enjoys the work.

"It's a fun experience to help students so they get a step ahead," she said.

Bourke agreed that online orientation gives students a safe place to fail, with lots of support to master the content.

"We want you to make these mistakes now so when you get to your academic courses, you don't make those same mistakes and you're more prepared," Bourke said. "The goal of online orientation is for all of our students to be successful."

"I was iffy about starting college, especially online. I was quite scared and lost on where to start. Now that I've completed this course, I can truly say I have an idea of where to start and how. This course really helped."

Online orientation student, From evaluation survey

Learn More

The U of A offers 86 online degree programs and certificate and licensure plans, which are showcased on the U of A ONLINE website. These include bachelor's, master's, specialist's and doctoral degree programs from six academic colleges: the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences; the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences; the Sam M. Walton College of Business; the College of Education and Health Professions; the College of Engineering; and the School of Law.

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Heidi Wells

Content Strategist

Heidi Wells is the content strategist for the Global Campus at the University of Arkansas and editor of The Online Learner. Her writing spans more than 30 years as a communicator at the U of A and a reporter and editor at Arkansas newspapers. Wells earned two degrees from the U of A: a master's in 2013 and a bachelor's in 1988.

Wells can be reached at or 479-575-7239.

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