Student Services Focus on Success in Online Degree Programs

October 6, 2022  |  by Heidi Wells, Global Campus

Online student liaison Nina Bernstein helps a prospective student navigate the enrollment process.

Beginning to work on an online degree program is an exciting, new experience for many students. Sometimes, they want someone near in case they have a question. Sometimes, they want a real person to confirm information they see on a website, rather than relying solely on their own interpretation.

Students will always reach a real person when contacting an online student liaison or online student coach at the University of Arkansas.

The University of Arkansas Global Campus has ramped up its services for online students in recent years. Not only do these services help students succeed, officials say, they also contribute to a feeling of belonging at the U of A for online students who may never set foot on campus. These are students who will earn degrees without leaving their families, jobs and hometowns. The goal is to anticipate what challenges prospective and new students will encounter.

"We focus on patience and listening, hearing them out, repeating back their question. That's customer service: Am I understanding the question correctly?"

Colleen Whitman, Online student support manager

"Sometimes, students have a beautiful way of asking a question you have answered 10 times in such a way that you feel like you've never heard it before," says Colleen Whitman, online student support manager at the Global Campus. "They are caught up in the moment. This is their experience. We focus on patience and listening, hearing them out, repeating back their question. That's customer service: Am I understanding the question correctly?"

The Global Campus supports the U of A academic colleges that offer more than 75 online degree, certificate, microcertificate and licensure programs. These programs are showcased on the U of A ONLINE website at More than 440 students who studied in online degree programs graduated in May.

Kati Williams, online student coaching coordinator at the Global Campus, says she has spent more than an hour on a phone call as a new student navigates websites to complete the processes required to study in an online degree program offered by the University of Arkansas. She offers guidance as well as encouragement as a new student fills out the online application, sets up an email account, checks course availability, makes an appointment with an academic advisor or enrolls in a course, among many other tasks that must be done online. The Global Campus offers a new online student checklist to make sure nothing is overlooked.

"We are their cheerleaders; we are their advocates," Williams says. "We help them manage multiple online platforms at once, and that can be challenging for people new to technology. Once these students reach us, they're usually in a state of confusion and they need help. They are trying to achieve their dreams and goals. I like to leave my calls hoping they feel a sense of relief after talking with me."


Patience, Empathy, Communication Among Necessary Skills

Coaches provide one-to-one services, including assisting students in preparing for advising, connecting students to student-success resources and assisting with proactive problem-solving alongside college advising resources, as well as holding small group virtual events to support community building and service access.

An online student coach's job is to help ensure the success of online students, Whitman explains, and that requires patience, empathy, attention to detail and good communication skills.

Kati Williams supervises two other online student coaches at the U of A's Global Campus.

The Global Campus employs three online student coaches as well as six online student liaisons. The liaisons primarily work with prospective students while coaches work with students after they are enrolled. The liaisons don't have to know everything about the University of Arkansas, but they have to know how to find resources and answers to any question a prospective student may have.

That means Whitman's office works closely with the Global Campus marketing and communications team to keep websites up to date and responsive. Whitman's team and the marketing and communications team also work closely with academic departments in the colleges that offer online degree programs to be sure information online is accurate.

"We know how to find information on the website," Whitman says, "but we don't memorize what's on the website. As questions come up, we know how to do further research and identify exactly why something is unclear. Then, we can go back to the department to ask for clarification."

"The online student liaisons at Global Campus provide excellent customer service while providing a level of support for the student that facilitates ease during the transition of coming back to school."

Hilary Bowling, Online BSN coordinator and clinical instructor of nursing

Influx of Students Shows Need for Liaisons

The hiring of liaisons in 2019 coincided, serendipitously, with an online nursing program added at the U of A that rapidly increased the number of inquiries. Liaison services can include guided appointments to support application completion, virtual assistance utilizing planning tools including the Transfer Planning Guide, and assistance with obtaining transcripts from prior institutions. Additionally, the liaison team maintains detailed self-service guides including video tutorials, FAQ panels, and step-by-step guides.

Patrick McClain, one of the newest online student liaisons, asks a question of liaison Karagin Miller during a training session.

"Before, we could go several days without a call," Whitman says about the effect of the new nursing program. "After, we would rarely go one hour without emails plus calls and chat. The number of applicants was beyond any number we expected. These students were unlike any we ever experienced before. We would get the same question multiple times, and that's when we would ask the marketing team to put the information on the website."

Whitman describes these new online nursing students as the best beta testers she'd ever seen.

"They would go through everything we sent them," she recalls. "They followed links to the end; then, they would call with questions. Sometimes, they found conflicting information on websites."

Hilary Bowling, online BSN coordinator and clinical instructor of nursing, said communication is important at the U of A's Eleanor Mann School of Nursing.

"We always want our current and prospective students to have the answers and information that they are seeking to make the very best decisions for themselves regarding their continued nursing education," Bowling said. "The online student liaisons at Global Campus provide excellent customer service while providing a level of support for the student that facilitates ease during the transition of coming back to school."

During their third full year in operation, liaisons completed more than 11,000 personal interactions with prospective and newly admitted students.

The liaisons provide support for all undergraduate and graduate online students across all colleges. The liaison office provides services from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays by phone, email and live chat.


Adding Value to Student Services

Last summer, the coaching team piloted a non-credit chemistry preparation course for students intending to take online chemistry this fall. Collaborating with the chemistry department and instructional design teams, the coaching team facilitated engagement with students in the self-paced course designed to review math and science skills that instructors identified as critical to success in the chemistry course.

Online student liaison Ray Murphy speaks with a prospective student.

Engagement included building a peer network, facilitating study groups, weekly communication, and an incentive structure to reward persistence. Participant success in chemistry will be evaluated for possible replication in other courses.

Another area coaches have reached out addresses communication among students. Students have created private Facebook groups because they want to communicate with each other in a transparent way without staff involvement, Williams says, but those groups are usually not sustainable after the organizer graduates.

"We knew they wanted a space to collaborate, to come together and have engagement with their peers," she says. "We thought, ‘What can we offer them?' That's partly how the Online Student Union was developed."

The Global Campus manages the new Online Student Union using a platform created by education technology company WISR. The Office of Recruitment and Student Outreach invited students to join communities within the forums to find resources, ask questions and build relationships with other students studying online. The U of A is the only university using the company's platform with 100% online programs, Williams says.

After students are enrolled in an online degree program, they receive an email from an online student coach offering a first appointment. The first appointment typically covers the new online student checklist, and once that is completed, students can schedule a second appointment at which topics of discussion may include time management, note-taking and quizzes, and balancing family and school.

"We are seeing a handful of students come back for a second appointment. We are figuring out how students can find value and asking why they would want to come back to us. We are growing."

Kati Williams, Online student coach

Building Role of Service Providers

Whitman says the idea of hiring online student coaches grew from wondering what happens when students enroll and no longer have the assistance of online student liaisons. The influx of online nursing students "helped us understand our role as service providers," she says.

Online student coaches are not academic advisers, Whitman and Williams emphasize. They cannot enroll students in courses or lift registration holds, although they can help students enroll once they have been advised.

"It's in the early stages," Williams says of online student coaching. "We are seeing a handful of students come back for a second appointment. We are figuring out how students can find value and asking why they would want to come back to us. We are growing."


Online Coaches' Experiences

Kersten Diehl, online student coach

"There are a lot of memorable sessions that I have had with students, everything from working around their schedules to just being a listening ear. On one occasion, I had a student who used our online tutoring service, TutorMe; in her point of view, she did not have a great experience … After she came to me and explained what happened and how it made her feel, I reassured her that I would investigate how this happened. After some investigation, it turned out that there was no fault on either side. The student and I both talked it out and concluded that if she is ever uncomfortable with a situation it is always OK to step away. By me being a listener for her and us talking things out together, she did not let one situation ruin her opportunity to use a great resource offered to online students."

Kersten Diehl, online student coach
Selin Nelson, online student coach

"I recently had a student reach out to me for help getting in touch with her professor. I reached out to the coaching team as well as the instructional designer on the course to figure out the best plan of action for getting into contact with the instructor. The instructor let us know her plan to implement more office hours and Zoom appointments so she could be more available to answer student questions and meet with students, which I relayed to the student. We put the student onto the instructor's radar and the student was able to get the assistance she needed from the professor, as well as take the information about updated office hours back to share with classmates who were also interested in additional interaction."

Selin Nelson, online student coach

Photo of Heidi Wells

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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