Podcast Transcript: Student Services in a Post-Pandemic World – Interview with Eric Stoller

Eric Stoller

Student services expert Eric Stoller explains to Mortarboard Podcast host Daniel Barwick that the way colleges serve students has changed quickly during the pandemic and why those changes are just the beginning.

Dan:     My guest is higher education consultant Eric Stoller, who is an expert on how technology can be used for student engagement, recruitment, retention, and well-being. He has been the Student Affairs and Technology blogger for Inside Higher Ed since 2010. From 2019 to 2020, he was the VP of Digital Strategy for Gecko Engage, a UK-based student engagement ed tech startup. He’s the former Academic Advisor and Web Coordinator for the College of Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University and served previously as a marketing specialist for Student Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago. You can find him on Twitter @EricStoller. Eric’s recent article on the website Volt, entitled, “What is the Future of Student Support Services?” asks whether student support systems can keep up when COVID has accelerated the transition of college from in-person to online. Eric, welcome to the podcast.

Eric:     And thanks for having me.

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Dan:     Your article poses a question, and I’m going to quote you now: “…every college in the nation has been thrust into operating or at least strongly weighing what virtual online student services look like. The question is, will these institutions continue down these paths once a COVID vaccine is available or will they return to their old ways of working, and ignore the continuing trend toward hybrid and online higher education.” That’s the end of the quote – my question for you is, can you describe for us what you see as the differences in support between what schools provide for on-ground students versus online?

Eric:     Yeah, definitely. And I think that first of all, I need to work on my sentences because that’s a lot of commas. [Laughs] I think that it’s interesting, when you see how historically student services have been structured at a campus because historically it was all about face-to-face and, you know, bringing students to campus for brick-and-mortar experience, you’d have a large student affairs division with, typically, maybe a VP of Student Affairs or a Dean of Students heading the operation, and a variety of staffers in different areas, different functional areas, working with students on that campus experience. And so when the pandemic hit and everything had to pivot, you saw this huge increase in support for students who are in remote environments. However, that just hasn’t been the norm for student affairs before this. The differences in support have been vast at a lot of institutions. In fact, you’ve seen sort of, here’s our division of student affairs that typically supports our on-campus students, and if we have an online learning or a virtual shop regardless of the number of students that are taking courses or studying online only they almost have sort of their own exclusive support structures. For example, I went to Oregon State University as a graduate student. They have a really robust e-Campus there and they do a great job supporting their online students, but they have separate student success coaches for their online students, as opposed to the multi-million-dollar budgeted student affairs division that largely focuses on on-campus students. I actually went in and I looked at some verbiage from their annual report, and they talked about the challenges that they’ve faced as a traditional student affairs division having to pivot to adapting services to virtual or online delivery. And a lot of the things they talk about, the things that they had to sort of change or adapt to, are things that you would have hoped would have kind of been in place previously. Things like virtual tutoring, virtual advising, tele-health and virtual therapy, virtual career services, things like that. Oregon State, they had a lot of online students before, and so were they not getting that same level of service? And why did it take a pandemic to kind of get things to this level? Conversely to this example is Western University in Ontario, Canada. They proudly talk about this digital student experience that they have for students, either online only, or hybrid learners, or students that come to campus, can access all services that are online regardless of how the students are learning, whether it’s through the computer solely or on-campus, or kind of a blended mode.

Dan:     Let me ask a follow-up question there, and I’ve got to figure out just how to ask this without sounding impossibly ageist or critical of college employees. Generally, I’ve observed in my own children that their computer fluency always surpasses mine. I’ve worked at two schools during the period when those schools were developing more robust online programs, and one of the things that I observed, a sort of constant underlying struggle, was that the employees of the college – who were not always older than the students, but I would say their average age was older than the average age of the students – struggled to even know the ways that students preferred to interact virtually, or even the methods by which they could; that is, the options available to them. I’m probably not expressing this very well, but I wonder if there isn’t just some baseline discomfort or unfamiliarity on the part of employees that naturally steers them away from embracing those kinds of services.

Eric:     That’s a really good question, and it’s one that comes up all the time. I think part of it has to do with a journal article that came out several years ago by Mark Prensky, and he famously wrote about digital natives and digital immigrants and it stuck. A lot of people still, to this day, use that language to talk about different cohorts of people with regards to their digital fluency or capability. Unfortunately, no one seems to have read Prensky’s follow-up to his own work, where he effectively says, “I got it wrong.” Digital capability, digital fluency, isn’t necessarily pinned to age; it’s more of a spectrum of knowledge, skills, awareness, regardless of your age. But that sort of attitude, the original piece, kind of became pervasive in higher education. A lot of people who work at an institution would say, well, I’m a certain age, therefore it’s almost okay or excusable that maybe I am not as fluent with technology as some of my students who might be younger than I am, which is obviously to the detriment of students. It’s to the detriment of staff as well, just in terms of their own professional learning and development. I think that what’s interesting is that a lot of online-only learners are – you hate to sort of frame people as either non-traditional or traditional, because whatever that means anymore really, on-campus 18 to 24 year-olds are almost becoming the non-traditional demographic – but for a lot of online-only learners, they are older adults, working adults, they have a lot of commitments that younger undergrads might not have at a brick and mortar institution. And so they might not actually be coming to online-only learning because they’re adept at technology, but because of geographic convenience and timing and ability to take their courses and go through their learning materials at a time that’s convenient to them.

And so I think that there’s some real issues when we start to unpack the services that exist at institutions for students just with regards to technology overall, whether you’re a brick-and-mortar student or an online-only student or a hybridized learner. A few years ago, ACPA and NASPA, the two largest student affairs associations in the US, put together a list of technology competencies; formal competencies for student affairs practitioners, specifically to sort of try to figure out how to underpin technology and knowledge of it into the student affairs profession, so that administrators of all levels would have a more formal understanding of how technology impacts the student experience. These technology competencies were broken down into beginner, intermediate, and advanced, and they’re still fairly new. There aren’t necessarily regulations in place; they’re not mandatory competencies, they’re just recommended for practitioners. As a result of this, the services for online learners have, in part, because of Prensky’s way of framing technology for students-versus-staff by way of the age-based cohorts and the lack of historical sort of technology competency in the student affairs profession, has meant that online learners have been looked at somewhat differently, unfortunately, versus their peers or their counterparts who are at their brick-and-mortar institutions.

Dan:     Providing robust online academic access rapidly for all students, as the pandemic unfolded, has clearly strained the finances of many schools. Can schools afford to provide the kind of robust student support services that you’re talking about, if online student enrollment returns to pre-pandemic levels?

Eric:     Again, a great question. I also think about the fact that online learners existed before the pandemic. The numbers have swelled as a result of the coronavirus and campuses having to shut down a lot of their in-person experiences. Will the number of online learners go down? Hopefully so, in the sense that that would mean that people can come back to campus, which in a greater context means that things are better just for all of us. But I think that again, I would go back to the fact that why haven’t institutions committed resources in a similar fashion to serving and supporting their online learners? For example, I mentioned Oregon State and their e-Campus earlier. According to Wikipedia, they had something like more than ten-and-a-half thousand students who were enrolled just exclusively in eCampus programs for the 2019-2020 academic year. That’s a huge chunk of students. And if you look at the support structures for those students versus the 30-some-thousand students total that OSU has, there’s a distinct difference. And I think it’s going to be important for institutions to think about that because even if I’m an on-campus learner and coming back, maybe the fall of 2021 or if things are hopefully back to sort of a fuller semblance of normal normalityn 2022, I’m going to be used to online learning. I’m going to be used to tele-health, I’m going to be used to the services and functionality that I had to use for a couple of years as a student.

Dan:     Let me just push you a little on that. I just want to understand at what point there’s an economy of scale. The example you just gave was a school with thousands and thousands of online students generating substantial revenue. I’m wondering how a school manages when it’s much smaller, and I’ll give you an analogy. Let’s say you have a community college with 2000 students, and they open a small satellite campus. Everyone takes for granted that the smaller satellite campus is not going to have all the same facilities as the main campus. It might, in sometime in the future, if for example that satellite campus became as large or enrolls as many students as the main campus, but everybody understands that the school cannot afford to create a duplicate physical campus. And so for that small number of students, the analogy to online that I’m trying to get at is: how does a small school, which has a relatively tiny online enrollment, but wants to grow it, how do they fund something that’s essentially a virtual duplicate of the student services that they’re providing for their traditional students?

Eric:     I guess that also sort of brings us to a question of, is the status quo the way we want things to be in terms of the sort of student services structures at an institution large or small? Because if you think about the fact that a lot has changed with how we use technology, both in the classroom and outside of the classroom to support the student experience, and I think that for those institutions that are looking to have satellite campuses, or whether they’re smaller, or maybe they’re a community college and they have just access to fewer budgetary resources, there are various technologies out there that can actually help them scale student support without having to build additional structures, increase facilities, that type of thing. We’ve seen some outside players who’ve come in and provided a lot of support for the institutions. Look at Inside Track – a lot of the student success coaching that they do in a way it’s almost like how the OPM’s have come in and offered up online program management for different academic programs that institutions. Inside Track has come in and said, we can help you scale your student services using digital engagement. That’s very appealing to institutions of all sizes.

Dan:     I want to give you the opportunity enlarge on a point that you’ve actually already touched on. In your article, you remind readers of other scholars who’ve made the point that online is a delivery mode, not a student type, and that you say the mode of delivery should not determine what kinds of service students receive. Can you flesh that out a little bit for us?

Eric:     It’s interesting – that framing actually came from a white paper from UPCEA which is a continuing education association, as well as Inside Track and NASPA, and I think they maybe were in partnership with Whiteboard Advisors as well. And I thought that was just a really interesting way to maintain pre-existing functional areas within student services/student affairs. The issue is that online learners, pre-pandemic really, tended to be different in terms of who were these students that were coming to an online-only program, versus a student who wanted that traditional campus-based experience, living in residence halls and all that stuff, I think there’s definitely a difference there. And so I think with that framing, I almost read that as an attempt to maintain preexisting structures within student services, but it’s really challenging. I mean, going back to Oregon State’s student affairs division’s annual report where they talk about virtual intermural sports as something that they’ve tried to bring online for students. And of course, these were students who pre-pandemic had chosen to be on campus. They’re trying to replicate almost an apples-to-apples experience. Whereas I don’t think a lot of online students, online-only students, are saying to themselves, “I want to be a member of this institution and experience the exact same A-to-B experience that one of one of my on-campus peers would be experiencing.” And so I think it’s almost a politicized issue where I think that the associations that are highly influential within student affairs circles and the higher education degree programs, people who study like myself to get a master’s degree with an emphasis on student development theory and higher education administration, it kind of keeps that that structure still going. It keeps those pre-existing models because it means you don’t have to change them. It just means you serve all students, you kind of replicate things, but it’s not the same – what does an online only student look like, those demographics? I think online as a “delivery mode,” not a student type, was language that came out of that white paper that I mentioned, and I think that what’s going to happen is the traditional models of student affairs are really ripe for disruption as things progress. I think the pandemic has increased the pace of that disruption, and time will tell whether or not that that is the case, but I think that online-only learners don’t need a carbon copy of what the on-campus experience is like, just delivered in a virtual format. They’re usually looking at a different experience.

Dan:     I love that example of virtual intramurals – that’s just fantastic. As my final question, let me ask, in your article you do discuss some of this conceptual progress that’s been made, but I’d like to know in your view, what kind of practical progress is being made and if possible, I’d love to hear some examples.

Eric:     It’s always interesting to talk broadly about digital engagement. And of course the pandemic has brought out a lot of engagement via student affairs administrators, in part through places like social media channels, but there’s been an uptick, I think, in just sort of the overall process around thinking about what students need, even if they can’t come to an office or if they can’t come to a campus. And so for example, Rutgers University in Newark, I think it was last month, they launched a virtual career center, which is fantastic because you think about it, they’ve got online learners, even pre-pandemic, and so of course those students would need access to career services, developmental opportunities, and just the general services that a career services shop offers. So I’ve seen an uptick in career services doing a lot more stuff with virtual careers. Kean University, I noticed that they were doing some stuff with chatbots and AI to try to serve students from a sort of 24-7, 365 perspective so that regardless of where you’re at in the world, you could come in and ask this chatbot questions and get access to resources, or even simple things like that, on Keen’s website. They actually have a virtual queuing system for connecting with advisors rather than waiting in a physical line, which you’re not going to be doing. Simple things like that are some really tangible examples of how progress has been made about how you serve students who are in a remote environment. I think that just from the admissions and recruitment side of student affairs, student services, there’s been tremendous movement. If you look at a company like Platform Q and what they do in terms of sort of a bespoke online admissions and a recruitment platform that is 100% focused on digital engagement, and trying to recruit students – it looks like they’re signing a new university client on a daily basis – they’ve done tremendous work in that space. There’s been a few companies that have tried to come out with replications of that on-campus student experience with a digital platform. Ambi is one, they kind of have almost like a Facebook-like experience or Ra-Ra, which is more of a mobile base to student services app, or I’m not sure if you’ve heard of this one, but one of them is called Zemi, and they basically provide a mobile base community for institutions. So basically prospective students can come in and chat with one another, it can chat with institutional representatives and it’s basically an admission social network and they’ve been doing amazingly well as well during the pandemic and before. So those are some of the tangible examples.

I think the other thing is, and this is more of maybe not as much student services focus but more teaching and learning focused, is that institutions where they had a significant online learning presence, and they already had a separate online learning division, the academics who in the past had been teaching online, learned from their peers. They had this tremendous amount of knowledge and experience already at their institutional level, and I think that that to me was one of the best sort of things that’s happened, that’s come out of the pandemic is that now you have academics across the country who at least have a baseline of experience and ability for teaching online, which at the end of the day is going to make things a lot better for their students, regardless of if they’re on-campus learners or completely online-only student, or a hybrid learner.

Dan:     Those are fascinating examples. My guest has been Eric Stoller, higher education consultant and the student affairs and technology blogger for Inside Higher Ed since 2010. You can follow him on Twitter at @EricStoller. Eric, thanks for joining me today.

Eric:     Thanks so much.