Expanding Online Student Success Strategies for the COVID Era | Peer to Peer Review

Online classes pose many challenges, from baseline access to computers and the internet to requiring proficiency with new technologies and platforms, as well as motivation issues.

Dena Laton and Sarah Mollette in separate photosOnline classes pose many challenges, from baseline access to computers and the internet to requiring proficiency with new technologies and platforms, as well as motivation issues. Adult online students face additional challenges from the competing demands of jobs, homes, spouses, and children. During the COVID-19 pandemic, still more obstacles have been added: adult students find themselves competing with their children for the home computer, often compounded by the stress of economic instability.

Student success coordinators therefore now face a unique challenge in reaching out to these students and helping however they can. Marshall University’s (MU) libraries and Online Learning, Huntington, WV, are well situated to accomplish this, with success in dismantling student barriers of stress and distress while maintaining services.



The self-paced nature of online courses allows students to fit the work into their schedule. However, multiple responsibilities sometimes contribute to assignments being pushed to the last minute, especially in general education courses. Inadequate self-discipline, effective time management, writing skills, self-directed work, organization, and prioritization become stumbling blocks to successful course completion. For this reason, the MU student success coordinator provides links to articles on time management in a regular e-newsletter, with helpful graphics included on campus digital signage, and weekly tips on the Distance Student Group social media pages. Asking students for their own successful time management tips can also open a dialogue about experiences and failures.

The anonymous feeling of the online environment and the sense of disassociation from the university can make it easier for students to withdraw, participate minimally, or completely disappear from the course. Research has found that a continuing approach to connecting with students is critical, and the student success coordinator has learned that being personal and transparent with students is also crucial. Students should feel connected to the staff and faculty who provide them with support, and able to put a face—not just a name—to their campus liaison.

Therefore, the coordinator created a Facebook group that distance students can join to communicate with one another, and where the coordinator and a few other library and online learning staff members post upcoming events and general words of encouragement throughout the semester. She also sends emails to remind students of dates, deadlines, and other relevant information. The coordinator also shares her own information with the students, fostering hard-to-find-online personal connections and encouraging students to share with the group in return.

These interactions create a connection that enables the coordinator to better serve student needs. The coordinator plans occasional contests in which students provide their profile information and photos to be chosen for upcoming issues of the Distance Student newsletter.

In return, they get Marshall gear and “swag.” These easy yet essential interactions allow her to stay in contact via a familiar, non-threatening platform, so the students feel free to communicate with her at any time. Pairing this with the more formal digital newsletter, published twice a semester, allows for even more support.



The first issue of Distance Education Connection is sent out in the first couple of weeks of the fall semester to establish a connection. The newsletter contains information about resources available to online students, the academic calendar, and welcome statements from the student success coordinator and other administrators. Also included are a historical trivia section about campus; a football schedule, including where to tune in to watch the games; and other information on upcoming events for those close enough to attend in person (a good percentage of Marshall University’s distance student population live within easy driving distance of the main campus). The second fall edition is published mid-term, as a check-in to remind students of critical benchmarks for staying on track with projects, exams, and deadlines, along with profiles of students in various programs.

The first spring semester Distance Education Connection includes similar information for incoming students, but the second spring edition is all about them. They can submit anything they want for publication, such as personal information on pets, family, or struggles or adventures they have encountered while at Marshall. There is also a listing of all graduates.

This type of communication offers a “one-stop-shop,” addressing many questions that on-campus students easily learn about but that off-campus students may not have even known to ask.



During the cornavirus shutdown, when the Research and Instruction Services (RIS) department realized that all students would need support from their homes, they were lucky to already have a robust schedule of research help coverage in the form of SpringShare's LibAnswers and LibCal. LibAnswers allows for chat, text, and email submission requests, and LibCal offers research appointment scheduling.

For virtual support, librarians looked no further than Blackboard, the institution's LMS, and its videoconferencing platform, Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. Individual session "rooms" were created for each RIS librarian. The existence of an Online Libraries Blackboard Organization helped speed this process. When students returned to class completely online after Spring Break, librarians found it was easy to use Collaborate Ultra to conduct virtual research consultations. Having a synchronous option for complex student needs allowed for an in-depth consultation experience, and the added bonus of screen sharing made it easy to communicate effectively. Moreover, the Collaborate mobile app allowed students to videoconference on one device (phone) while doing research on another (laptop), limiting anxiety about the use of new technologies. To address novice users, the Online Learning Librarian also created a quick how-to guide for using and trouble-shooting Collaborate.

Alerting students to these changes was easily achieved by adapting the LibCal appointment request form. Rather than the only option for research appointments being face-to-face, librarians added one option for students to call, and another to use Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. In the appointment confirmation email, students received the librarian's individual Collaborate Ultra session information—a weblink with audio required/webcam optional and a dial-in phone option—plus a link to the Help Guide.



In 2018, the online learning librarian created a Distance Student Help Guide that covered basic online library resources. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, it was clear that significantly more information and support resources were necessary. The librarian created several tutorial videos (such as how to use the library's search features), and tips specifically for online students (both general and LMS-specific), while linking to existing guides on topics such as writing an annotated bibliography or understanding copyright. Several help features were added, such as where to find Wi-Fi in the surrounding area, and how to keep track of university technical updates and network issues. The librarian also borrowed content from another institution’s LibGuide (with permission) on how to create a "virtual study room" to communicate with peers on group projects.

The librarian also linked to a newly created COVID-19–specific resource guide, providing sources not related to the library or university that would be helpful for students struggling to find credible, useful, updated information.



A large interdepartmental project made available online materials that were previously only available in print: the Textbook Loan Program (TLP), a collaboration between the libraries, the campus bookstore, and University College to purchase textbooks that students can check out from the library to reduce their financial burden. While not all of the textbooks required on campus were available, the list contained over 100 titles for general education courses.

By checking publisher and vendor websites for TLP and course reserve titles, librarians could see what was available online. Because of the pandemic, many works were freely accessible. The group created a PDF that listed and linked to each TLP title that could be accessed freely online.



MU Libraries had hosted stress relief activities during the week before finals in one main campus library, but had never explored the option of offering virtual activities. Spring 2020 changed that, and the online learning librarian added new information to an existing Stress Relief LibGuide. She worked with graduate assistant students to find free, easy activities that students could do online or at home, such as DIY projects, online puzzles, free coloring pages, streaming videos, and more. The librarian also scoured SpringShare’s LibGuides community pages to find more open source resources and activities. One final page was added to keep students on track during stressful times, including assignment trackers and to-do list templates, and a prominent area on the homepage pointed to the campus’s counseling services, which provided ongoing virtual support.



Even once the pandemic subsides, the increase in popularity of online classes will cement their presence all over the world. While there will always be students whose learning styles and situations are not well suited to distance learning, adjustments must be made to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate. (For further reading, we suggest S.S. Budhai’s "5 Ways to Engage and Support Students Online During COVID-19 and Beyond" and "Challenges in the online component of blended learning: A systematic review," by R.A. Rasheed and N.A. Abdullah, which appeared in the January issue of Computers & Education.)

Instructors must be aware that nontraditional students may need extra help understanding how to use programs and platforms. They can reduce the isolation that students feel by regularly posting announcements at the beginning, middle, and end of each week that highlight assignment instructions and address any questions, and replace traditional office hours with scheduled, consistent online availability.

Lastly, many institutions can run weekly reports to see which students have not been participating in their courses, or watch for markers of students who may be in jeopardy academically. Often, this information is often not processed until after the student has withdrawn from the course or has failed altogether. Instead, institutions must take a proactive role in looking for and identifying these students early. One of the goals of MU Online Learning is to access class activity mid-semester and see how assistance can be provided before it is too late.

The coronavirus-driven shift to online courses is not over. While some schools plan to reopen in-person campuses in the fall, others don’t, and those who do must make contingency plans for a possible second wave. Even students with in-person options might choose online study to reduce health risks or housing costs. Spring semester has shown that there is a need not only to create an online presence for all courses, but also for consistent methods to connect with students online.

These ideas are simply starting points—low-stakes, high-impact approaches that have worked for one institution—and should be considered a foundation. Our world changed significantly in March 2020, and we need to let our students know they can count on us to help them through it. Keeping them connected to campus prevents isolation created not only by COVID-19 but by the nature of online learning as a whole. The key will be remembering to continue such services and support for all students who remain online after the world “returns to normal.”

Dena Callicoat Laton is Student Success Coordinator for Distance Education and Copyright Education Specialist and Sarah Mollette is Online Learning Librarian at Marshall University, Huntington, WV.

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