When you feel like you're on your own, an ally helps.
That's the guiding principle of Central Michigan University's Online Ally support service for students taking online courses. CMU's next session of online courses begins April 29.
"There are different, less familiar demands or expectations on online students," said Jeremy Bond, CMU interim director of e-learning.
Bond and Marnie Roestel, an e-learning delivery and support manager, created CMU's program to help online students navigate technology and find success. Emails inform students about the service, and most of the support happens over email, too.
"Every day, I feel like I'm helping students." — Amanda Berry, online ally
Roestel said the service — which has handled more than 300 requests this academic year — also allows faculty to focus on academics instead of troubleshooting.
"Instructors want online students to hit the ground running," she said. "The online allies help students prepare for the start of class and help them manage their learning during class."
Allies are on-campus student employees. There's typically one employed at any given time, putting in about 20 hours a week. In more than six years, all but one so far have been undergraduates. Roestel and sometimes another student serve as backup.
Roestel and Bond say allies not only need to be successful in their own online courses, they need to know why they've succeeded — skills and habits such as organization and time management that also give them an edge in their career paths.
"I love online learning," said Amanda Berry, a senior from Royal Oak, Michigan, who started work as an ally two years ago. "It's a lot about being self-regulated, being able to manage your time, while also having more freedom."
Five success strategies
Berry offers the following tips for online learning success:
1. Master the tools: "Being prepared for the digital aspect of online courses is imperative. I send students a 'Tech Prep' email at the start of each term that includes steps like completing the system check, downloading WebEx, downloading LockDown Browser, troubleshooting Respondus Monitor, tips for Blackboard on mobile and a link to the CMU Help Desk."
2. Know the dates: "Time management can be one of the most difficult aspects of online learning. Upon request, we create calendars for online courses outlining assignment due dates, readings, exams, etc., broken down week by week. Anything that will be due in a class is all included."
3. Ask your instructor: "Oftentimes during online courses, students struggle to communicate with instructors they might never meet in person. Allies do their best to assist but always advise students to reach out to their instructor first with questions or concerns about their course. Instructors might even offer WebEx office hours where students have the chance to virtually meet with them."
4. Divide and conquer: "Students can fall into the trap of feeling like they can push assignments off until closer to the due date or push off readings until closer to the exam. We always advise students to think about what they have due in one-week periods and break up assignments and readings over the course of the week. For example, if a student has two chapters to read and two assignments during a week, we would recommend trying to read half a chapter each day and work on their assignments over the course of two or three days. Allies can help break things down by each day rather than each week if a student needs."
5. Ask for help: "Allies close every email by telling students to reach out anytime in the semester with questions or concerns. Even when we don't know the answer, we can point them to the right contact who will. CMU offers a wide variety of resources, including the Writing Center and the Mathematics Assistance Center, for online learners and on-campus learners."
Bridging the gap
Berry studies early childhood development and learning and is prestudent teaching this semester on her way to graduation in December. She and online learning go way back.
"I have taken at least two online courses every session since my sophomore year, so probably at least 25," she said. CMU's eight- and 12-week online courses run on a schedule different from the traditional 16-week fall and spring semesters.
She said online students should feel connected to CMU and pointed to an ally webpage updated each semester with information and resources.
"The allies want students to know we are always working to assist in bridging that gap," she said. "Every day, I feel like I'm helping students."