Paving the Road to Academic Success

Paving the Road to Academic Success
President Susan Aldridge of University of Maryland University College (UMUC),This is the keynote address, titled “Paving the Road to Academic Success: Building a Comprehensive System for Student Support Services” and delivered in SCDL International Conference on Open & Distance Learning. Pune, India. The Keynote was delivered by President Susan Aldridge of University of Maryland, University College.

As president of the largest public university in the United States…and a truly global
academic enterprise…I am often asked to speak to educators, business leaders, and
policymakers in many different parts of the world.

And in the course of doing so, I have learned that nearly every nation…large or
small…developed or developing…is beginning to view distance learning as the
great academic equalizer…at a time when the race for knowledge is more critical
than ever.

To be sure…in our search for greater access and adaptability…we are trading bricks
and mortar for computers and operating systems…as the virtual campus continues
to transform the global landscape of higher education.

But in our rush to develop and deliver high-quality online courses and
programs…we have sometimes neglected to embed them with high quality support
services. Services that bridge the chasm of time and space…to help distance
learners feel connected and competent…acknowledged and appreciated.
Consequently…otherwise talented students often fall by the wayside as they
become increasingly more isolated from the academic resources, administrative
support, and human interactions they must have to thrive in the online learning

Take for example, the so-called digital natives…who having grown up steeped in
technology…expect us to replicate the virtual worlds they inhabit in their

Or consider the increasing number of international students…who in choosing
online exchange programs…find themselves dealing with significant language
barriers and cultural learning differences.

And then there is the burgeoning population of adult students…who in balancing
the demands of school with the responsibilities of life…are looking for the rapidresponse
customer service they receive from any other online vendor.

At my own University of Maryland University College, our students live and learn
in 28 different countries around the world..span the age continuum from 18 to
80…and speak literally dozens of languages.

On top of that…four out of five UMUC students work full-time…while nearly half
are married with children. Still others are dealing with significant disabilities…and
almost a third of our students are active duty soldiers and their family
members…who struggle with frequent moves and multiple deployments.
So as a university dedicated to bringing exceptional academic opportunities to the
people…at times and in places that are flexible and convenient…UMUC teaches
face to face classes in more than 150 locations on four continents…and maintains
one of the oldest and largest virtual campuses anywhere in the world.

And in providing our students with an online learning experience that not only
meets…but truly exceeds…their expectations…we have put quality service support
on par with quality academic programming…ensuring that every service we
provide onsite is also furnished online…twenty four hours a day…seven days a
week…fifty-two weeks a year.

With that in mind…UMUC has created a comprehensive portfolio of student
services, all of which incorporate four basic attributes.

To begin with, the services we provide are inclusive…in that they are designed to
accommodate users across a myriad of ages and abilities…languages and lifestyles.
Likewise, they can be individualized to meet each student’s unique needs and
objectives…both in the moment and over time.

Our services are also interactive…moving beyond simple information transfer to
engage students, staff, and faculty alike in dynamic participation and reciprocal
exchange. And finally, they are integrated across divisions, departments, and
disciplines…with central points of contact through which to access and organize
multiple services.

In covering all the bases…UMUC has developed a highly effective model for
delivering its services…which is predicated upon the four phases of the student life
cycle…beginning with the enrollment phase.

During this period, prospective students are choosing an academic home and
negotiating the admissions process. So they need plenty of expert assistance to
explore their options…establish their goals…and assess their qualifications.
That said, we have invested wisely in an outstanding team of enrollment
management professionals…who use their exceptional skills to help these learners
select the right program, submit the appropriate documentation, and plot a realistic
course of action.

This team works out of a call center, using a highly scalable model for customized
student outreach. As such, the center provides around the clock student
service…online, by phone, or in person…along with immediate and ongoing access
to information across a broad spectrum of relevant academic and administrative

UMUC has also developed a variety of effective digital tools with which to
improve both enrollment support and learning outcomes. For example, given the
many students who transfer to our university from two-year institutions, we have
fully automated our system for preparing degree audits and transfer credit

Using the latest digital technology, this innovative system drastically reduces the
time it takes to process these documents…from months to days…thus saving
students untold dollars and countless hours taking classes they might not otherwise

But even more important, it furnishes ready access to information our enrollment
advisors need to create customized degree completion plans for incoming students.
Plans that can be quickly updated at any time, from the day they enroll until the
day they graduate.

And because so many of our prospective students are still unsure about the distance
learning environment…we provide them with an opportunity to test-drive an online
course…free of charge…before actually signing up for one.

In fact, this unique service allows users to experience first-hand what it means to
be an online student…by logging on at convenient times…submitting practice
assignments…chatting with other students and faculty…and connecting with career
counselors, librarians, and financial aid representatives.

Once our students have made it through the enrollment process, they move on the
development phase.

At this point in the academic life cycle, UMUC students are becoming acclimated
to both the learning environment and the university culture. So to ensure that they
make this critical adjustment…we have put a variety of innovative services in place
to help them build a solid foundation.

For example, we offer elective courses for new students to familiarize them with
university life in general…and UMUC in particular…as well as mandatory
courses…for students at every level…in the use of digital library and information
resources. The UMUC website also provides easy access to placement tests in
writing and math…as well as targeted academic advising. And we publish a
wealth of online handbooks, tip sheets, and assessment tools across a wide range of
such relevant topics as Planning the First Semester, Choosing a Major, and Paying
for College.

What’s more, the UMUC 360 Portal serves as a principle gateway to both around
the clock technical support…in a variety of formats…and self-help tutorials to assist
students in mastering our online learning management system.

The MyUMUC Portal provides “one-stop” access to any number of administrative
services…including class registration, tuition payment, and textbook purchase.
And students can use this portal to enter the university’s extensive social
networking environment…which in addition to Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and
Twitter…incorporates our official blog site…appropriately called Experience

Once students have established a solid foundation for academic success, they then
enter the advancement phase. During this stage, our service strategy focuses on
academic persistence…as we empower students to take even greater responsibility
for their learning process. Which is where the Center for Student Success comes
into play.

As a virtual repository and central point of contact for any number of studentfocused
academic and social engagement services…this Center not only enables the
university to promote student achievement in a far more holistic and proactive
fashion…it also makes it easier for students to identify and navigate appropriate

And in an effort to further expand and enhance its outreach…the Center has
developed its own interactive website…and embedded quick links in all of the
university’s online undergraduate courses.

Moreover, to ensure that students receive a full continuum of essential
services…our student success team works closely with other relevant university
departments…including Enrollment Management, Institutional Research, the Office
of Student Affairs, and the Center for Teaching and Learning.
With that in mind, the Center supports an Effective Writing Lab… with dozens of
highly trained advisors to provide one-to-one online writing assistance. It also
operates UMUC’s Prior Learning Program…where students may go to turn life
experience into college credit…an option that saves both time and money toward
degree completion.

The Center is also the place to go for scholarship assistance…along with help in
overcoming the many barriers that adult students such as ours often face in
achieving their learning objectives…whether academic challenges or career
concerns…financial obstacles or family issues.

And inasmuch as feeling connected to a university community has always been an
important part of any memorable learning experience, the Center links students
electronically with mentors and tutors…online clubs and honor societies… experts
and future colleagues in their fields of study.

Of course, good academic resources…such as well-stocked libraries and state-ofthe-
art learning labs…are essential to any successful academic journey. So UMUC
has put its best entrepreneurial foot forward to design a variety of high-quality
virtual resources for students to use as they move toward the finish line.

UMUC is especially proud of its Information and Library Services division, given
the number of students our university enrolls in remote locations…where good
libraries and books stores are few and far between. Yet as isolated as they may be,
these learners are only a mouse click away from an abundance of information
resources…along with automated forms to request postal delivery for hardcopy
materials…whenever and wherever needed.

This digital library system maintains a vast webliography of online library
resources, including more than 100 databases…many of which furnish full-text
versions of articles from among some 74,000 professional journals. In addition,
highly trained reference librarians are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week,
to assist students by e-mail; online chat; or telephone…while also helping faculty members obtain copyright permissions and digitize selected books and articles for
classroom reading.

UMUC is also harnessing the power of remote access technology to build worldclass
learning labs that afford our students a unique opportunity to experiment
from a distance, using real-time applications and real-world scenarios.

In addition, distance delivery enables us to furnish targeted online resources for
special student populations…including veterans, transfer students, and individuals
with disabilities…as well as international and cross-cultural students.

For example, as the university of choice for nearly 40% of all Latino Hispanic
graduate students enrolled in Maryland’s public institutions, we recently unveiled
an innovative Web-based support system. Designed to help these graduate
students overcome any language or cultural hurdles they might encounter…it
incorporates online English language and writing assessments…one-on-one
tutoring, as needed…peer advisors…and hands-on, professional development

In rounding out the academic life cycle…the transition phase finds students
preparing to move from coursework to real work. So we provide them with ready
online access to career guidance and graduation support.

At UMUC, our Office of Career Services uses the wonders of technology to offer
one-on-one career counseling sessions from anywhere in the world…furnish links
to dozens of job search websites…and provide interactive tutorials around such
pertinent topics as career planning, resume preparation, and interview strategies.

This team also hosts virtual job fairs…which have become an effective way for our
students to network without having to actually miss work. Using a customized
website, prospective employers set up virtual booths that UMUC students and
alumni may “visit” at any time..and from anywhere…to research companies, chat
with representatives, and submit resumes.

And by all accounts, the process has been exceedingly effective for prospective
employers and job seekers, alike.

Moreover, our Office of Student Affairs supplies an effective complement of
graduation services…designed to help transitioning students through the final
semesters of program completion and on to commencement.

With that in mind, this team publishes online graduation checklists, timelines, and
applications…while also conducting degree completion reviews…coordinating
commencement arrangements…preparing transcripts…and mailing diplomas.

Needless to say, in refining its student service support system, UMUC has learned
a number of valuable lessons over the years. And I would like to end today by
sharing a few of the more important ones with you.

As organizational consultant Stephen Covey would say…begin with the end in
mind. At UMUC, we regularly survey students, faculty, and staff to identify areas
for future support…as well as uncover gaps in existing services. With this
information in hand, we create a vision…along with a set of goals and
objectives…and then design the service to achieve them.

I would also advise taking time to balance the benefits of technology with the need
for serving students, not all of whom will possess sophisticated computer
skills….or even feel entirely comfortable in the online learning
environment…especially during the development phase. That means choosing
delivery methods that are easy to use and creating access links that are easy to
find….and then training students, faculty, and staff to negotiate them effectively.

To free on-call staff time for personalized support whenever necessary, you might
think about automating services wherever possible. But in doing so, it’s important
to keep in mind that technology will never take the place of human interaction. So
we always make sure that UMUC students have a “real” person available to contact
should the need arise.

What’s more, don’t reinvent the wheel. There are many options for providing
services and resources that eliminate both the time and the money it takes to start
from scratch. At UMUC, we embed hyperlinks to external resources that offer
exceptional information and interactive support. You might also consider sharing
such costly resources as online library services with other likeminded colleges and
universities…or outsourcing services like job placement that require heavy
investments of staff time and energy.

Finally, I would strongly urge you establish a formal process… along with a series
of metrics and measures…for tracking service effectiveness and efficiency…with an
eye toward continuous quality improvement. At our university, we have developed
a variety of benchmarks…along with a fully integrated performance management
system…for evaluating and refining every aspect of our academic and
administrative operations…including our student services.

For example, we regularly assess the university’s library and information services
by tracking the number of text requests we receive during a given period against
the time it takes to fully process them.

We also use “mystery shoppers” posing as prospective students to monitor call
centers…as well as advisory, admissions, registration, and financial aid
services…for rapid response times and quality customer support. And UMUC’s
enrollment and transfer credit system is designed to continuously analyze the
efficiency with which we provide transfer credit evaluations and degree audits.

I believe we would all agree that distance education is not just a passing fad, but
rather a permanent dimension of today’s higher education market. Yet in
maximizing its advantages…while also meeting its challenges… we must carefully
nurture its potential…by building effective partnerships and pipelines for
innovation with other colleges and universities around the world.

Of course, conferences such as this one provide an extraordinary opportunity to
share promising practices and evaluate new technologies. Even more important,
however, they promote a far more inclusive distance learning ecology.

One that empowers us to identify critical interdependencies; integrate core learning
technologies; and sustain commonly held values and principles… in our quest to
educate creative and competent knowledge leaders for the 21st century.