How to Navigate Student Affairs in Online Learning Programs
cartoon students on a green background

Over the last four months, we’ve read endless articles and blogs about how higher education might look in an online environment, but one question that often goes unasked is, “What does student affairs look like without a physical campus?” As a student affairs professional with 13 years in education, I’ve learned that creating opportunities for connection can have the most profound impact on a student’s overall experience. From advising student organizations, mentoring, volunteering, and more, student affairs supports their journey and helps students build a community through meaningful experiences. 

Throughout my career in higher education, I’ve gone from roles in residence life to a Director of Student Conduct. I deeply believe that students should have the ability to explore career paths that not only support them and their loved ones, but also offer personal fulfillment. When I learned about Lambda School in 2019, I realized that their mission of unlocking potential, regardless of circumstance, was the type of education I wanted to work in. 

Now, ten months into my role at an online school, we’re witnessing a complete overhaul of the traditional higher education system as we know it. As someone who recently experienced the transition to the all-online world myself, I wanted to share some advice on how to successfully navigate student affairs in eLearning. 

Online Student Community Building 

Prior to my role at Lambda School, I believed that a unified, physical campus was necessary for building a thriving community and that online learning was inherently transactional. I quickly learned that both of these beliefs were very wrong. Your online campus won’t feel the same as your physical space – and that’s okay. The first step is to shift our own beliefs about what communities look like. Start by asking yourself, “What is one positive activity my department used to do in our physical campus that I’d like to bring back?” Then, follow that with four simple questions: 

  • How can I take that activity online? 
  • What can stay the same and what would need to change? 
  • What tools do I need to make this happen? 
  • Are there people I could collaborate with to make this happen? 

Lambda School was designed as an all-online experience from day one, so our focus has been to create an environment where student collaboration and community can thrive without consistent in-person contact. We’ve created initiatives that allow for students to have constant touch points with both faculty and other students, including setting up dedicated Slack channels for students to discuss not just the coursework, but also personal interests, passions, or even struggles. We’ve built a tradition of celebrating when a student receives a job offer that allows for group interaction. We’ve also built opportunities for students to share their talents and unique experiences through talent shows and meet-ups. No matter big or small, there are countless initiatives that can be implemented virtually to allow students to build real relationships.

Policies & Procedures in eLearning

Luckily most departments won’t need to change their existing policies and procedures; many will simply need to be modified to include language around online activities. At Lambda we have detailed policies and procedures around orientation, career services, attendance, academic integrity, ADA accommodations, verification of enrollment, conduct meetings, conflict management, investigations, and crisis response, just like any in-person education program would. 

Take a deep dive into your internal and external policies and procedures and evaluate what can stay the same, what needs to be modified, and what might be missing. You will need to think more broadly about how your policies cover the online space when it comes to drugs, alcohol, or weapons on Zoom calls, intoxication in class, vaping or smoking in Zoom, harassment, discrimination, bullying, academic integrity, and more. Reach out to your legal and IT departments, or whoever holds that gatekeeping ability at your institution, for their advice. Personally, I have found these two teams to be my biggest partners and allies in creating policies and procedures that work in an online space. 

Crisis Management in Online Spaces

When a crisis happens in an online campus, you can’t simply meet a student in their classroom, knock on their door to check on them, or walk with them to counseling services on campus. But that kind of hands-on response is just as critical, if not more so today as we navigate through the current pandemic. 

Let’s say an online student expresses they’re experiencing suicidal thoughts. While you may not be able to do a wellness check of a physical space, you may need to send help directly to the student’s address, no matter where they may be located. More often than not, I have found local resources to be very helpful in helping confirm the safety of a student. 

Take the time to research local and national resources including local hospitals and mental health facilities, housing and shelter options, food and security resources, and more. Having the knowledge before a crisis occurs will allow you to act more quickly when one does happen. 

Key Takeaway 

The key to building a thriving online student community is to shift your existing beliefs about what a community looks like. With planning and cross-functional work, you can see your community thrive in this new and uncertain world and can continue to make a difference in the lives of students. 

If you’re interested in hearing more about navigating student affairs in an online environment, check out my full webinar on student affairs in eLearning.  


About Jessica

Jessica Pense is the Director of Student Success at Lambda School, the live, skills-based online school that removes barriers typically in the way of pursuing higher education and a better career. Jessica oversees student success and student communications at Lambda, and continuously works to iterate and improve support systems throughout the student journey. 

Before joining Lambda School, Jessica was Director of Student Conduct at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, including policy interpretation and application, managing the day-to-day conduct operations, and the training of conduct hearing officers, campus community, and constituents. Her experience in higher education includes University Housing and Residence Life, and Student Conduct. She holds a Master of Education from Northern Arizona University and a Ph.D. in Counseling and Student Personnel Services from the University of Georgia.

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