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Critical Components of a Virtual College Campus


There’s a lot more to becoming an online student than navigating a virtual course site. Just as you might tour a traditional campus as a prospective student – to visit facilities, meet instructors and administrators, and just get a feel for the place – consider how you might accomplish this with an online school.

If you are thinking about enrolling in your first online course, you may be doing so with expectations developed from having attended traditional college courses in the past. Making the transition takes a little time, but there are a host of resources available to ease the process. While the Admissions Office may be your first stop, what services will be there to support you after you enroll?

Campus Map Checklist

Some of these virtual services are extensions of their traditional campus counterparts, while others are specific to online learning and may be new to you if it has been a while since you took a college course.

  • Academic Advising: Professional academic advisors will be able to address your questions about transfer credits, degree plans, required vs. elective courses, internship and practicum requirements, and more. Note that the line between academic advising and recruiting or sales can be blurry, and this seems to be more prevalent at online schools. Find out what advising services are available beyond admissions assessments.
  • Academic Departments: Investigate how the schools you are considering are structured in terms of academic faculty and staff. From deans and program chairs to full- and part-time instructors, these are the individuals making decisions about the curriculum and course delivery, and they may also serve as your academic advisor once enrolled. Look for bios and profiles, like those provided by Post University, as well as news about current events and research taking place within your programs of interest.
  • Alumni Center: As the numbers of online programs and students grow, so do the numbers of alumni. It’s never too early to consider the benefits associated with these groups, at institutional and local levels, getting you started with professional networking and providing services even after you graduate.
  • Bookstore: Many online courses require textbooks, which may be available in print or digital formats. Just as with a traditional campus, online schools often have services in place to process online textbook orders. You may also find educational discounts on hardware and software purchases through your school.
  • Career Center: Career advising and employment assistance can be found in many online schools where students are often focused very clearly on career goals in their academic programs. Take a look at Walden University’s Career Services Center as an example of the services available to online students. In addition to virtual career fairs and job search assistance, some centers also integrate their services with those offered by other campus offices, such as academic advising and life counseling.
  • Disability Services: One of the advantages of online learning is the accessibility it provides to a wide range of students, including those working with some type of disability. Professionals, like those at University of Phoenix’s Disability Services are there specifically to assist with these issues and support you throughout your academic program.
  • Financial Aid Office: Some of your initial discussions with admissions counselors will probably include details about tuition and available assistance, particularly federal aid. Beyond the FAFSA process, financial aid advisors should also be able to provide information about loans, grants, and scholarships, and guide you through paperwork related to other assistance programs.
  • Learning Support Center: These offices provide a variety of assistance, from one-on-one tutoring and testing to writing workshops and math tutorials. Kaplan University’s Academic Support page provides an example of the resources you may find.
  • Library: You may not have to visit the stacks as an online student, but you will need access to scholarly journals, searchable databases, and direct assistance from librarians. Florida Virtual Campus provides a central hub for information related to the state’s public colleges and universities, with a focus on online learning support that includes an example of library services.
  • Online Classrooms: Where will you meet with your instructor and classmates? Learning management systems (e.g., Blackboard, Moodle, Desire2Learn, eCollege) provide a portal to your online courses and help to organize class materials. The interface of each system is a little different, but most have both synchronous, real-time, communication tools and asynchronous features like discussion boards. Some online schools, such as Capella University, offer virtual course tours and mini course samples that allow you to experience the institution’s learning environment first hand.
  • Technical Help Desk: One common source of anxiety among online learners is working with the technology required to communicate and participate in their courses. Online programs are aware of this and have support personnel in place to help you learn how to use the tools effectively and troubleshoot problems when they arise. Nova Southeastern University is just one institution providing round-the-clock help via phone and email.

Each of these offices involves not only static resources linked to websites, but also professionals with expertise in their fields who are prepared to help you succeed in your online program. As you “visit” each office, scout out details about who is working there, how they can be contacted, and their hours of service.

Prioritize and Compare

The checklist above is just a starting point. Are you a veteran, first-generation college student, or transferring with a lot of prior learning credit? Do you have specific career goals in mind? Does your program need to meet specific requirements for you to be eligible for tuition assistance through your employer? Prioritize your needs and interests and compare the services available at the multiple institutions you may be considering. Choosing an online program can be a complex process, but knowing what you need to accomplish can help narrow the field.

Unfortunately, not all institutions make these resources evident on their websites. And some provide access to information only after you enroll. However, you may find that the information you need is available if you ask! Map out the virtual locations of these helpful offices and consider how each one may improve your overall experience as an online learner, supporting your success along the way.

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Image credit: ualberta-roco, Flickr, CC:BY-NC-ND

February 5th, 2013 written by (learn more about our authors)

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