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Online Student Services Benefit All Students

By Anita Crawley
Distance Learning Counselor
Mongtomery College
20020 Observation Drive
Germantown, Md. 20876

If change is a key word for education in the 21st century, then, for counselors, nowhere is change more evident than in the way we use technology to assist students. Not too many years ago we communicated with students either by letter, by phone, or in person.  The Registrar's office was the keeper of student records. As counselors and advisors, we depended on physical records to do degree audits, graduation checks, transfer planning and career counseling.  Today, because of student information systems, many of us have this and much more information readily available from our computer desktops.  And that's just the beginning.  For both students and advisors, the World Wide Web has become a virtual library of student service information available twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Email provides opportunities for online advising, and the web provides opportunities for students to engage in many activities that previously took place primarily within the confines of counseling and advising offices, or perhaps in classrooms or hallways.  Clearly these technological tools have changed the way many of us perform our primary job functions and have significantly affected how students matriculate through our institutions.

Students have remote access to significant information that assists them in moving through college. Colleges and universities are scrambling to provide online access to college applications, course registration, textbook purchase, student records, financial aid application, college catalog, course schedules, and a multitude of other information about the college.  College web pages provide information for prospective and currently enrolled students.  Student portals provide password protected single point of entry sites where enrolled students can view grades, transcripts, personal information, bills, current course registration, co-curricular activities and more. 

Changes in the delivery of student services accompany changes in the delivery of instruction. Traditional bricks and mortar education is no longer the exclusive delivery system.  Students can choose from various forms of distance education; the newest and fastest growing distance-learning format is online, web-based learning.  Students are enrolling in entirely online programs or combining online courses with on-campus courses.  Those who take courses at a distance expect that they will be able to receive student services using the same remote technology, generally the web that they use to take their courses. 

How will we fulfill the expectations of these students and others who would prefer the convenience of applying, registering, paying bills and participating in many other services online?  The Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) is a national leader in helping states and institutions improve education through the effective use of technology.  In 1999, WCET (2004) developed a Guide to Developing Online Student Services, which describes successful approaches and provides models for remote delivery of services such as academic advising, career services, orientation, admissions and more.  In 2003, WCET (2004) completed work on another project, Beyond the Administrative Core: Creating Web Based Services for Online Students.  The Administrative Core refers to admissions, registration, student accounts, student records, financial aid, schedule of classes, and the college catalog.  Additional suites of services, illustrated in this graphic, are the communications, academic services, personal services and student communities’ suites.  The final report, posted on the WCET website, provides detailed descriptions and resources to assist institutions in the implementation of remotely delivered student services. 

Sally Johnstone (2002), WCET Director, defines stages that many institutions go through in the process of developing online student services. Stage 1 services are static web pages providing information about on campus services.  Stage 2 services add interactive forms, self-assessment tools and the capability to communicate through email with service providers.  Stage 3 incorporates personalized services such as student access to their records.  Stage 4 adds student web portals that are used to individualize each student's experience and develop a relationship with the institution.  Stage 5 incorporates the use of artificial intelligence functionality to the above stages. This progression leads to students becoming increasingly connected to the institution as they interact in a more individualized way with online resources.

Although research about the use and benefit of online student services is in its infancy, Student Affairs has a history that confirms the value of proactively intervening throughout a student's time in college. As cited in Ludwig-Hardman and Dunlop's (2003) article, Tinto, in his model of student persistence, suggests that students need to be connected to the institution both academically and socially. Students are anxious to use web-based resources.  College web pages are providing a variety of interactive services such as online advising (sometimes through live chat rooms) and interactive tools for academic support, educational and career planning.  Websites provide self-assessments in the areas of career decision-making, learning styles, study skills, personality type, and readiness for online learning to name just a few. Online services enhance on-campus services by attracting students who may not have previously taken advantage of these resources.  

The value of providing remote resources to help students is becoming increasingly clear.  MarylandOnline in the Gap Analysis of Online Student Services (Sener & Baer, 2002) surveyed both administrators and students to assess the capabilities of Maryland colleges and universities to deliver online student services; to discover where gaps exist between current and optimal capabilities in delivering online student services; and to make recommendations for desired actions to close any gaps.  Among other findings, this study showed that a sizable majority of online students report feeling that they belong to a learning community, suggesting that online learning and student support services foster a sense of belonging to the institution.

Taking this idea further, Kretovics (2002) suggests that, particularly for online students, developing virtual communities is important to help them feel connected and a part of the institution. In his view, developing community is an area of expertise for Student Affairs professionals who should assume a leadership role in the area of support of online students.  Some institutions provide online listservs outside the online classroom where students can meet, support one another, exchange information and participate in co- curricular activities. 

As Student Affairs moves into this relatively new arena of providing remote services to students, we can identify many issues for discussion.  For example, how will the roles of counselors and advisors change as web based resources become more available?  As students use more self-assessment online tools, how will they interpret and utilize the information?  Since the web is unregulated, how can we assure that our students are using quality resources?  Given that colleges and universities are using online resources to engage and educate students, we will best serve our students by fully exploring these issues.

Below are a few examples of websites that illustrate what some institutions are doing to provide online student services. 

Small sample of colleges that are going beyond the Administrative Core to provide online services to students.

Columbia Universities Health Question and Answers Internet Service Go Ask Alice

Georgia Perimeter College Online Orientation

Long Beach City College Online Counseling

Montgomery College Advisors Desktop and Online Student Success Center

St. Petersburg College CyberAdvisor

University at Buffalo Student Portal demos

Virginia Tech Career Services


A larger sample of colleges and an overview of opportunities and challenges of providing online student services can be found on the WCET Resources pages:

Academic Advising

Career Planning

Financial Aid

Library Services


Personal Counseling


Disabilities Services


Small Sample of self assessment tools, some college based, some not, but all available via the Internet.

Canada's School to Work Career Paths Online

Carlton University Procrastination Research Group

Illinois Community Colleges Online OASIS Online Assessment System for Internet Students

North Carolina State University The Career Key



University of St. Thomas Study Guides and Strategies
( link is no longer active.

Virginia Tech Counseling Center, several interactive self assessments & a couple of videos



Johnstone, S. M. (2002). Really Serving Students at a Distance.  Syllabus Magazine: Technology for Higher Education. April 2002. Retrieved January 6, 2004 from

Kretovics, M. (2003). The Role of Student Affairs in Distance Education: Cyber-Services or Virtual Communities. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration. Volume 6, Number 3. Retrieved January 6, 2004 from

Ludwig-Hardman, S. & Dunlap, J.C. (2003). Learner Support Services for Online Students: Scaffolding for Success. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. Volume 4, Number 1. Retrieved January 6, 2004 from

Sener, J. & Baer, B. (2002). A Gap Analysis of Online Student Services: Report on Administrator and Student Surveys. Retrieved January 6, 2004 from

Western Cooperative for Educational Communications (2004). Retrieved January 6, 2004 from


Other Resources

Cox, H (2001). Online Student Services Assessment Tool

Dirr, P. J. (1999). Putting Principles into Practice: Promoting Effective Support Services for Students in Distance Learning Programs. Retrieved January 6, 2004 from

Levy, S. ((2003). Six Factors to Consider when Planning Online Distance Learning Programs in Higher Education.  Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration. Volume 6, Number 1. Retrieved January 6, 2004 from

Technology in Advising Preliminary Report. (2002) NACADA Technology in Advising Commission. Retrieved January 6, 2004 from


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