COVID-19’s impact on traditional learners was widely covered as students abruptly left campus to keep their communities healthy and continue learning at a distance. But the influence on non-traditional adult students who are already learning online is no less dramatic.

COVID-19 is a major life event that’s impacting all learners in different ways, with more than 1 million Americans sickened by the virus, 26 million U.S workers who have recently filed jobless claims, and 55 million school-aged kids now learning at home.

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For adult learners who are already managing responsibilities such as working full-time jobs and acting as a caregiver for children or parents, the addition of a pandemic can seem overwhelming. Here are ways academic institutions can support non-traditional online students to ensure they can achieve their academic goals and advance their careers.

Listen, communicate and adjust

Most non-traditional online students fall into two categories. Students have either become more focused on completing their degree or need to reduce their course load to accommodate other circumstances.

Those accelerating their degree programs may be looking to master new skills for a future role or simply may have additional time they want to use productively due to social distancing. Others need to reconfigure their schedules to accommodate care for impacted family members or their new role as teacher for children who are suddenly out of school.

A common theme runs true. Online learners need greater communication to determine their next steps and increase community connection. Where students would typically send professors and advisers an email, they’re now picking up the phone or scheduling a video chat. Academic institutions need to help their faculty adjust to these demands and provide resources to allow them to connect.

Strengthen relationships

Adviser-student relationships help navigate difficult times. For many, advisers are the first trusted resources students to turn to when they need guidance. Relational advising models like these form strong foundations for support in a crisis.

Relationships are important as each student is in a truly unique situation and their advisers and professors need to understand their individual challenges. For instance, a healthcare student may be dealing with children at home, a significant increase in hours at the hospital and an overwhelming amount of stress associated with this scenario. An adviser who knows and understands a student’s circumstances can help navigate, whether that means adding to or decreasing their schedules.

Encourage students to connect

Many students are asking for more ways to connect to their academic communities. Online institutions may already have the technologies and resources to support this. Online learners are used to collaborating online for group assignments and other class related initiatives. However, workshops unrelated to coursework can also provide great value. Topics from connecting with others to building resilience will help improve student morale, while also providing important skills for career readiness and growth.

In some ways, non-traditional online students are at an advantage–they’re used to learning online and their professors have already built a curriculum that encourages flexibility, incorporates varied modalities, and encourages the essential learning that happens between students.

But non-traditional online students are also experiencing major life changes that are disrupting their lives, and in turn, their educational needs. With the right support, these students can continue to thrive.

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About the Author:

Dr. Johnna Herrick-Phelps is the assistant provost at Champlain College Online where she leads 50+ career-focused online degree programs. She has served in this role since 2018, working closely with online instructors, eLearning, program directors and academic advisors to ensure quality in all aspects of Champlain’s online academic experience. Prior to Champlain, she was vice provost for academic affairs at Granite State College in New Hampshire. Dr. Herrick-Phelps earned her doctorate in human and organizational development systems from Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California, and a master’s degree in organizational management and leadership from Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts.


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