Award-Winning Online Orientation Programs Showcase CUNY SPS’ Community-Building Efforts

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Earlier this fall, Dr. Angela Francis, assistant dean of general education and first year experience at the CUNY School of Professional Studies (CUNY SPS), was selected to receive a 2020 Online Learning Consortium Effective Practice Award from the Online Learning Consortium (OLC). The honor was granted for her entry “A Three-Pronged Approach to Online Orientation for Adult Learners,” which described how the three CUNY SPS online orientation programs that she oversees—Test Flight: Online Learning Simulation, Online Learning Essentials (OLE), and New Student Orientation (NSO)—effectively helped adult online learners be successful in their courses. 

On November 9, Dr. Francis accepted the accolade at a virtual gala held during the 2020 OLC Accelerate Conference. During the event, Dr. Francis was asked by the OLC: “What’s one thing an institution or community can do to better support educators and learners in the advancement of quality online learning?” The short version of her answer was simple: encourage schools to deliberately and mindfully build a community. It is this mindset that has made CUNY SPS’s three award-winning online orientation programs so successful. 

Each of these orientation offerings is developed to help students in different early stages of their educational journey build their confidence by getting acquainted with the CUNY SPS community and various online learning-related tools, resources, and study practices. Or as Dr. Francis noted, “Ultimately, our goal is to help participants realize their success is possible and give them tools they can use along the way.” 

For prospective undergraduate students there is Test Flight, a free, one-week online “learning simulation” designed to help them gain a better sense of what it might be like to be an online student at CUNY SPS. During the weeklong course, learners log in to explore common activities found in the School’s online courses, such as participating on discussion boards, engaging with materials, and submitting assignments and exams. This coursework also helps students develop three key skills that support online learner success: time management, information literacy, and the ability to take advantage of their learning preferences. 

For visiting (ePermit and non-degree) students seeking a primer on the online class experience, there is the Online Learning Essentials (OLE), a three-weeklong program offered before the semester begins. In OLE, visiting students (ePermit and non-degree) participate in a self-paced but fully facilitated online classroom, where they learn how to navigate the learning environment and prepare to hit the ground running on the first day of class. They also complete practice assignments and engage with peers, mentors, and staff who are there to answer questions and provide technical assistance.

Finally, incoming undergraduates start their first semester with a New Student Orientation (NSO). Available every fall and spring, NSO is a 2-week mini-course offered to undergraduates who have registered for courses. First developed in 2014 and adjusted each semester, NSO’s main purpose is to prepare adult learners who are returning to school after a break to navigate the online learning environment while also focusing most intensely on what the educational research nonprofit Motivate Lab calls “Mindset GPS”: the combination of growth mindset, a self-defined purpose, and a sense of social belonging.

These goals are incorporated in NSO through careful design. NSO participants log in daily to participate in webinars and exercises that help them explore specific skills and tools that can be applied throughout their college career, such as time management skills and practice with academic reading and writing. Students also get a chance to build interpersonal connections with peers, faculty, and staff in discussion boards and in live “student” office hours, since the orientation is fully staffed by a team that responds daily to students’ questions and comments. 

As numerous students indicated in the anonymous surveys, all three of these orientation offerings have been tremendously positive experiences that have helped students prepare for school and connect with others. 

For example, one Test Flight participant remarked on the surprising amount of interaction they had with other students and faculty. “I really enjoyed meeting new people and seeing how diverse the CUNY SPS family is! I really like that there are many professors that are able to answer any questions and are always an email away! The discussion boards were extremely useful when you are learning new concepts.” 

NSO attendees also echoed this sentiment. One student specifically noted how the peer mentors and other student attendees helped them. They explained, “The New Student Orientation and its introduction to SPS has given me the confidence to succeed in my online course endeavors. Before, I was nervous and overwhelmed, but the mentors and students in the forum provided, as well as the webinars, has made my confidence grow in the last week and then some.”

Finally, an OLE attendee offered this overall glowing assessment, summing up most student responses in general: “Thank you for this orientation. I've taken online classes at other schools in the past and definitely did not feel as prepared as I do right now.”

This enthusiasm appears to be reflected in the programs’ rapidly growing enrollment as well. In Spring 2020, Test Flight’s attendance swelled from the normal average of 40-60 participants to over 140 participants in the March course, prompting CUNY SPS to add three more sessions in May and June. Since then, Test Flight sessions have seen up to 80 participants or more. Separately, in August 2020, over 677 students attended the NSO, up from an estimated 500 who signed up for it the year prior. 

While the statistical impact of these programs has yet to be fully studied, data consistently show that students who complete at least the NSO, defined by completing each of the associated tasks and activities, are more likely to have higher GPAs and are retained at a higher rate, indicating that the program’s goals are being achieved.

For Dr. Francis, the success of these online orientation offerings is partly due to the emphasis on community—not only in her unit’s efforts to introduce new students to the CUNY SPS community, but also in the deeply collaborative work done across School units to produce these orientations. As she suggested in her remarks to OLC, the way to achieve this “…is to develop genuine collaborative relationships across your institution and don’t wait until you need someone’s help to start.” To her, there’s always one key thing to remember: “Orientation is not my project or even my unit’s project. It’s our community’s project."

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Andrea Fagon
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