When you look at building up the educational infrastructure to support online students, it's easy to become so focused on the problems of simply delivering course materials in an effective manner that you lose sight of supporting the people who support the students. On the one hand, this is understandable, given online education's focus on results. On the other hand, trying to pretend that online students need none of the support traditional students take for granted can be very short-sighted.
At Inside Higher Education, Eric Stoller has written an interesting article, "Supporting Online Students: New Paradigms for an Evolving Profession." In it, he talks about the importance of changing the way institutions look at the task of supporting online students -- and at the relatively few schools that are actually doing anything about making that change.
Let's admit right now that larger universities and colleges (and, to be honest, universities and schools of any size) can be remarkably resistant to change. It can take years to make the most modest changes. Figuring out how to support students who never set foot on campus can be the work of an entire career (though we really don't have that long to figure things out if schools are going to continue to be relevant to a rapidly-changing economy and society).
How will Student Affairs offices adapt themselves to help students who may be hundreds of miles from the office? At the large university in the town where I live, Student Affairs devotes a great deal of effort to issues like dorm living, relationships between students, on-campus activities, and career counseling. Which of these could safely be ignored, and which should be dramatically strengthened, in a distance-learning orientation for student affairs? Or is even this set of questions too tied to the past: Do we need to re-think the notion of student affairs entirely, separating it completely from its residential campus roots?
I think there's a strong case to be made for totally revising the concept of student affairs to meet the needs of modern distance students. The first principle in all this revision, though, should be that online students have a different need for support -- not a lesser need. Universities that view the rise of distance-learning as an opportunity to increase revenue while cutting student support to an absolute minimum are doomed to long-term failure. While there are certainly cost-savings to be had in physical-plant infrastructure, those institutions that best adapt to and support every member of their learning community, whether local or distant, will prosper.
Looking for a model? You could do a lot worse than Southern New Hampshire University. Fast Company named the university one of its 50 Most Innovative Companies -- the only educational institution so honored. Why aren't more universities racing to be more innovative? That may be the most fundamental question of all.