Field Notes: Serving Students in an Online Modality

March 8, 2021
  • Online and Distance Learning
  • Admissions
  • field notes
  • online faculty
  • Process efficiency
person working on their laptop while at a wooden desk with scattered papers off to the side


By Katie Brown, University Registrar at Aspen University, and Jessica Peters, Director of Student Services, Aspen University

"Field Notes" is a regular Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, universities found themselves quickly forced to adapt their program delivery and student services models to keep their students and staff safe. Aspen University, based in Denver, Colorado, was uniquely situated to handle this transition smoothly, as most of its student population are post-licensure nursing students. Because the university’s average student is nontraditional, most of its programs were already designed to be completed entirely online. While Aspen had to adjust some of its programs due to COVID, the building blocks for online student success were already there. The university had an online learning platform in place as well as an operational system for providing online functionality for advising, course registration, student communication, and degree conferral. Campus-based programs were able to transition to an online modality easily since the framework was in place. Aspen’s staff was able to apply methods utilized for online students to assist campus students with their transition to online learning.

Whether an institution is making a permanent or temporary transition to online learning, the following tips and best practices may help:

  • Streamline admissions processes. This includes: having a clean, user-friendly, and navigable online application process (with no application fee); assigning enrollment advisors to speak with students about their program and collect official documents; fully digitizing student records and acceptance letters; and focusing on community and belonging in communications with students.

  • Establish a virtual new student orientation. Create a self-guided, modular, online classroom and  facilitate phone calls between students and advisors.  

  • Create a relationship with advising. The goal is to provide an online environment that offers information, structure, and a sense of community. Academic advisors build relationships with students, discussing expectations, normalizing their experience, and offering resources.

  • Provide registration & enrollment services via student portal. This provides students access to services including registration, payments, transcripts and degree progress as well as advisor contact information.  

  • Offer student support services. Provide and process departmental forms through the secure student portal; support online learners with academic advising calls, reminders, and online resource classrooms; provide early-early forms for instructors to assist students who demonstrate high-risk behaviors; and require faculty to respond quickly to students and engage with them on classroom discussion boards.

  • Conduct pre-graduation audits. Prior to graduation, notify students of their remaining program requirements, outline the degree conferral process, and explain how to receive their diplomas. Include academic advisors in this communication. Conduct all degree conferral processes electronically via the SIS.   

Whether transitions to online processing are being considered at an institution because of the COVID-19 pandemic, or because an institution is looking to expand its student service offerings, the utilization of digital processing can help bring an institution into an increasingly online, customer-service-based world. The above digital processes offer ease of access to students and provide clear and consistent information to reach people effectively. It is important to look at current processing models to help with issues of staffing, communication, and resource utilization.


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