According to a 2015 report by Babson Research, the number of college students currently enrolled online exceeds 7 million—or 1 in 3 U.S. students. Furthermore, in 2014 70.8% of chief academic leaders reported online learning is critical to their long-term strategy. As online education continues to grow, institutions must find ways to uniquely support to online students, as they have different needs compared to in-class students. In a recent Babson study, institutions noted that one of their biggest hurdles in online education was maintaining healthy retention rates and job placement after graduation.

While online education offers important benefits to students like flexibility and affordability, it can also present challenges to some students if they are not properly prepared. By providing students with the proper resources and support throughout their online course, online student success and retention rates can be greatly improved.

To ensure your online learners are receiving the support they need, integrate these five tips into your online learning program.

  1. Encourage peer-to-peer interaction.

In a traditional classroom setting, peer support and interaction is extremely beneficial to students. Online students can have the same opportunities to interact with peers through technologies like Google Hangouts, Skype, etc. Make peer collaboration a priority by developing activities that promote socialization among students. Online community or study groups like Coursera Meetups can also connect students in similar areas of study or geographic regions.

  1. Create a student ambassador program.

Many universities have established student ambassador programs for their traditional in-class students, however, online student ambassador programs are just starting to sprout up in distance learning programs. Since retention is a large issue facing online learners, peer encouragement can be extremely helpful. Before online courses begin, notify students of student ambassador opportunities and how it can benefit them (resumes, internships, etc.). Provide ambassadors with resources and activities available that they can share with students. Penn State World Campus, Penn’s distance learning program, offers online students a variety of activities to get involved with like their national honor society and their World Campus alumni chapter.

  1. Offer career support and resources.

Close to 90% of new students say that they attend college to “be able to get a better job”. Online students are no different. OSU’s E-campus, one of the top 5 in the nation, offers a career services portal designed specifically for online learners that allows them to schedule an appointment with a counselor, view interactive videos on interview and resume strategies, and career assessment tools.

4. Create an online orientation that is unique to online students’ needs.

Typically, an on-campus orientation’s main goals are to familiarize students with the campus, to establish new connections, and to integrate students with the university. Online orientation should meet the same goals for online students. Dr. Karen Ferguson, VP of Student Success and Retention at Northcentral University, suggests going beyond the basic how-to support. “Online Orientation programs should be built to welcome students to their [online] campus, introduce them to the methods they can use, connect with peers and professors, and help all students feel connected to the University. We have to provide entry, just in time, and ongoing support to our students so we can build and strengthen the connection between the student, technology and the University.”

  1. Offer E-Advising or “Success Counselors”

Online learners require unique skills like self-direction and time management. By offering online advising opportunities, advisors can point students in the right direction to necessary resources to develop their skills. OSU offers an excellent Ecampus Success Counseling program, where they provide guidance on time management, goal-setting, prioritization, stress management and many other topics that surround distance learning.

For more information on online learning, consider attending one of Online Learning Consortium’s events this fall or winter. View upcoming events here.