The eQuad: A Next-Generation eAdvising Tool to Build Community and Retain Students

Leora Waldner, Troy University
Dayna McDaniel, Troy University
Tammy Esteves, Troy University
Terry Anderson, Troy University

The art and practice of eAdvising (defined here as using electronic means to advise online students) continues to evolve. The first generation of eAdvising (termed here as eAdvising 1.0) featured one-way communication between faculty and students, asynchronous communication via email, and even early advancements such as individual faculty web pages that provided resources and information for advisees (e.g., Luna and Medina, 2005; Wagner, 2001). eAdvising 2.0 expanded to develop state-of-the-art eTools, such as virtual advising organizations, virtual office hours, and advising videos and archives employed by individual faculty members (Havice et al., 2009; Woods, 2004).

In this article, we introduce the next-generation innovation, eAdvising 3.0—the eQuad. Most traditional brick-and-mortar campuses have a central location or campus quad where students gather to network, build friendships, work on joint projects, etc. Through strategic use of a course management system, the eQuad offers an online alternative to the traditional on-campus quad by providing a central location for students to access and share information as well as build community with their advisers, faculty, and other students. In addition, the eQuad as an innovative advising system features numerous advantages over previous models, including rich communication tools and enhanced access to online advisees, essentially equipping an entire department’s faculty with a powerful tool to promote advising excellence.

Introducing the eQuad

eQuad Welcome page

Figure 1: The eQuad

The eQuad (Figure 1) is a course management system (CMS) that has been redesigned and redeployed to serve as a comprehensive online organization. In this specific case, the eQuad was designed to connect and advise graduate students in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program and was structured as a Blackboard shell. The eQuad serves as an information hub for degree-specific guidance, accessible twenty-four hours a day. However, the CMS technology empowers the eQuad with a distinct advantage above and beyond a website. Specifically, a powerful array of communication tools allows advisees to connect to their faculty advisers through instant messaging (IM), group and individual e-mails, and live video-teleconferencing seminars, thus taking this electronic community to the next level.

Adviser group page

Figure 2. Adviser Group Page

The MPA eQuad was originally designed by a small group of faculty members in partnership with an instructional design team, and a technical administrator served to manage and update the platform and advisee lists. Building the eQuad in a platform already utilized by online faculty and students in their online coursework (e.g. Blackboard) decreases the learning curve involved and enhances navigation through the eQuad. A singular, central online eQuad ensures equal access to accurate advising information and removes the burden from faculty advisers to create their own advising platforms with duplicative advising information elsewhere (each instructor has access to his or her own adviser group page, which can be modified as desired. See Figure 2).

Moreover, careful design linking information to frequently updated university websites limits future maintenance needed in the shell (though the technical support team must keep the list of enrolled students current). Because it serves as a communication powerhouse, the eQuad offers several advantages over a standalone advising website or standalone platforms maintained by individual faculty advisers.

Top Ten Advantages of an eQUAD
  1. Provides common gathering place for all members of the community
  2. Allows 24-hour access to pertinent advising information
  3. Provides immediate contact through IM and email
  4. Gives one-click email access to all program participants
  5. Adds few if any technical responsibilities for faculty advisers
  6. Ensures consistent information provided to all members of the community
  7. Provides access to web seminars for all participants
  8. Houses important educational help links
  9. Maintains links for professional organizations and internship/fellowship opportunities
  10. Creates forum in which students with a common adviser can gather virtually for group discussion

The eQuad houses all program-specific advising information consistently requested by and continuously accessible to all advisees and advisers assigned to that degree program, including on-demand advising information regarding degree requirements, course sequencing lists, forms, career resources, job listings, research opportunities, and more. An orientation video helps familiarize students with the eQuad in the “Start Here” area of the organization. The eQuad also links to other pertinent electronic resources, such as relevant YouTube lectures and tutorials on avoiding plagiarism.

The eQuad additionally bridges the communication gap between adviser and advisee via technological innovations and organization. The shell features advising groups so that each faculty member can readily access his or her own list of current advisees via e-mail and instant messaging (IM). In this same group forum, the adviser can construct a group-exclusive discussion board, file exchange, blog area, Wiki, or journal to share with advisees. The eQuad features instant-messaging software used in live online office hours, providing students with instant audio, webcam, or chat access to their own and other faculty advisers during office hours, as well as screen-share options to enable student and adviser to work on documents together. Since all currently enrolled students are listed within the CMS shell, the department has email access to every student, and timely advising updates or announcements for web events can be easily shared with students and faculty.

The eQuad also features live classroom capabilities for webinars or real-time web events (e.g., lecture series, career advising sessions, research presentations, virtual student body meetings, etc.). This ensures easy access to the webinar by the entire departmental student body or by a few select advisees, as desired. For later viewing, web meetings can be archived as help or information sessions. The opportunities for webinars are only limited by the imagination of the faculty advisers.

Why An eQuad?

Waldner, McDaniel, and Widener (2011) argued that “faculty advising needs to evolve to include online advising for one simple reason—that is where a majority of growth is taking place” (p. 553). Indeed, the Sloan Consortium (Allen & Seaman, 2010) found that growth in online student populations increased 17 percent compared to 1.2 percent growth for traditional students from 2008 to 2009. Moreover, eAdvising may enhance online student retention.  Herbert (2006) found that the most important institutional variable in retaining online students was responsiveness of faculty. eAdvising enhances involvement by promoting connection with online students and thus has potential to increase retention of online students. Overall, sound eAdvising may promote student academic success (Al-Omary, 2010; Havice et al., 2009). For example, if students take courses in the wrong order, this may jeopardize subsequent course success as well as graduation. However, because many online students cannot access faculty advising through the usual face-to-face interaction, eAdvising is necessary to ensure they receive the same critical guidance and assistance throughout their program. e-Advising is thus indispensable to subsequent academic and classroom success and quite possibly to online student retention.

The eQuad concept builds upon the virtual advising center strategy. The virtual advising center, an innovative program developed and documented by Woods (2004) at the University of Louisville, also used a course management system as a repository for advising and academic resources and allowed students within a department to connect with each other for professional and networking purposes. The center—managed by one centralized coordinator—successfully provided students an open forum for advising, information, documentation, and communication (R. Woods, personal communication, February 6, 2012). However, the eQuad differs fundamentally from the virtual advising center by wiring all departmental faculty advisers, rather than one select non-faculty adviser, into the CMS and strategically deploying real-time communication features (webinars, IM, etc.) to simulate a physical campus quad and build a sense of community. The eQuad also differs fundamentally from a virtual advising center at other universities, in that the latter tends to serve as a semi-static repository of academic resources managed by professional staff advisers often at a university-wide scale rather than a departmental or program-specific scale, where community can be developed more intently.

Creating a Community of Inquiry

Venn Diagram-Community of Inquiry

Figure 3. Community of Inquiry (Garrison, Anderson & Archer (2000)

The educational experience occurs at the intersection of the social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence (Swan, Garrison, & Richardson, 2009)  (Figure 3). The eQUAD provides the mechanism for enhancing and maximizing the educational experience. Social presence provides students the opportunity to connect with fellow classmates and identify with the greater TROY MPA community, as there are opportunities for students to meet in chat rooms and engage in IM (instant message) conversations. Teaching presence is the process of developing both cognitive and social processes directed toward the learning outcomes. Even back as far as the Coleman Report (Coleman, 1966), studies continually show that the best educational success comes from faculty, staff, and students working together toward the same goal. Finally, the cognitive presence is the level at which students are able to develop meaning through reflection and discourse (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000); the eQuad affords students the opportunity to collaborate on projects through the use of wikis. This spring, we are also adding a video series to the eQuad to allow students the opportunity to better connect their class material to real-world experiences.

Emerging Limitations

Chocqueel-Morgan (2011), an avid scholar of organizational change, concluded that change is predominantly about organizations doing what they have always done, only better, either through the use of new technologies or processes or through reapplication of older technologies and processes to new tasks. Yet change can challenge an organization in numerous ways. His research suggested that resistance stems from those who are hesitant to embrace either new technologies or new applications of old technologies for problem solving and task completion (Chocqueel-Morgan, 2011). Generally speaking, resistance can emerge from employees who are tasked with either using the new technology or learning new ways of using existing technologies and processes.

But as Chocqueel-Morgan found, not all resistance comes from worker ranks (in this case, faculty). Managers (in this case, administrators) may also display their own brand of resistance.  First, there are managers who feel that only they should be responsible for initiating and launching such changes. Beyond that, certain managers may argue that the existing processes are adequate. Ideally, administrators will encourage change buy-in among organizational members and foster excitement and buzz over the impending change, making members see it as something to look forward to (Edmonds, 2011).

The eQuad faced some of the kinds of resistance summarized here. Some faculty expressed concern that the enhanced advising access may also increase their workload. Moreover, faculty who did not routinely teach online courses expressed some initial concern about the technological skills needed to use the online platform effectively. It is true that faculty members who do not teach online may experience an initial learning curve when using the software. However, the powerful benefits—enhanced advising quality and retention of online students—outweigh this limitation. This limitation can be readily overcome through strategic training and by highlighting the advantages of the eQuad (enhanced advising quality and retention of online students). On another issue, faculty also noted concerns that new students would not be familiar enough with the software to effectively use the eQuad. The eQuad orientation video was developed to address this concern.

Some faculty members also expressed reluctance to give up their freedom to engage their advisees as they wished. Using the eQuad achieves efficiency in that common materials can be distributed to all MPA students at the same time and in the same format so that everyone is getting the same basic information.  Not only does this reduce redundancy, it also increases consistency in information received both by new and returning students.  However, to accommodate faculty concerns, the shell was expanded to break the students into groups by adviser, thus each adviser is able to distribute not only common materials, but other individualized materials that they choose to develop for their advisees only.

Another issue, not often vocalized but present nonetheless, was the fact that placing the advising function in the eQuad would make it easier for departmental administrators and others to monitor the contact that faculty members had with their advisees. While this may be true, with advising being a critical requirement of most specialized accreditation programs, taking this action will make it easier to provide clear evidence of the level of advising activity and should therefore be viewed as a positive development.

One potential area of change resistance that did not emerge involved inter-departmental disagreements concerning the best approach to designing and implementing the eQuad. The conceptual development was conducted by a small group of faculty who had the vision to anticipate how an eQuad could facilitate and manage the overall process. They presented that vision to the information technology (IT) administration and staff. In this case, the instructional technology team was extremely receptive to the overall idea, within the limitations posed by the technology itself, and worked feverishly to develop a prototype for testing. The technology team additionally volunteered to keep the database of advisees current from term to term by assigning the task to one of their own staff members. In the end, productive partnerships of all stakeholders (administration, faculty, and instructional design and instructional technology team members) ensured successful design, deployment, and ongoing use of an eQuad.

Two other potential limitations revolve around the departmental scope of the eQuad and the foundational technology itself. Woods (personal communication, February 6, 2012) noted that the virtual advising center was subsequently dismantled due to a change in curriculum and personnel, though components were successfully integrated into other parts of the program. Thus, when an eQuad is built around a specific department or program, a structural curriculum change or departmental reorganization may render the eQuad obsolete. The other potential limitation involves the technology itself. Waldner, McGorry, and Widener (2010) noted that “bad technomojo” (p. 13) can sometimes be a general limitation in eAdvising, resulting in slow download feeds caused by poor Internet infrastructure, firewall protections that block some of these communication programs on government computers, power or internet disruptions, etc.  Many such problems are temporary and can be alleviated by updates to software, informational technology assistance, or in the case of a service disruption, rescheduling an event.

Conclusions

Ultimately, the eQUAD is designed to simulate for our online students—as much as possible—the community found in the on-campus quad. Building an online community will engage students in the department and with the university, enhancing their identity as part of the larger community of students. When students are engaged, they will be more successful and more likely to complete the program, thus positively impacting student retention rates. Future projects to be incorporated into the eQUAD include faculty and student blogs, book groups, virtual honor society inductions and graduation, student association, online student research conferences, etc. Students will also be connected through various forms of social media, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, which will provide opportunities for them to remain involved as alumni. As an eAdvising strategy, the eQuad fosters a sense of community among students while equipping the faculty with rich communication tools to promote eAdvising excellence.

References

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Edmonds, J. (2011, April). Making change happen. Training Journal, 33–36. Retrieved from ABI/INFORM Global. (Document ID: 2321627381).

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About the Author(s)

Leora Waldner, Troy University

Leora Waldner is an associate professor at Troy University’s Atlanta, Georgia, site. She can be reached at lwaldner@troy.edu.

Dayna McDaniel, Troy University

Dayna McDaniel is a lecturer at Troy University’s Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, site. She can be reached at dmcdaniel@troy.edu.

Tammy Esteves, Troy University

Tammy Esteves is an assistant professor at Troy University’s Ft Lewis, Washington, site. She can be reached at tlesteves@troy.edu.

Terry Anderson, Troy University

Terry Anderson is an associate professor at Troy University’s Pensacola, Florida, site. She can be reached at tanderson@troy.edu.

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