The twenty-first century has seen a dramatic increase in the use of telecommunications networks for collaboration, information exchange, and educational endeavors. The continuous demand for educational equity across diverse demographics and locations is a challenge for all educators. To help meet this demand, numerous inexpensive and emerging telecommunication networks allow us to conference and exchange voice, full-motion video, and documents all at the same time. This exchange of information via networks will reduce the need and expense of physically transporting people some distance for the sole purpose of communicating.
The study outlined in this article provides an example of a collaborative project between academic and student affairs using technology to enhance graduate student academic advising. The authors propose that collaboration, graduate student advising, and the use of technology deserve attention from education researchers and practitioners.
University administrators and faculty generally agree that collaboration is a catchphrase spoken on college and university campuses. Different groups or units working collaboratively afford many benefits for the campus community. Collaborating and working in teams can accomplish more than working individually. Komives and Woodard (2003) stated that as campus organizations have shifted from rigid hierarchies to organizations reflecting flexibility, change, and complexity, partnerships exist and collaboration opportunities have grown exponentially. They also purported that student affairs professionals can lead campus collaboration efforts. Carpenter (2003) went even further and stated that collaboration is necessary for professional practice and a value for the student affairs profession.
Evidence of the importance of collaboration is reflected in the work of numerous research studies. Schroeder (1999) stated that model practices and programs reflecting change in student learning are the result of collaboration. Bourassa and Kruger (2001) identified collaboration as the key in programs, projects, and services, such as faculty-in-residences, learning communities, first-year programs, academic advising, and academic and student affairs cross-functional planning groups. These areas have been strengthened due to increased commitments and efforts to collaborate. Kuh and Hinkle (2002) strongly advocated the use of cross-functional teams and maintained that campus leaders aiming to increase the effectiveness of these teams should consider visiting other campuses to observe thriving working collaboration projects.
escribing the success of student affairs and faculty dialogue groups, Pace, Blumreich, and Merkle (2006) discussed the importance of collaboration to improve student learning. Additionally, they reviewed numerous studies by Kingston-Mann; Engstrom and Tinto; Pike, Schroeder, and Berry; and Tinto, which link academic and student affairs collaboration to student retention. Furthermore, Hirsch and Burack (2001) stated that the most successful collaboration projects are those that transcend traditional boundaries or functional areas.
Numerous publications, such as The Student Learning Imperative (American College Personnel Association [ACPA], 1994), Principles of Good Practice for Student Affairs (ACPA & National Association of Student Personnel Administrators [NASPA], 1997), Powerful Partnerships: A Shared Responsibility for Learning (American Association of Higher Education [AAHE], ACPA, & NASPA, 1998), and Learning Reconsidered: A Campus-Wide Focus on the Student Learning Experience (ACPA & NASPA, 2004), reflect a commitment to collaboration between student affairs and academic affairs. These documents challenge higher education professionals to collaborate in creating learning-based policies, programs, and services to support both undergraduate and graduate students. Polson (2003) commented on the needs of today's graduate students by stating that providing support to graduate students creates a unique opportunity for collaboration between units that have not always worked together (p.67).
Graduate Advising: A Critical Need
Bloom, Propst Cuevas, Hall, and Evans (2007) remarked that while much literature exists on the importance of undergraduate advising, relatively few studies exist on graduate advising. Amid the existing literature on graduate advising, Bloom et al. added that investigations single out academic advising as central to graduate student success. In the reviewed studies, authors supported the point that graduate advising is primary in retention, student success, and student satisfaction (Schlosser, Knox, Moskovitz, & Hill, 2003; Gelso, 1997; Chun-Mei, Golde, & McCormick, 2007).
Discussing the role of the graduate adviser, Schlosser et al. (2003) defined an adviser as the faculty member who has the greatest responsibility for helping guide the advisee through the graduate program (p. 179). Schlosser et al. added that various titles, such as committee chair, dissertation chair, adviser, and major professor, also refer to graduate advisers.
Exploring graduate advisee satisfaction, Chun-Mei et al. (2007) conducted a national survey including twenty-seven universities and eleven disciplines. The study revealed graduate student satisfaction with specific adviser behaviors. Across academic disciplines, graduate students reported greatest satisfaction when the following four academic advising behaviors were present: (a) Gives me regular and constructive feedback on my research, (b) Available when I need help with my research, (c) Gives me regular and constructive feedback on my progress toward degree completion, and (d) Available when I need to talk about my program and progress (Chun-Mei et al., p. 268). It is clear that graduate students need accessible and timely support from advisers. In efforts to anticipate and meet the needs of our graduate students, the current study explored a collaborative effort between academic and student affairs to meet graduate students' needs for support, direction, and feedback.
Schlosser et al. (2003) reported that regular contact with the academic adviser was the norm for satisfied graduate advisees. Conversely, unsatisfied students saw their advisers as infrequently as once each year. The findings by Schlosser et al. indicated that satisfied graduate students cited more gains and fewer losses than did the unsatisfied students. The unsatisfied students reported issues such as inaccessibility and unmet needs forcing the advisee to seek help elsewhere (p. 186).
One of the primary goals of the current study's research institution was to ensure that graduates are prepared to meet the demands of today's global society. Meeting this goal is an enormous task in itself, and it becomes even more complicated when coupled with a student population spread across a large area. Technology affords mechanisms to achieve this goal, especially in the area of advising. Sotto (2000) explained that numerous modes of technology are available to assist with academic advising. These include synchronous advising, asynchronous advising, videoconferencing, and the Internet. Dahl (2004) reported on best practices in online advising and stated that recent technological and societal changes led to current and increasingly widespread online advising innovations.
Concerning graduate students in rural areas, Luna and Medina (2007) described obstacles and complications in relevant academic advising. The constraints on rural graduate studentslarge geographic distances compounded by adult learning characteristicsfind students in need of receiving timely program and academic information (Luna & Medina).
Polson (2003) added that graduate programs tend to enroll students who manage full-time employment, the needs of children, elderly family members, community responsibility, and the task of accurately assessing their responsibilities. In light of these demands, the academic adviser is central to graduate student success. Polson proposed that graduate programs respond to today's graduate students with sensitivity, flexibility, and creativity.
Reporting on seven feasible and realistic computer-based advising strategies, Wallace and Wallace (2001, p. 196) described the use of e-mail, newsgroups, text-based computer conferences, videoconferences, computer-based voice communication, and shared applications. Wallace and Wallace proposed that distance advising practices known as virtual or electronic office hours offer students inexpensive or free direct communication with the adviser. Additionally, they stated that computer-based approaches also provide a record of the advising session. The study found that students preferred videoconferences. In light of the seven computer-based advising mechanisms, participants reported appreciation for the clearly verified involvement of a real person (Wallace & Wallace, p. 206).
Luna and Medina (2007) found that virtual academic advising met the rural graduate students' needs better than traditional advising. Stating the point more strongly, graduate student participants reported the necessity of in-person advising as no longer valid (Luna & Medina, p. 25). The researchers went on to state that graduate students' need for information outweighs needs for counseling, mentoring, and social connections with advisers.
Many graduate students in the student affairs graduate preparation program at the current research study institution are employed in assistantships and full-time jobs. Consequently, it is difficult for these students to come to campus for advising. A number of this institution's graduate students and faculty travel some distance either to attend classes at the main campus or to meet at an off-campus university center. In the past, the academic adviser has either traveled to advise students at the off-campus university center, the students have traveled to the main campus to meet with the adviser, or academic advising has been conducted over the phone or via e-mail.
This pilot study highlights the efforts made to meet the advising needs of off-campus students. This collaborative effort linked the academic graduate program faculty, the staff in a college academic advising center, and a group of off-campus students. To meet the academic advising needs of these students in a more interactive and effective way, participants in this project facilitated face-to-face advising meetings through desktop videoconferencing. A virtual advising system (VAS) was designed and implemented to better extend limited resources to meet the needs of off-campus students. This system allowed academic advising to occur with students at off-site locations through the use of two-way desktop videoconferencing.
Student affairs graduate program leaders conducted a pilot study to investigate the degree of student and adviser satisfaction with the academic advising process. This study compared the traditional academic advising process with a virtual advising system (VAS) process.
For this study, the experimental group (n=7) was composed of students who participated in face-to-face virtual advising sessions using the VAS. These students were off-campus students who commuted at least forty-five minutes to reach campus. The VAS provided these students virtual access to their adviser through the University Center (an off-campus satellite office where a majority of graduate classes are offered).
The control group (n=7) consisted of students participating in traditional face-to-face advising sessions in their academic adviser's office. This group included only on-campus students, the majority of whom work and/or live on campus and attend all classes on campus.
Virtual Advising System (VAS)
The virtual advising system (VAS) included one desktop unit at the off-campus University Center (which included a computer and a POLYCOM ViaVideo Videoconferencing Kit) and an identical desktop unit on the adviser's desktop at the Clemson campus. For the purposes of this study, investigators used a videoconferencing system that was simple to use and install. This integrated desktop video communication device was chosen because it delivered high-quality, interactive video and voice communications from a desktop PC with a broadband Internet connection.
The POLYCOM ViaVideo Videoconferencing Kit offered several benefits. This system had a very low technology frustration level (LTFL), as it simply plugged into a desktop PC via the universal serial bus (USB) port. All that was needed to utilize the system was the videoconferencing kit (including the software, integrated compact camera unit, and cables), a PC, and a high-speed Internet connection provided by the institution. This system allowed the researchers to successfully complete the project without any elaborate setups, networks, or informational technology (IT) services.
All students in the control and experimental groups had the same adviser and were instructed to schedule an advising session with the adviser via a sign-up sheet or an e-mail message. The advising session was conducted using either the virtual advising system or traditional face-to-face method. Following the advising session, the students completed a questionnaire designed to evaluate the pre-advising, advising, and post-advising process. The questionnaire contained Likert-scale questions and open-ended evaluative questions. This allowed students to evaluate and provide detailed comments about the advising process. The completed questionnaires were collected and responses remained confidential.
Experimental GroupVirtual Advising System (VAS)
Overwhelmingly, the experimental group's responses were positive about the pre-advising, advising, and post-advising process. Fifty-seven percent (four students) reported satisfactory experiences with the two-way virtual advising system and evaluated it to be as effective as a face-to-face meeting. Twenty-nine percent (two students) reported exemplary experiences, and 14 percent (one student) chose not to answer. Figure 1 provides a summary of responses. When asked if they would still prefer traditional face-to-face advising sessions, the majority said yes but reported that they were satisfied with the virtual advising experience. All students experienced slight technical difficulties with their first virtual advising experience, i.e., problems with the phone number or inability to connect at first. These students wrote that after overcoming the technical problems, it was great. Responses to open-ended questions identified benefits related to savings in time and travel expense when using the VAS.
Control GroupTraditional Face-to-Face Advising
As predicted, responses were positive regarding the pre- and post-advising process. Eighty-six percent (six students) reported exemplary experiences with the traditional face-to-face advising process, and 14 percent (one student) reported a satisfactory experience.
Implications of Results
After using the VAS and after reviewing the responses from this pilot study, college leaders developed a model to provide a convenient and effective academic advising system. This system has minimized travel, ambiguity, and impersonal contact between faculty and students. This project also has fostered collaboration and resource sharing among several units on campus, many of which traditionally have had minimal contact with one another. By developing the VAS, these units have collaborated in finding solutions to challenges faced by off-campus students in accessing university services.
The goal of the college within the university at which this study was completed is to provide the most complete academic advising experience for all students. The college is committed to leveraging leading-edge technology to deliver the highest quality education to its student population. Because of the positive outcome of this pilot project, the college has expanded its virtual advising capabilities to other academic programs and is partnering with other universities and technical colleges to utilize this system and better meet both undergraduate and graduate students' needs.
Investigators found the results of this current study to be congruent with similar results reported by Wallace and Wallace (2001). Implications included the need for faculty to establish reasonable student expectations, such as advisers' availability for virtual advising. Clarifying advisers' hours may decrease students' expectations that faculty are constantly on-call. Furthermore, the study supports conclusions by Schlosser et al. (2003), which noted that advisee satisfaction is dependent on adviser accessibility.
This study also supports the findings of Dahl (2004) and Luna and Medina (2007) regarding keeping the technology simple and user-friendly and requiring minimal training. Through this study, the researchers found it essential to keep the technology transparent for faculty, staff, and students using videoconferencing for academic advising purposes. In other words, LTFL applies, meaning the less frustration that is caused by the technology the more likely people will use it.
After reviewing the data for this pilot study, researchers used the results to form recommendations to the faculty by the college's Academic Advising Committee to create an academic advising/mentoring assessment process. The recommendations called for an annual advising assessment for both undergraduate and graduate students. The Academic Advising Committee also suggested that survey data collection take place electronically and confidentially. While a primary purpose of the assessment data is to assist faculty self-identify areas for improvement, the recommendations also suggested that the survey data serve as a means to assess academic advising functions in the university's promotion, tenure, and review processes. The decisions of the college's Academic Advising Committee align with several previous works regarding faculty roles in academic advising (Luna & Medina, 2007; Bloom et al., 2007). These authors raised concerns about faculty rewards systems at many universities and the lack of emphasis on academic advising as a valued part of the faculty role. The authors went on to propose that universities assess graduate faculty advising as a formal part of promotion and tenure processes as well as provide faculty training for effective advising.
A number of implications for future research come from this study. The authors recognize that since this was a pilot study with a small sample size, it would be interesting to investigate the effectiveness of virtual advising with a larger sample. As evidenced in this pilot study, desktop videoconferencing allows successful face-to-face communication when people are separated by distance. Therefore, continued exploration of creative uses for this technology is warranted. It would also be interesting to investigate what effect including advising satisfaction survey data in promotion and tenure would have on subsequent faculty responses to academic advising.
As videoconferencing technology continues to emerge, we must continue to evaluate the uses of this technology. The Polycom ViaVideo Video Conferencing Kit that was state of the art at the time of this study has evolved into Polycom PVX, a software program that allows the user to utilize any USB camera, not just a videoconference-dedicated camera, to work in conjunction with a PC to provide a high-quality video and audio experience. A source to explore desktop videoconferencing information is Polycom® at www.polycom.com/usa/en/products/video/video_conferencing_systems/desktop/pvx.html. At present, Polycom PVX allows a free trial period to use the videoconferencing software. The long-term solution is the purchase of the software. Another current videoconferencing service that is free and user-friendly is Skype at www.skype.com.
In today's Internet-driven world, the ability to conduct real-time communication and collaboration has become critical to an organization's survival. As higher education professionals, we are sensitive to the idea that meeting our students' needs is not about the technology but about improving the quality of education for our students. Our experience through this study and the subsequent use of videoconferencing equipment has allowed us to continue to put the student in the center of the academic advising process while at the same time saving everyone time, money, and frustration.