Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Offsite and Online

This interview with Christine Chairsell, the Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs at Portland Community College (OR), piqued my curiosity.  It’s about the relationship between off-campus instructional sites or centers, and online education.  

In other settings, I’ve seen online enrollments chip away at evening and weekend programs.  The working adults who poured into evening programs in the 90’s have largely moved online, where the convenience of not having to drive to and from campus after work makes a real difference.  Given that offsite locations are often justified in terms of physical distance, and that online education is often called “distance” education because it defeats the barrier of physical distance, I’d expect to see online instruction chip away at the underpinnings of offsite locations.

But generally, that doesn’t seem to be happening.  

Some of that seems to stem from programs in which physical presence matters.  In a CNA training course, for instance, students use mannikins to learn how to move patients, take blood pressure, and the like; it’s hard to duplicate that kind of experience online.  Culinary programs require actual kitchen experience.  As Chairsell notes, you don’t want a mechanic who has never lifted a wrench.  For many vocational programs, online instruction is still of only limited relevance.

But the staying power of onsite instruction isn’t limited to facility-specific programs.  And that’s where I’d like to supplement Chairsell’s thoughts, and get some thoughts from my wise and worldly readers.

In many cases, community colleges set up sites specifically to reach students who otherwise might not have an easily (or realistically) available option.  Many of those students are first-generation, and most of them work significant numbers of hours per week for pay.  We know from the literature that one of the strongest predictors of success for first-generation students is the presence or absence of a personal relationship with someone at the college.  Small sites lend themselves to that in a way that online instruction generally doesn’t.

The students may not know the literature, but they know that personal relationships matter.  Having people staffing those centers who are genuinely welcoming and supportive makes a difference.

Chairsell refers to hybrid instruction as an increasingly popular option, and I agree.  But I wonder if centers could take it to the next level.  Susanna Williams and I did a think piece last March trying to envision what that might look like: the short version is that centers provide human connection and social support even while students do online work.  

Wise and worldly readers, what kind of relationships have you seen between online instruction and offsite locations?  Can they support each other?