Monday, December 12, 2016

Student Life Online

Do online students want, or benefit from, extracurriculars just for them?

And if so, what form should activities take?

On Friday I saw Amanda Mulfinger and Dae Howard, from Penn State World Campus, present at the Middle States conference on what student support looks like online.  (Mulfinger offered an administrator’s perspective; Howard a student’s.)  Their presentation focused primarily on which services offered by the college made a difference for students.  They focused particularly on “success coaches,” who sound in this case like a cross between concierges (“is there anything I can do?”) and personal trainers (“you can do it!”).

For those of us old enough to remember Professor Kingsfield, from The Paper Chase, the idea of success coaches suggests a lot about changes in the industry.

Online tutoring also made a difference, particularly in the math and accounting classes.  

From the student perspective, the availability of the LMS app on the phone was crucial.  She noted that as a working mother, her time often appeared in short bursts.  If she could call up a text on her phone and read it while out and about, she could get more done.  When she got stuck, she could contact the tutors for help.

So far, so good.  I asked about student-to-student interaction, as opposed to college-to-student.

To my surprise, Mulfinger responded that alumni of the World Campus participate in the Penn State alumni association at higher rates than campus students.  She added that online students joined the economics club and the political science club at high rates, and that online students participated actively in Penn State Reads, a university-wide common text.  

Howard added that she would have found more student-to-student interaction helpful, and that she’ll be working with World Campus on ways to do that.

And I thought, hmm.

We’ve done a pretty good job of moving the curricular piece of college online, but we’ve struggled with the extracurricular piece.  I’m wondering if anyone out there has seen successful cases.

The news about alumni engagement surprised me, but it also gave me hope.  Although the interface may make the experience seem more baldly transactional, students still assign meaning to the experience.  Some of them -- you’ll never get all, but some -- would gladly take the opportunity to develop a richer experience, were it offered.  

From an educator’s perspective, anything that increases student engagement is helpful for its own sake, and learning can happen in activities as well as classes.  From an administrator’s perspective, engaged students are likelier to stick around and finish their degrees.  From a student’s perspective, activities can make the whole experience more satisfying and enriching.  It’s just a matter of getting there from here.

Wise and worldly readers, has anyone cracked this case?  I know I’ve raised the issue before, but in internet time, that was ages ago.  I’m hoping someone has had a breakthrough since then!