I’ve been thinking quite a bit about engagement over the last few months… engaging distance students in learning, yes, and also engaging them in the greater learning community of Oregon State University.
I’ve got a lot rattling around in my head, and if you spend too much time with me, I’ll drag you into the conversation, too. Lately, in meetings with Ecampus– from student support to course design to administrative folks – we’re discussing ‘what now?’ and ‘what’s next?’ Working with the Academic Success Center, I’ve been developing the success strategies and engagement goals for the orientation course I’m developing. And anchored in Career Services, I am working to make our campus-based events and resources accessible online. You see, I’m pretty interested in how each of us has the opportunity to engage the distance learner at OSU. I am curious how others at OSU and other institutions are already meeting the need in innovative ways and where the potential exists to do more.
It used to be that the weight of taking online courses, whether for professional development or to complete a degree rested overwhelmingly on the student’s shoulders alone. The student needed to muddle through the details and jump through the hoops without much support. But technology and global sophistication offer us the chance to connect, to increase access, and to bring the campus to a larger population in engaging ways. What was once luxurious in education is now indispensable. Designing courses that encourage community building has become essential. And to connect with our students, it is important to understand who they are.
What did The Voice say, “if you build it, they will come”?
We did and they have – and “they”, as it turns out, are an increasing and changing population. Until recently we had a pretty clear picture of the distance learner: a non-traditional student, most likely female, most likely in her mid-30’s completing an unfinished degree or changing careers, and most likely juggling the responsibilities of a family and job. But the numbers are shifting: last year at OSU:
- nearly 100,000 credit hours were delivered online (that’s up 21% from the previous year which was up 28% from the year before that)…
- nearly 10,000 students took at least one Ecampus course…
- and nearly 60% of campus-bound students took online classes
The gender gap is closing. The average age is lowering. “Traditional” on-site students are beginning take on less-traditional roles, and they are turning to online courses as a viable alternative.
In distance education, it seems the classroom continues to be the common denominator for the changing population. As instructors we have to enlist the best practices of both pedagogy and technology to create an environment where best learning can occur.
But what about communication… can interaction between students / between teacher and student be any good online? My experience says it can be better than in traditional classrooms. Can technology help engage rather than add a layer of anonymity or frustration? My experience so far, with toes just dipped in the water, says it can make all the difference.
And there is a lot to learn from the way we work with on campus students: How can mentoring programs work with distance students? What about opportunities from a distance to participate in research and campus events? Can student involvement extend to distance students? Internships… how can we better support students who are seeking internships in their communities and help them unpack their experiences in a way that enhances their education?
Success in the classroom, whether on-site or online, depends on creating access, engaging the learner in meaningful ways, and connecting their learning to real meaning. When our instruction is at its best, I expect the impact goes beyond the classroom. We can begin to engage students in our classes, and then without even breathing too hard, I believe that very soon our students will demand more and we will demand more of ourselves.
I warned you about spending too much time with me, so if you got this far… thank you for hanging in there.