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Can We Bridge the Schism? Online Learners and Student Affairs
March 5, 2013 - 10:25pm

Student affairs professional association conference session topics are generally a direct reflection of practitioners in the field. Sessions at conferences span a wide array of functional areas, emerging trends, and competency-based tracks. However, there seems to be a trend at these events of favoring a certain demographic of student when it comes to session conversations. The default "student" is almost always an on-campus learner. Online learners are rarely included in session discussions. And, it's no one's fault really. Our graduate programs attract professionals who usually want to work with students in a face-to-face environment. Then, those same practitioners end up delivering sessions about their experiences at their campus. There are the occasional sessions that relate to how student affairs can support online learners. However, it's rare to see a session on student affairs and online learners being delivered by representatives from a predominantly web-based program…especially from professionals in the for-profit sector.

For student affairs, perhaps there isn't a digital canary in the coal mine that can provide insight into our future. Maybe, it's the absence of a complete snapshot of the higher education sphere that is our issue indicator. How many presentations are submitted, accepted, and given at ACPA or NASPA events from reps at schools like Southern New Hampshire University, University of Phoenix, or Capella University? At this year's ACPA Annual Convention, a practitioner from the University of Phoenix spoke about student affairs work from her for-profit perspective. Her comments had a "there's what we do and there's what you do" vibe to them. And, there's nothing wrong with that. It's just that we (and I come from this camp too) are not engaging with all students.

Student affairs work (and the professional positions that engage with online learners) at schools like the University of Phoenix is noticeably different. Things are structured differently. It's like a parallel universe. And, as this schism seemingly gets wider and wider, I wonder if we're going to have a harder time of playing professional catch-up in the near future? I mean, it's really difficult to push things forward when there are sessions in 2013 that talk about "the emerging presence of online learners." Really? Yes, I didn't make this up. Brick-and-mortar student affairs, or maybe it's "classic student affairs," has got to stop being frozen in time when it comes to online learners. There are thousands and thousands of online learners. Is this like when people still talk about Facebook like it's a fad even though the site has been around for 9 years?

So, how can we bridge this schism? Well, I think there should be an increase in the number of invited sessions from reps from online programs. Student affairs practitioners in those digital trenches need to be well-represented at NASPA and ACPA conferences. Additionally, our graduate preparation programs should require courses on supporting online students. We can't prepare practitioners of the future if we're only teaching them the techniques of yesteryear.

 

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