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Online Education - The Forgotten Frontier in Student Affairs

Are SA pros supporting not just campus-based students, but the ever-rising tides of online learners?

March 28, 2019
 
 

“Many people in higher education still treat online education as if it's a new phenomenon, even though some colleges and universities have been doing it for decades.”

When I read the first sentence in a recent Inside Higher Ed article on ‘Increasing Understanding of Online Learning’ my first thought was literally “Are we still dealing with this?”.

How, after years and years of online learning programs/degrees and millions of online learners (e.g. there are 30,000 online students just at ASU!) are we still having this conversation about online education? It's not a new phenomenon. It's not an emerging trend. It's not the future. It's just tiring how online learning continues to be framed as a fringe activity.

And, I've written several posts about this topic: Are We Ready To Support Online Learners? | Relentlessly Reinventing Student Affairs | Supporting Online Students: New Paradigms for an Evolving Profession | Can We Bridge the Schism? Online Learners and Student Affairs

According to an article in EDUCAUSE from 2018 titled “Online Student Services: What, Where, Who, When, How, and Most Importantly, Why” there are “over 6 million students are taking online courses each year” and about half of those students are experiencing higher education solely via distance or online-based programs:

“While many colleges and universities are offering online student services to support their online learners, the types and levels of support vary widely. Accrediting bodies have been concerned with student services for online students for some time, and a very simple tenet to follow is that whatever student services are offered for on-campus students should be offered in an equitable fashion for online students.”

Of course my next thought was to ponder whether or not there's been any progress on one of my frequent topics on this blog: Student Affairs and Online Learners.

Specifically, are SAHE (Student Affairs in Higher Education) masters programs blended? In other words, are SA pros getting prepared in their masters-level degrees for supporting not just campus-based students, but the ever-rising tides of online learners? Because there are a lot of online students and they rightly deserve the same levels of attention and scholarship within the student affairs profession as their brick-and-mortar-based peers. Or at least that's what seems logical to me...especially given the the role of student affairs in the bigger picture of higher education.

Maybe it's time for a Learning Reconsidered 3.0...taking the role of the student affairs professional into the digital learning sphere in an even more intentional and transformational way? (Learning Reconsidered [PDF] was a landmark document that “argues for the integration of all higher education's resources in the education and preparation of the whole student.”)

According to ACPA's website, there are more than 100 student affairs graduate programs. Do any of them have a focus on supporting the online learner that is as in depth as the plethora of material that's focused on the on-campus student? In some ways, the student affairs profession has blatantly chosen to ignore online learners. Most SAHE masters programs are nearly 100% focused on campus-based learners. From a social justice perspective, this runs completely counter to the ethos that runs throughout the fabric of such a student-focused profession.

Online learners need support with a variety of traditionally recognized student affairs functional areas including financial aid, admissions, career services, orientation, wellness, mental health, advising, digital literacy, leadership, student organizations, etc. And, it's not as if it's about a direct transfer of campus-based programs/initiatives into digital spaces. It's a fundamentally different mode of engagement where face-to-face communication takes a backseat to digital engagement environments.

Clearly this issue is on the radar of higher education leaders. In December of last year, NASPA's Kevin Kruger and Dave Jarrat of InsideTrack collaborated on an article in Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. “Student Affairs Goes Digital: Translating Student Support to the World of Online Learning was in many ways a clarion call for student affairs professionals and the graduate prep programs that support the profession.

Speaking of clarion calls, if a university or college is offering an online-only student affairs masters program, then it is absolutely a must that they feature (and not as an optional extra) a course on supporting online learners. I can't believe the number of SA online grad programs that completely ignore this blatantly obvious connection.

Thankfully, there are some shining examples of brick-and-mortar-based student affairs departments that are working with their institution's online learning programs. For example, at Oregon State University's 23,000+ student Ecampus, the importance of online learners and mental health was addressed by way of a collaborative project between the university's counseling service and the Student Care Team. The initiative resulted in an online “resilience toolbox.”

Fortunately, the toolkit for today's student affairs practitioner is just as high-tech, high-touch as one would expect. For example, chatbots represent tangible (and current) options for supporting not only online learners, but all students at an institution. And, the ubiquity of social media for engagement and learning means that student support is generally just an app, email/message, or Zoom call away.

And, let's not forget that the real fringe stuff, the actual emerging technologies are only just starting to gain some momentum. Who knows, in a few years, student affairs practitioners might be facilitating orientation programs using MagicLeap headsets in an augmented reality environment.

Lastly, distance education enrollments continue to increase. The number of online learners is growing each year. This isn't a new, distant frontier that the student affairs profession can continue to ignore. Online learners are here. They are present at countless universities/colleges and they matter just as much as any other student.

 

 

 

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