I’ve never met the students I work with on a daily basis. I don’t know what they look like, where they live, or what they’re involved in outside the classroom. I try to picture their faces, but I can’t. Until this past July, the idea of ‘not knowing my students’ seemed foreign.
I considered myself an engaged student affairs professional. I had an open-door policy and encouraged drop-in visits. To get face-to-face time with my students, I attended campus events. In order to learn more about them as ‘whole people,’ I made a point to chat casually with students. But a few months ago, I decided to take a career risk and entered a whole new world of student support.
I am now a member of a growing Office of Distance Education at my university. This office works exclusively with students in online degree programs. I’ve never met any of my students face-to- face. There are no common sporting or community events for me to attend and share enthusiasm for our program. Communicating by email can seem cold and impersonal. Email occasionally leads to miscommunication and confusion. I don’t KNOW my students in nearly the same way. It’s been a challenge to figure out what do next!
I recognize, however, that the fact that my role exists is already an unusual step forward in engaging distance education students. In many (I’d argue most) online education programs, the majority of students never experience the wide array of student services offered by campus administrators and student affairs officers. They log in, do their school work, and then log out. How in the world could this behavior translate into a sense of community or engagement?! My job—my #sacareer quandary—is to find a way to bring student services online. I must help students get as many of the ‘outside the classroom’ learning opportunities as possible.
We’ve made several steps in what I consider to be the right direction:
Student support coordinators serve as one-stop- shops for student questions.
We have answers about the online platform and community and program resources outside the classroom. We offer opportunities for taking advantage of support structures at the larger (brick-and- mortar) institution.
New Student Orientations provide both asynchronous and synchronous opportunities to learn about the program and the learning management system.
Recently, I held my first live webinar for new students during Orientation. Almost immediately, I noticed a difference in the way students interacted with me. They’d seen my face and heard my voice (and terrible jokes). They began talking to me like they were engaging with a human, rather than sending emails into the void.
Live lectures and discussions within the class.
While more of an academic engagement piece, the sessions allow students to begin spending time with one another and their faculty. Students who get to know each other personally are more likely to feel involved and to persist in the program. Video chats are a great option when you can get the timing to line up. (But if you can’t do video—using photo avatars and spending significant time on discussion board introductions can help bridge the gap).
Engagement of online students is still a work in progress. I admit that I sorely miss the casual and face-to- face interactions with my students. But there’s something gratifying in knowing that I’m helping students who may not have otherwise been able to make continuing education work. I don’t know if the career move will stick, but I’m having quite the adventure exploring the world wide web of distance ed!
September takes a student-centered focus, with writers sharing inspirational ideas, programs, and resources on how to best serve our student populations.
This post is part of our #SACareer series, addressing careers in student affairs, careers outside of student affairs, and the work of career services professionals. Read more about the series in Jake Nelko’s intro post. Each post is a contribution by a member or friend of the Commission for Career Services from ACPA. Our organization exists to benefit the careers of career services professionals, student affairs professionals, and anyone supporting students in the career endeavors. For more information about how to get involved with the Commission for Career Services or the #SACareer blog series, contact Cristina Lawson at firstname.lastname@example.org.