Student Engagement: A Closer Look at Online Students

Student Engagement: A Closer Look at Online Students

Paul Shepherd

Paul Shepherd, Director of Student Involvement, University of Wisconsin - River Falls

Throughout this past semester in this series, I have attempted to provide insight and ideas to inspire practices that could enhance engagement among students who commute to campus and returning adult students. These student populations are growing throughout the United States and thinking critically about how we as student affairs professionals can more intentionally engage with students who commute and return to college is an important part of fostering a culture of inclusion and success. The final student population I would like to address is another growing population throughout the nation – students who are learning online.

My interest in this area was inspired by a Twitter conversation I had a couple of years ago. I was prompted to join this conversation (instead of just lurk around it) because a participant asked a great question that got me thinking. The question was “is student affairs prepared to actively engage with online learners?” Many in the conversation weren’t sure and some felt strongly that our profession was not at all prepared to engage online students. I remember my initial reaction being that if we aren’t, we need to be proactive in generating creative ideas that lead to more inclusion of online learners.

According to a 2014 National Center for Education Statistics report, 26% of students in the U.S. are enrolled in some type of online education experience. Perhaps giving some insight into the future, a study published in 2015 found 71% of higher education leaders stated online education is critical to their institution’s long term success. Online education is an exciting avenue making education more accessible to student populations that may struggle to access traditional higher education.

Similar to how academic programs have made learning more accessible through online education, we as student affairs professionals should make student engagement opportunities more accessible to students learning online so they can experience the benefits that come with active engagement in application of learning.

So, what are some things we can do? I have three suggestions that hopefully prompt some additional thinking and dialogue about how existing programs can be changed and how new programs can be designed to be more accessible to students learning online.

1. Get comfortable with social media and think of ways to use it creatively

Many of us may have had some positive and not so positive experiences with social media “discussions,” but I believe social media can be used as a powerful tool to bring people together. Within the student affairs social media community there is a lot of content pushed out on a daily basis that can be overwhelming for many (hopefully I’m not alone here…). Perhaps one idea for online learners is to follow the model of the #sachat moderated discussions that occur via Twitter. A moderator could be chosen and there could be three or four questions distributed in advance to potential participants. A unique institution specific hashtag could be developed and a time determined if participants want to follow the discussion live. I think it is helpful for the moderator to ask participants to introduce themselves to create some community among the participants and then the discussion can unfold from there.

The Student Affairs Professionals Facebook group may be another model that could be followed by institutions to establish a place for online students to engage with students who are not taking online courses. The key to using Facebook as a discussion platform is to establish a structure and moderate the discussion so that online students can clearly understand how to engage in the discussions. Asking relevant questions to all student participants is critical and gaining feedback from a diverse representation of participants is also important to ensure the discussion is relevant and purposeful.

2. Utilize video chat and live streaming

Skype, Google Chat, or some other platform for video chat or live stream provides the opportunity to broadcast many of the current student engagement opportunities we offer on our campuses to an online audience. I’ve written in previous blog posts about our decision at my institution to forgo the traditional lecture series in favor of TED style events that include the option to record and/or steam live the event to a broader audience. We’ve experienced some success with this shift and are looking for ways to incorporate social media to make the online viewing experience more engaging and interactive.

A colleague of mine has used Google Chat to host workshops and small discussion groups about topics of interests with online students from around the country. My department is planning to host leadership and student organization based workshops for students next year and are thinking about how live stream technology or video chat could be used to enable online learners to join the conversation and participate.

3. Sharing life experiences

Student engagement can be a broad endeavor including activities and experiences beyond what the university offers. Students enrolled in online learning very likely have life experiences that define who they are and that have taught them many lessons that are applicable to success both in college and after graduation.

I still need to do my own thinking about how to make this happen, but I think it would be a great opportunity to think about how student affairs professionals could create a platform for online students to share life experiences they’ve had that are meaningful to them and share lessons they have learned from these experiences. The sharing of meaningful experiences and what we learned from them is what student engagement is all about. We create experiences and help students identify the meaning from the experience. Even for experiences we don’t create, we could use this platform as a meaning making tool for a wide variety of experiences. If someone figures out how to do that, let me know! I am sure it’s possible!

When thinking about the question “is student affairs prepared to actively engage with online learners?” we need to identify how our current practices may not align well with the needs of students taking classes online and how an unwillingness to adjust our practices constitutes barriers to the engagement and success of these students. In my view, thinking critically about our practices and how they can be changed to be more inclusive of online learners could foster a new audience for our work making student engagement relevant for a population that does not always feel included. I’m excited by the opportunity that exists for our creative and caring profession to identify and implement new creative ideas to increase the engagement online learners have with our institutions.

This post is part of a series on Student Engagement. Read all posts in this series, here.

And for more ideas for how to meaningfully engage with online students, download Learn Forward's eBook here.

About the Author: Paul Shepherd currently serves as the Director of Student Involvement at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls where he is responsible for a diverse array of student engagement opportunities including leadership, student organizations, service/volunteerism, student governance, and campus events. Paul has served the student affairs profession for 13 years and is passionate about student learning and development through intentional co-curricular programming. Paul is currently pursuing a Doctor of Educational Leadership degree and is interested in researching student engagement and persistence to graduation among multicultural, first generation, and low income college students. Paul has served as a presenter, consultant, and speaker in the areas of leadership development, student engagement, bystander intervention, and learning outcomes based assessment. In his spare time, Paul enjoys spending time with his family and blogging at Renewing Leadership. Paul also loves engaging with colleagues and students via Twitter! Follow Paul @pshepRF.

Paul Shepherd

Paul Shepherd, Director of Student Involvement, University of Wisconsin - River Falls