Online distance education has become a popular phrase in the 21st Century. Many universities and colleges are choosing to venture into the cyber campus market. These efforts provide many benefits to the school and to the distance learner, however some challenges need to be overcome, also. As a Student Life professional, I am concerned about how the role of Student Affairs will evolve to fit online learning. How do you encourage people to build relationships online? How will Student Affairs protect the best interests of the student as traditional university courses are redesigned into an information system focussed world? The purpose of this paper is to determine the benefits and difficulties in online higher education learning and to examine the role of Student Affairs in virtual education.
The transformation of higher education is occurring through the ability that universities have to offer online classes. "Since the Gutenberg Bible was printed in 1456 using movable type, the technology of information storage, retrieval, and transmission&endash;colleges and universitys basic technology&endash;has remained essentially constant. Indeed, the use of written records to supplement oral teaching goes back to the fifth century B.C. Since their inception, universities and colleges have relied upon lectures, discussions and the written word because these were the only technologies available," (Oblinger, 2000). Online higher education has transformed the implementation of higher education and improved the benefits for the learner and the teacher. Technology is affecting the structure of the classroom in a way that it never has before.
An innovative information technology idea that has helped virtual education is the MOO. Multi-user domains (MUD) allow multiple users to participate and interact online. Thorne and Yoes define a MOO as a multi-user domain, object oriented. "MOOs are Internet-accessible, text-mediated virtual environments well suited for distance learning. MOOs offer every participant the opportunity to construct spaces and objects and to write code that in some way augments or increases the functionality with these virtual spaces," (Thorne & Yoes). Because the teacher is not the focus or the controller of the conversation, the online learner benefits from a wider number of interactional possibilities.
"One of the challenges to higher education will be to identify those transactions where humans are in the middle as opposed to those in which they add value," (Oblinger, 1998). Many student inquiries for information can be handled by an information system, such as financial aid or registering for classes. Course registration and tuition bill payments can be easily streamlined through the use of information systems. However, other areas will require human intervention, such as answering individual questions and providing student support.
Students are becoming more selective consumers. They expect higher levels of customer services than ever before because they have grown up in the electronic age where everything is instantaneous. This generation has never known life without the internet. A computer is seen as a necessity, in line with a paper and pen. Competition in higher education has reached new limits, now that online learning is available. Students can select from a variety of providers and many times they will select the university that provides the most convenient method of studying, rather than the best quality of education (Oblinger, 1998). This ability to choose can be a real danger to the quality of higher education.
Accreditation and quality assurance are two issues that cyber universities will have to address very shortly. Currently, anyone can post anything on the internet. Assuring that there is a standard to adhere to, which addresses the quality of education, is critical to the future of cyber universities.
With an increasing interest in lifelong learning, more non-traditional students are returning to school. This influx will increase competition, enrolment capacities and course offerings among universities. As we continue throughout time, we will live longer, which will mean we will possibly work longer and therefore we will have more careers, which will require more training. "With estimates that the typical citizen will need the equivalent of thirty semester credits of coursework each ten years to keep up with the changes that are coming, entrepreneurs see opportunities for large profits," (Dunn 2000).
Universities will need to be on the cutting edge of providing desired training opportunities. Virtual universities will allow educational providers to expand beyond their geographical limitations. "For virtual universities, the trick will be to tread carefully through the transition era, not getting too far ahead of the pack, but still leading the way to a new educational world," (Thrall 1999).
Asynchronous learning can be defined as "Lack of temporal concurrence; absence of synchronism," (American Heritage Dictionary, 1992). This type of learning happens anytime and anywhere, as opposed to synchronous learning, where people are together at the same place and the same time. This word has been created to explain how online learning occurs. This style of instruction, where the professor and the students do not need to be at the same place at the same time is the essence of online higher education. This is the main benefit to the student and the professor. In a wireless world, professors are able to give out assignments and lectures at any time from anywhere, and students are able to access this information at any time from anywhere.
Choosing to participate in online higher education allows the student to choose when and where they will study. They can study at any hour of the day. A learning environment is provided twenty-four hours a day, which allows the student to maintain a job and family time without requiring them to participate in a structured classroom at another location. The flexibility of studying whenever they choose is very attractive to students who dont want to quit their full-time job, but wish to pursue higher education.
Students are not excluded from participating in a scholastic program in another country, even though they do not geographically live there. This accessibility is very attractive to some students. Students in many smaller northern communities in Canada do not have access to a traditional university education. Through asynchronous learning, these students can benefit from established universities in large cities, without having to relocate.
Student online discussions can provide benefits for quieter students. "The benefit of this online discussion forum, of course, is that the filter of the online environment allows the 'wallflower' student to become involved in direct discussion without the traditional public speaking barriers surfacing," (Dempf et al. 2000). Students who are better written communicators will be able to share their ideas with the group and feel heard, as compared to the classroom setting where they may be intimidated to share their ideas. This context should lessen the anxiety that some students feel about speaking up in the classroom setting.
For universities, offering online higher education is attractive because of the financial savings that are created from not having to build residences or class space. Without having to offer extra curricular opportunities, staff requirements are pared down. This savings is very attractive but may not be in the best interests of the student, however.
Cyber campuses can offer many struggles to individuals. Students will experience frustration at times that will be different from the challenges they face today.
"An aspect of learning that Internet-based courses may impact substantially is student involvement and participation. Although student involvement and participation are important in all media of education delivery, they have been noted to be particularly crucial and challenging in studies of various distance education formats, " (Arbaugh, 2000).
Online chat discussions may make communication more difficult, because of the one-dimensional method of typing on your computer. Students may be lost and unsure of the discussion flow and not want to seem ignorant, and ask a, "Where are we?" question, that they could easily move over to their classmate and ask in a regular classroom. Another difficulty I have personally experienced is the repetition of comments in an online chat room. I have been discouraged from posting my comments because as Ive typed them in, someone else has mentioned them before I press Return. I will delete my comments, rather than repeat them to the group. These frustrations are not easily measured or apparent to the instructor of the class.
Technological difficulties may cause students to get behind in their work. For instance, during an online chat session in one of my classes, a participant was travelling. He had a difficult time joining us from his remote location, and never was able to be part of that chat session. This was unfortunate, and very frustrating for him. Other students computers crashed or froze in the middle of our online discussion. This experience was a very disappointing for the students.
The cost of doing business from other countries may make distance learning unrealistic for some. In North America, internet service prices are competitive and accessible. Overseas, some countries are not up to speed. Conducting online research, and having chat discussions may push individual costs far above realistic expectations.
Students may also have difficulty keeping up with the cost of the required software or other home computer requirements. "A leading computer expert estimates that todays state-of-the-art desktop computer will be obsolete within two years; for laptops, obsolescence comes within nine months," (Kruger, Upcraft and Terenzini). This could cause a rather expensive upgrade in the middle of ones education. A typical university degree takes four years to complete. This cost must be added to the cost of the students education and be included in the up front costs.
Privacy has become a huge issue on the web. How will student identities be proven through online education? To verify participation, students may need to receive tests in a supervised forum in their hometown, which would decrease the benefit of asynchronous learning. Universities must protect the identity of their students, through passwords, the intranet and firewalls. This will allow only users with privileges to access the classroom information.
Students in online higher education courses have a lower retention rate. In its February 11, 2000, issue, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that surveys of college administrators indicated that "course-completion rates are often 10 to 20 percentage points higher in traditional courses than in distance offerings," with dropout rates in some instances over 50 percent (Carr, 2000). This finding shows that the difficulties may be larger than university administrators are aware of, and that there is a role that Student Affairs should play in supporting the needs of the student.
As distance learning becomes more popular, Student Affairs professionals will need to change the way they deliver their services. Student Affairs has historically been a critical aspect to providing students with a successful learning experience and has always "been concerned with the development of the whole student &emdash; both the cognitive and affective dimensions," (Kruger, Upcraft & Terenzini). In the literature I have read, online higher education has been curriculum-driven, based upon the classes that are offered and selected, rather than experience-driven and viewed as holistic education.
In asynchronous learning, there can be a lot of danger in the end result, or education that is provided to the student, as opposed to synchronous learning. If receiving a university education is merely completing courses and receiving a degree, why do thousands of universities invest in Student Affairs? "Through student-centered education, student affairs professionals help to build educated and informed citizens. They structure the peer group environment, enrich the campus culture, elevate the conversation about issues of rights and responsibilities, hold students accountable for their behavior, nurture the emergence of leadership, mentor less confident students in meeting their highest challenges, and construct opportunities that allow students to experience elements of life that empower them with self-knowledge. Absent these experiences, students have something less than a college education," (Blimling). Student Affairs must adapt and change for the benefit of the students education, and online higher education learning experience.
One would never imagine offering university without classes, however, it can be imagined offering university without relationship building or student services. As administration tries to increase their profit margin, this tactic may be a temptation, but it is not best for the student. Student Affairs can offer support services, as students may need more support because they are isolated from their classmates. Value-added education could only be offered through providing students with appropriate support, which could possibly be extensions of what is currently offered on campus.
"Many Student Affairs practitioners, along with their faculty colleagues, are concerned about what they fear may be a loss of socialization function associated with college attendance with distance learning students on a cyber campus," (NASPA, Distance Learning Task Force, 2000). There is concern that it is not possible to educate students to be better citizens through a cyber campus. At university, Student Affairs provides students with opportunities to volunteer their time, and develop leadership and other interpersonal skills that can only be taught through experience. This skill development venue may be lost, if an innovative way for Student Affairs to be involved in a cyber campus is not developed. I believe that it is possible to encourage this skill development, however it will take a great deal of effort and intentional contact and I am not sure that the synchronous learning experience can be replicated online.
Relationship building will become easier as technology advances, through the use of visual aides. When we are able to see each other on the screen in our online connection, we will be able to use other senses, read body languages, and hear nuances of conversation that we are not able to identify today. The experience will be like talking face-to-face with another student. Maybe this approach will be able to be adapted to the classroom situation, where small parts of the class meet together with the professor and each other.
Student Affairs staff can bring people together for social functions. Ideally, there would be opportunities in online higher education for students to meet each other face-to-face. At these occasions Student Affairs staff could facilitate social interaction and connection.
Another way that Student Affairs can facilitate the building of community online will be through creating Student Centres. An example of this process can be found at www.studentcenter.org/. This web site is making an effort to connect students world wide. The site is defined as "a web community for students; particularly college students, high school students and teenagers." I think that students would respond to this type of site, if it gave them an opportunity to interact with students who were attending the same virtual university.
This type of web site could provide many services, such as an intranet where the student newspaper was posted or where one could find chat rooms to discuss things. This is where you could post student home pages, (as done by Gallaudet University), and e-mail directories. By providing interactive icons at this site, you will encourage students to return and participate. Sponsorship could assist in generating revenue, and in giving away student freebies. Advertisers will spend a great deal of money to influence the buying habits of the traditional student.
Student leadership opportunities can play a strong role in encouraging interaction at a cyber campus. Students respond best to peer assistance. They go to their friends for help. Student Affairs can train and guide these student leaders. I can see student leaders being the co-ordinators of small groups of students, similar to a resident assistant. They would assist in a students transition to online higher education, be available for questions, and encourage social interaction online. They can help facilitate the social part of a students education outside of the classroom.
Student Affairs could help students transition to a cyber campus. They could help students get to know each other through online games and orientation activities. At SchMOOze university, (Hara & Kling, 2000), staff facilitate a university tour for students to interact and become accustomed to the learning environment. This task was done using MOO technology. Learning assistance, study skills, online technical support, could all be roles that Student Affairs could fill. Or, students could ask a question online, and have Student Affairs professionals answer their question in a mini chat room. Students could pose the question, get put on a wait list, with a dialogue box reporting how many students are in front of them, and when their question is answered, they can have a conversation with a Student Affairs staff member.
By assessing the type of students who take online courses, support needs would be determined. Student Affairs practitioners can assist with student needs assessment. By being involved at the grass roots of determining the problem, they will be better able to determine the solutions.
The online learner will require new services including immediate technical support, chat room access, bulletin boards savvy and web research techniques. As an online learner, I have been frustrated with technological problems. Todays student will demand an immediate response, rather than the delayed response associated with e-mail. Student leaders can encourage relationship development through the use of chat rooms. Students will be taught and encouraged to set up their own personalized home pages that will introduce them to the students in their classes.
Traditional aged students may not have difficulty adapting to the online virtual interactions, as they have grown up in the electronic age. They learned to use the computer at a very young age, they are familiar with online chat rooms, and building relationships through the internet. However, with these students, student retention will become a larger issue. It will be more difficult to retain students who may not have any personal investment or pride in their cyber university. Students are retained by the quality of education they receive and also by the value-added (Student Affairs) components. Personal pride comes from connection to the institution and to other people. This feeling will be more difficult to create through a cyber campus. There will be no institution loyalty. People will take courses from a variety of institutions, and have a patchwork degree. If, as Student Affairs professionals, we can understand our student profile and assess their needs, we may be able to retain the students longer.
Student Affairs will need to adjust to the loss of time and space dedicated to its activities. The venue is no longer our choice, its now the students choice. "The institution controlled where those interactions took place and when: application, admission, registration, orientation, academic advising, instruction, faculty office hours, formal out-of-class interventions by student affairs professionals&endash;all took place at scheduled times. And the schedule was controlled by representatives of the institution," (Kruger, Upcraft and Terenzini).
In online learning, Student Affairs will need to partner with community services located near the students, and assist the students in finding the information they need, (See Appendix C, bottom of the page, Kentucky Resource Directory). Students will need to know how to access counselling information, local recreation services, housing, transportation in their local area, and Student Affairs may be able to assist in this. As Student Affairs professionals we will have to be strategic in helping students access locally the information that Student Affairs formerly provided at the university venue.
Equity of access becomes an issue that Student Affairs can address. Economically disadvantaged students must be provided for. Student technological support must be accessible. Someone needs to be an advocate for the needs of students and somehow we must ensure that everyone is able to participate in online higher education.
Discipline will take on a new look. Student Affairs professionals will deal with computer hackers, online harassment and plagiarism and/or misrepresentation. How will we ensure that students are not getting someone else to complete assignments and claiming they are completing them? Computer professionals will need the proper level of expertise in order to catch the perpetrators and policies will need to be developed and enforced. Dealing with online harassment will be challenging. Verifying that a student is actually completing his/her work will become increasingly challenging without any formal testing or proof of identity.
In analyzing the opportunities that technology will provide to expand higher education, we must remember that technology has limitations on what it can accomplish (Oblinger, 1998), humans do not. We must not lose sight of the need for human interaction in the socialization of our graduates. The university education a student receives through synchronous learning is comprised of a variety of shared experiences. In online education there is only one shared experience, typing on a computer. The value of multiple shared experiences should not be seen as inconsequential.
I believe that virtual universities have a role for non-traditional or graduate students, but that there is a real danger in educating traditional undergraduate students through this means. Graduate students have generally spent time in the work force, and have matured and grown, unlike traditional students who are just learning what it means to become an adult. I think that there is value in spending time away from home in a residence, adjusting to having a roommate and being with students who have similar interests and dreams. This experience cannot be replicated.
The best means of education will be provided through a combination of technology and socialization through on-site classroom facilitation. The NASPA Distance Learning Task Force has identified the fact that there currently are elements of the learning process that cannot be replicated through technology or distance delivery. Because of this, the curriculum and the quality of personal interaction and human connectedness must not be forgotten as we move into the world of online education.
As home schooling becomes more popular, and virtual higher education spreads into the secondary school classroom, we must ask ourselves are we compromising education for convenience and increased profit?
TWU should protect the socialization and Student Affairs experience that the current student benefits from, so that they can develop the whole student, not only the students intellect. University mission fulfilment cannot be accomplished through a university experience that is only online. Godly Christian leaders, must be developed holistically, and through online education, the university would not be able to address the student socially, physically, emotionally or spiritually. If we want to best prepare our students for the market place we must strengthen their characters through team work, interpersonal skills and leadership skill development. The end product of the educated Trinity Western University student should not be compromised. We are currently producing quality graduates who have experienced a Trinity Western University education, and the quality of education these students have received is proven, unlike the quality of a graduate who has been educated solely through an online education program.
As cyber campuses continue to develop, Student Affairs professionals must be involved in the grass roots creation of any virtual university. Unfortunately, many cyber campuses already exist without a Student Affairs component. Student Affairs should continue to research about how to provide its services online. Virtual universities will continue to increase, so therefore, Student Affairs must find innovative ways to connect people online. I believe that virtual universities will continue to expand and improve, but until technology allows the full duplication of the synchronous university experience, traditional universities will produce the more marketable product of a fully educated student.
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