The Journal of Technology in Student Affairs
In this issue, we have the top student paper from our recent contest for graduate student authors. Kevin Valliere’s paper is published without any editing. We also have articles from Will Barratt and Brian Zuel, Adam Peck, and Peggy Holzweiss.
Gary D. Malaney
Kevin Valliere looks at the history of technology use in student affairs and advocates for technology education in our preparation programs in A Guide for Integrating Technology in Student Affairs Master’s Programs.
In Social Justice and Software, Will Barratt and Brian Zuel discuss how the selection of software and operating systems for campuses has implications for social justice.
Adam Peck writes about students’ use of reflective judgment and critical thinking in Overcoming the Digital Dilemma: Developing and Measuring Critical Thinking Gained through Cocurricular Eperiences in a Time of Information Overload.
In Serving Distance Education Students through a Community Website, Peggy C. Holzweiss looks at how students in an on-line master’s program use a website set up for their community.
Residence Director, St. John's University
Texas A&M University
Drawing upon the ideas of researchers, writers, and practitioners, this paper advocates for a framework of technology education to be integrated in student affairs preparatory programs. It examines the historical relationship between technology and student affairs beginning in the 1960s and then moves into contemporary thoughts and practices. It then discusses the lack of guidance on technology from the field’s leading professional organizations and explores both theoretical and utilitarian approaches to technology education that can be found in existing technology courses in master’s programs. Ultimately, it proposes five key components of technology education that can be integrated into student affairs preparatory programs as either a stand-alone course or as individual elements of existing courses: foundations of technology, digital identity, digital literacy, ethics and legal issues, and assessment.
On October 29, 1969, UCLA student Charlie Kline sent a simple message over a new network to an awaiting computer at the Stanford Research Institute (Savio, 2011). The text of the message was supposed to read, “login,” but due to a system failure the last three letters were cut off before reaching its intended destination. And lo, the first stable ARPANET link was born. That mundane five-character message served as the launching point for decades of technological evolution and advancement, ultimately leading to the creation of what people presently refer to as simply the Internet. Now, forty-five years later, professionals across the globe are still attempting to determine what this revolutionary technology has in store for a niche field: student affairs administration. In light of that ongoing discussion, this manuscript will examine current and historical thoughts on the role that technology plays in student affairs administration and its graduate preparation programs, and will posit a framework consisting of five key themes in technology education that are relevant for today’s graduate students.
Historical and Contemporary Thoughts on Technology in Student Affairs
In order to better understand the needs of student affairs master’s programs, it is worthwhile to first look at the role of technology in the profession of student affairs at large. To begin, this section will examine the historical relationship between technology and student affairs, then move into current practices and professional standards from student affairs’ leading organizations.
A Historical Look at Technology and Student Affairs
Although many may claim that the conversation surrounding technology in student affairs is a fairly recent one, this assertion would not be entirely accurate. As Kevin Guidry (2012) discovered while researching a presentation for the Association of College Personnel Administrators (ACPA) conference, the real beginning of this saga came from a 1975 article entitled “Dealing with the Computer” by J. R. Penn that acknowledged the need for student affairs professionals to begin to understand computers and the people who work with various technological components. In subsequent analysis, Guidry discussed the increased focus on treating technology as a professional competency through the 1980s, noting that several departments across the country had already begun work on developing their employees’ levels of technological literacy. Additionally, Guidry noted that the “tenor and intensity” of the conversation concerning technology had increased in the last several decades.
In previous research, Guidry went even further back to explore the more systematic utilization of technology within the field of student affairs (2008). Citing the early use of telephones by Indiana University in the 1940s and the adoption of campus radio programs in the same decade, Guidry argued that although institutions were not necessarily assessing the impact of technology on student affairs programs, many colleges and universities were still embracing technology’s potential to provide important services for students. He also pointed out several programs at various student affairs conferences in the 1960s that discussed the use of technology. The main gap, Guidry said, was in studying specifically how students used technology in a higher education setting, acknowledging the inconsistency in addressing the link between the two topics. Through the 1980s, interest in technology as a professional competency increased. A 1983 study of 350 student affairs departments across the country found that technological literacy was the second highest concern for senior administrators. Catherine McHugh Engstrom’s 1997 article on incorporating technology into student affairs programs demonstrates the increased focus on technology throughout the 1990s, especially concerning the advent of the Internet.
One recent example detailing the progression of the discussion on technology in student affairs was found in a 2004 case study competition featured on StudentAffairs.com, which helped to bring the issue more fully to the attention of graduate students. The case study asked its participants to design a 14-week course on technology in student affairs, taking into consideration the intricacies of working with several departments. It also required participants to examine the necessity of such a course for a generation of students that grew up utilizing “e-mail, IM, the Web” and other forms of technology (StudentAffairs.com, 2004). The winning team from Syracuse was consistent about utilizing technology within the structure of the class itself and included required readings on topics ranging from legal issues to the evolution of information technology in higher education. Barker, Hurber, Schult, & Turbeville, 2004). Although some of the specific practices included within the case study appear outdated by today’s standards, many of the core philosophies surrounding the use of technology are still relevant today and will be examined further in another section of this paper.
Though these few examples of technology in student affairs comprise only a small fraction of the many discussions that have taken place over the last several decades, it is still important to acknowledge the depth of the insight that Guidry’s articles provided for understanding the historical relationship between technology and student affairs. Guidry’s 2008 article is, by a large margin, the most thorough examination of the historical relationship between technology and student affairs; if there are similar articles available they lack the breadth or depth of Guidry’s approach. The next section will move from this historical relationship into the present, examining some current practices and professional discussions that surround the integration of technology into student affairs.
Current Uses and Professional Standards
As it stands today, technology plays an immense role in the operation of student affairs. Offices such as financial aid and residence life largely rely on technology for day-to-day practices, and would be severely diminished without access. Many online databases and software programs on campuses across the country are developed specifically with student affairs in mind (e.g. Maxient for student conduct), and increase the ease with which student affairs practitioners handle confidential or otherwise cluttered information in the digital age. For many professionals these programs are essential tools for day-to-day success. Technologies like phone service, copiers, and the Internet have been around long enough that they are not, as the famous Arthur C. Clarke (1962) quote goes, so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic.
Although these commonplace technological tools are well understood in today’s student affairs environment, more recent advancements such as social media have created an entirely new discourse about the appropriateness and proper use of technology in the profession. Josie Ahlquist (2014) has developed some incredible work on the topic of social media in student affairs, noting that there has been almost no research has been carried out on the intersection of student development and digital identity theories. Ahlquist also raised the concern that although most college students have grown up around technology, it is unwise to assume that all students have a sufficient level of digital literacy to operate at the standard that is often set by student affairs professionals. Echoing this concern, an article in the Journal of Educational Computing Research by Ahn (2011) found that Black students are more likely than White students to use social media, but Hispanic students are less likely than both to actively engage in conversation online. Student affairs professionals may not be aware of these divides in social media usage, potentially harming or favoring certain student groups over others.
Still, social media is just one cog in the vast, complex world of technology usage in student affairs. There are a wide variety of technologies with which student affairs professionals likely do not have ample experience. The increasing role of assessment in student affairs, for instance, relies heavily on the digital literacy of its practitioners. The question, then, is obvious: what are student affairs professionals using to guide their own integration of technology into their current jobs? Experienced administrators would likely turn to the standards of their professional groups; the next sections will examine the exclusion of technology within some of student affairs’ most notable organizations.
NASPA and ACPA Competencies
In 2010, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA) and ACPA released a joint document detailing a wide variety of competency areas for professionals, and included three levels of competency (basic, intermediate, advanced) for each specific area. This document included areas such as advising, assessment, leadership, and diversity (ACPA & NASPA, 2010). Technology, however, was not included as a specific competency area. Instead, ACPA and NASPA listed technology as a “thread,” and considered it to be “woven throughout” the competency areas, but not strong enough to acquire its own distinct category (p. 7). The other two threads were sustainability and globalism. The term technology is used only five times throughout the entire document and is not explained or defined at any point. The document also provided a way for concerned parties to suggest changes to the competency areas but, as of the writing of this paper, no changes had been made.
CAS General Standards
The Council for the Advancement of Standards’ (CAS) most recent list of twelve general standards for higher education institutions includes technology at number ten (CAS, 2012a). Among the CAS document’s charges is a call to have “adequate technology to support the achievement of their mission and goals” as well as to “facilitate student learning and development” (2012a, p. 13). The document also makes a point to address confidentiality, security, and accessibility as well as stating the importance of proper training and supervision. The larger book published by CAS (2012b), however, includes standards for 43 functional areas, among which technology is not included as an explicit functional area. So, although these general standards are much more complete than the NASPA and ACPA equivalent, they still leave much to be addressed by individual professionals.
Clearly, technology should be viewed as a ubiquitous tool in higher education and student affairs. Still, the profession’s leading organizations leave a dearth of information and guidance on best technological practices and considerations for professionals. If the profession’s largest organizations are lagging in providing guidance to existing professionals, it is important to explore what is being taught to graduate students in their role as the next generation of student affairs practitioners. In that light, the next section will examine some current examples of how technology is being integrated into student affairs master’s programs.
Technology in Student Affairs Master’s Programs
During the mid- to late-nineties, researchers in “New Directions for Student Services” were beginning to ask questions about the relevance of technology in student affairs graduate programs (Engstrom, 1997). At that point, less than half of the preparatory program professors surveyed required the use of email in the courses, and less than a third of them felt confident in their students’ abilities to use the “World Wide Web” (p. 60). Still, Engstrom recognized the potential impact of technology on student learning and was beginning to discuss its use in a pedagogical context. Interestingly, Engstrom used the term “MOOS” to describe what are now more commonly known as “MOOC”s (p. 61).
Throughout her 1997 article, Engstrom referred to the “pivotal role” of student affairs master’s programs in “raising the technological competence of the profession” (p. 68). In the decade and a half since that article’s publication, the importance of graduate preparation programs in advancing the field’s use of technology has become even more vital as senior administrators look to these programs to train the next generation of skilled practitioners. Using that context, the next section will examine current courses on technology in student affairs as well as leading thoughts on what these courses should contain.
Current Technology Courses in Master’s Programs
As it stands, available research (as well as general understanding) on the national standard for technology courses or education in master’s programs is scarce (Stoller, 2012). Sporadic evidence suggests that programs across the country are integrating technology in different ways – the two that will be examined shortly utilize a designated course for exploring technology, while others still rely on integrating technology throughout the entire master’s curriculum. Little to no research has been done on the efficacy of either of these approaches; therefore critical examinations of any graduate program’s use of technology will necessarily be limited.
In order to assist in creating a more thorough examination of the topic at hand, Josh Kohnert, a graduate student at Western Michigan University, and Dr. Danielle J. Alsandor, a professor at Louisiana State University, were kind enough to share the syllabi for their respective courses on technology in student affairs in their institution’s student affairs graduate programs. These courses represent two contrasting paradigms on technology education: theoretical and utilitarian.
The Theoretical Approach: Western Michigan University
This course’s syllabus is notable for its strict reliance on technology for virtually all parts of the course (J. Kohnert, personal communication, January 21, 2014). The document’s second page outlines hardware requirements as well as recommended software, and subsequent information details the use of Internet storage service Dropbox as the primary method for turning in assignments. None of these modes of technology usage are transformative in their own right, but it seems appropriate to combine them all for the purposes of a technology course. The document also details the structure and guidelines for online discussion boards as a major component of the grading process.
Later on, the syllabus is broken down into several specific modules that span the course of the semester (J. Kohnert, personal communication, January 21, 2014). The modules start with a general introduction to Web 2.0 technology and higher education, and then move through such topics as digital identity, digital leadership, online education, and ethical and legal issues. Although there are a few lessons on the use of specific tools, the majority of the syllabus deals with broader issues (i.e. foundations and function of technology). Particularly, the ethical issues module implies a more philosophical approach to technology usage than one in which the instructor is simply providing a how-to manual for certain tools. This focus on broader theory instead of specific technological tools is contrasted by the approach from Dr. Danielle J. Alsandor at LSU.
The Utilitarian Approach: Louisiana State University
Whereas the first courses relied solely on digital readings, this course requires two physical textbooks to guide the class: a social media/communication book, and the APA citation manual (D. Alsandor, personal communication, January 24, 2014). This course takes a more utilitarian approach to technology by having assignments revolve more around demonstrations, assessment, and current events than philosophical or ethical issues. For instance, one assignment calls for 20-minute group presentations on a specific technological tool, while another has students critically assessing a real department’s current use of technology in various aspects of their daily work. This course also features a course on ethics and technology, but tends to focus more on technology in specific contexts and functional areas within student affairs as opposed to broader questions of purpose.
These two approaches highlight the important discourse between theoretical and utilitarian ideology as it related to technology education in student affairs. With this information established, a new hypothetical framework for technology courses in graduate programs can be constructed.
A Proposed Approach to Technology in Master’s Programs
The key components of this framework are presented in such a way that they could be integrated either into a stand-alone course on technology in student affairs or, if resources are limiting, added piece-by-piece into courses throughout a graduate preparatory program’s existing curriculum. These potential courses will be explored after the discussion of the five key components.
This framework is also built on the theoretical angle as seen in WMU’s course. The theoretical approach provides a richer context with which future professionals can understand student use of technology. Since there is little to no research showing this method to be the superior structure, this assumption is based on two studies, both of which suggest that faculty and senior student affairs officers alike believe that new professionals are generally well prepared to use technology in the context of their profession (Dickerson, Hoffman, Anan, Brown, Vong, Bresciani, Monzon, & Oyler, 2011; Herdlein, 2004).
These articles suggest that it would be more worthwhile to focus on developing students into professionals are able to critically examine issues surrounding technology in student affairs. Though there is merit in preparing students with an exceptional level of digital literacy on technologies and social media, it is entirely possible that many of these platforms will be obsolete in a few years’ time. Presented below, then, are the five most crucial components of any course on technology in student affairs.
Foundations of Technology
As was discussed at the beginning of this article, the relationship between student affairs and technology spans many generations. For future professionals to be able to critically assess the state of their institution’s technology infrastructure and usage, they need to know what has historically worked and failed in the context of higher education. Further, it is crucial that students create a working definition of technology in student affairs, much in the same way that the Social Change Model creates a working definition of leadership for aspiring students. Studying the past and creating a solid foundation for understanding the future will help the next generation of professionals adapt to and assess the technology around them.
Josie Ahlquist’s blog post on digital student leadership is a must-read for this component. Little research has been done on digital identity development in students, but a thorough technology course will still address the intersection between what undergraduate students express online and the student development theories that master’s students should already be learning in a separate course. Ahlquist (2014) links digital student identity to a rough outline of the Social Change Model of Leadership Development, making a compelling case for ways in which professionals can utilize the obvious overlap between the two. An advanced course might even have graduate student begin studying the connections between development theory and digital identity.
One’s ability to utilize technology in an efficient manner, or digital literacy, is a concern not just of graduate students but also of undergraduate students. There is plenty of research available on the wide gaps of digital literacy in various student populations, such as Hargittai and Hinnant’s (2008) findings that women are less likely to claim to be knowledgeable about technological issues than men, and that students coming from higher socioeconomic statuses are more likely to be digitally literate.
Based on these findings, it is important for student affairs professionals to know how to use technology in a way that increases accessibility, not one that hinders it. If professionals are only using the technological platforms that help privileged students, they are missing out on a key component of the student affairs profession. Understanding the interplay of digital literacy and inequality can aid students in being advocates for social justice in their roles on campus, and can also put into context the many conversations on oppression that are facilitated through online discussions.
Ethical and Legal Issues
As seen in Jaschik’s (2013) Inside Higher Ed article, the line between public and private speech has been blurred by the introduction of social media. Thorough courses on technology will be sure to highlight landmark legal cases such as Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006), which explains why free speech does not apply when statements are made in the context of official responsibilities, and explore the intersection of free speech and social media as an employee of an institution. There is also plenty of room to discuss such issues as FERPA and Title IX in the context of social media and online communication. As these websites become more a part of society, future professionals will need to be able to navigate the fine line between legality and illegality when it comes to technological practices.
Finally, as many student affairs practitioners find themselves having to justify every dollar they spend, a practical discussion of assessment’s relationship with technology is vital. In contrast with the largely theoretical basis of the course’s main topics, a specific module on best assessment practices and tools would be exceptionally useful. Since both CAS (2012b) and ACPA and NASPA (2010) list assessment as a competency, there is no excuse for a new professional to lack the ability to utilize technology when performing assessment-related tasks. This module can overlap with pre-existing statistics or research methods course, but should focus primarily on free or paid tools with which student affairs practitioners can create formal and informal assessment.
As mentioned previously, these components can be built into an existing curriculum. As two examples, digital identity can be integrated into student development theory and technology history can be integrated into a course on the foundations of student affairs. Although these components only scratch the surface of what could potentially be taught in a technology course for a student affairs master’s program, they do still represent a base list of skills and ideas that numerous writers, researchers, and practitioners have found useful over the many decades that student affairs has utilized technology.
Obviously, there is still much to be said about the appropriate method of including technology education in student affairs master’s programs. There is minimal available research on the topic of technology in graduate programs, and the student affairs’ leading professional organizations are lagging behind in crating feasible guidelines by which practitioners can guide their technology usage. The profession of student affairs relies on its new professionals to bring their technological expertise to the table, and preparatory programs need to ensure that these professionals are doing so in a manner consistent with the overarching values of the field.
There is still research to be done on students’ digital identities and best practices in student affairs technology courses. However, once more data is available and critically analyzed, it will be easier to decide what the best approach for educating graduate students and student affairs practitioners should be in the future. Until then, it is imperative that the professionals and faculty involved in these programs continue to explore the necessity and relevance of technology in the modern field of student affairs. Passing their knowledge on to the next generation of practitioners will be essential for researchers of technology in student affairs to help their field gain significance. As the influence of technology on this profession and on college students everywhere increases, the knowledge of best technological practices and theories will become an even more integral part of every administrator’s repertoire.
ACPA, & NASPA. (2010). Professional competency areas for student affairs. Retrieved from http://www.naspa.org/programs/prodev/Professional_Competencies.pdf.
Ahlquist, J. (2014). What is a digital student leader? Retrieved from http://josieahlquist.com/2014/01/22/digitalstudentleader/.
Ahn, J. (2011). Digital divides and social network sites: which students participate in social media? Journal of Educational Computing Research, 45(2), p. 147-163.
Barker, R., Hurny, G., Schult, A. G., & Turbeville, J. (2004). High tech in higher ed: Syllabus for a course on technology in student affairs [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from http://studentaffairs.com/vcs/2004entries/SyracuseUniversity/SyracuseUniversity.ppt.
Clarke, A. C. (1962). Profile of the future: An inquiry into the limits of the possible. Orion Publishing Group.
Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education. (2012a). CAS general standards. Retrieved from http://www.cas.edu/index.php/cas-general-standards.
Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education. (2012b). CAS standards. Retrieved from http://www.cas.edu/index.php/standards.
Dickerson, A. M., Hoffman, J. L., Anan, B. P., Brown, K. F., Vong, L. K., Bresciani, M. J., Monzon, R., & Oyler, J. (2011). A comparison of senior student affairs officer and student affairs preparatory program faculty expectations of entry-level professionals’ competencies. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 48(4), 463–479.
Engstrom, C. M. (1997). Integrating information technology into student affairs graduate programs. New Directions for Student Services, 78, 59–69.
Gil Garcetti, et al., Petitioners v. Richard Ceballos. 547 U.S. 410. (2006). Retrieved from LexisNexis academic database.
Guidry, K. (2008). Exploding a myth: Student affairs’ historical relationship with technology. StudentAffairs.com Ejournal, 9(2). Retrieved from http://studentaffairs.com/ejournal/Summer_2008/ExplodingaMyth.html.
Guidry, K. (2012). When did student affairs begin discussing technology as a competency? Retrieved from http://mistakengoal.com/blog/2012/04/03/when-did-student-affairs-begin-discussing-technology-as-a-competency/.
Hargittai, E., & Hinnant, A. (2008). Digital inequality: Difference in young adults’ use of the Internet. Communications Research, 35(5), 602-621.
Herdlein III, R. J. (2004). Survey of chief student affairs officers regarding relevance of graduate preparation of new professionals. NASPA Journal, 42(1), 51-71.
Jaschik, S. (2013, December 19). Fireable tweets. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/12/19/kansas-regents-adopt-policy-when-social-media-use-can-get-faculty-fired.
Stoller, E. (2013). Student affairs graduate programs and technology. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/student-affairs-and-technology/student-affairs-graduate-programs-and-technology.
StudentAffairs.com. (2004). Case scenario for the virtual case study competition. Retrieved from http://studentaffairs.com/ejournal/Spring_2004/vcs-scenario.html.
Lotus Delta Coffman Distinguished Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Indiana State University
Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Media Technology
Indiana State University
Social justice is part of the main narrative in student affairs work. Social justice oriented programs and experiences are found in alternative spring break events, RA training, and a myriad other student affairs activities. Many campuses have a Chief Diversity Officer, which is evidence of institutional commitment to social justice. Our individual choices define us and are evidence of our personal commitment to social justice. We may or may not choose to shop at national chain discount stores, or we may or may not choose to use certain products because of our social justice beliefs, we transform our beliefs into action or inaction. Personal choices and their implications are complex in a global environment. Learning more about what choices we have and about the consequences of our choices is part of our personal growth. This article is about expanding your individual choices and influencing institutional level choices. College level choices are the sum of individual choices. Some people on your campus have made decisions that have social justice implications, and selections of software, both operating systems and applications, are a choice with social justice implications.
Choosing Operating Systems and Applications Software
The main narrative of software choice has been framed by Apple and Microsoft in a specific way: the iconic TV ad featuring two people, one claiming to be a PC and one claiming to be a Mac. Connecting personal identity and ego with an operating system, “I'm a Mac, I'm a PC,” is deeply suspicious, but it is an effective advertising strategy used to the advantage of the corporations. If you ego-identify with your operating system, then when someone is critical of your operating system you perceive them as being critical of you. You become an advocate for your software choices, providing corporations with free advertising. We become self defining as the corporations wish us to self define – in terms of products. The reality is that people have self identified with one of two corporations. Switching from Mac to PC becomes a change of personal identity for some people.
Barratt conducted research on how Brazilian university faculty and staff in the state of Rio Grande do Sul were using IT and he toured the state's IT department. There was a room full of Linux programmers building software for schools and local governments. Ideologically the Rio Grande do Sul state government staff disliked large corporations like Microsoft and Apple and government employees were building an alternative IT path. The relationship between personal ideology and political action is larger that we normally think. Using a Mac, a PC, Android, Google machine is action with social justice implications because the large corporations have their economic interests in place before their social justice interests.
Alternative Software Paths
The Minnesota Educational Computer Consortium (MECC) was developed in 1973 to be a central source for teacher-written software for the Apple II platform. The popular computer game Oregon Trail was an MECC project. Apple changed its OS philosophy to a closed system, which it still maintains, and MECC was no longer viable. The concept of no cost or close-to-cost software widely distributed for educational purposes has a long history and a vibrant present. What would happen if teachers were once again able to easily develop and distribute software?
In 1995, Richard Stallman started the Free Software Foundation (FSF) to develop and distribute free software. This group has championed the GNU (http://www.gnu.org) collection of projects and is most well known for their license work and Copyleft, “the practice of using copyright law to offer the right to distribute copies and modified versions of a work and requiring that the same rights be preserved in modified versions of the work” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyleft). The idea of widely distributed free high quality software certainly has social justice implications.
Computer operating systems, like DOS, Windows, Mac OS X, and Ubuntu are intellectual property and are typically owned by corporations which are driven by a profit motive. Applications, like Microsoft Office and Angry Birds, are owned by corporations driven by a profit motive. Web based social media tools, like Facebook and Twitter, are owned by corporations driven by a profit motive. Computer languages, like UNIX and Linux, are in a legal flux about whether or not they can be copyrighted.
Linus Torvalds was the principle force behind the development of Linux and made it publicly available at no cost. Linux is now available with a GNU General Public License. Linux, with Tux the penguin as a mascot, runs behind the scenes on most of the world's servers and supercomputers. If you are reading this by using the Internet then you are using Linux. Linux comes in many flavors and the most common Linux for end users is called Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a Xhosa word that translates approximately as human kindness, or human-ness, or humanity toward others, according to Canonical, the makers and owners of Ubuntu. Archbishop Tutu noted:
Ubuntu is a concept that we have in our Bantu languages at home. Ubuntu is the essence of being a person. It means that we are people through other people. We cannot be fully human alone. We are made for interdependence, we are made for family. When you have ubuntu, you embrace others. You are generous, compassionate. (Tutu, nd, para. 3)
Linux and the Ubuntu version were designed with a social justice mission.
The word free, used in the context of software and operating systems, has at least three meanings. The first and most obvious is software that is available at no cost to the consumer. Examples of free software are Chrome, Firefox, Facebook, Twitter, or any of the hundreds of software packages available. The costs of producing and distributing this software is typically covered by advertisers, or in the case of Facebook and Chrome, knowledge merchants. Many no-cost software packages contain adware, malware, spyware, or other unsavory features on which companies make money.
A second meaning of free in the software world is to set something free. As a metaphor think of letting a bird out of a cage. ShareWare was developed during the early days of the PC, and software like PC-Talk and PC-File were widely distributed through personal networks since there was no Internet. Open Source software, covered below, is the current incarnation of setting software free.
The third meaning of free in the software world is personal freedom. This idea of freedom is both freedom from being bound to commercial software platforms like Mac and PC and personal freedom to do as you wish within legal bounds. Mac OC X is now available at no cost, and it is rumored that Windows 9 will be no cost, however those operating systems come at the cost of binding the user to software that works only with those systems. Ubuntu is a no-cost operating system that with a little effort will run Windows software.
More complex is the idea of personal freedom, the control of our information, the freedom to do as we wish in the digital world. Software like Tor, an interesting browser that lets you explore parts of the dark web, and GPG, which provides serious encryption well beyond that used by browsers and commercial transactions, are examples of software designed to enhance your personal freedom and to protect your personal information. The concept of protecting your personal freedom and personal information in a digital world is generally explored in the media only at a surface level. For example, there are a myriad of articles about Facebook postings and precious few on what Facebook does with all of your information.
Open Source Software
Open Source software is computer software whose base code has been made openly available to the general public enabling anyone to then copy, modify, and/or redistribute the code without paying the original author any royalty fees. Open Source is an interesting collection of software and social justice practices. While typically associated with software movements like http://www.opensource.org and http://www.sourceforge.net open source has moved to the world of books and educational resources with the Open Educational Resources Commons (http://www.oercommons.org) and other organizations dedicated to providing high quality educational resources at no cost.
Examples of Open Source software, which is often available for different OS systems, are Moodle, a courseware program, LibreOffice, an integrated office software that was used to collaboratively write this article, GIMP, an alternative to PhotoShop, PSPP, an alternative to SPSS, Blender, a popular software for creating 3D models, as well as the Firefox browser.
One particular advantage of Open Source is that program source code becomes hacker tested. By revealing all of the secrets of the programming, anyone can explore security weaknesses and software flaws and historically people do test the limitations of Open Source software. Finding and publicizing a software flaw becomes a badge of honor in the hacker world. Would you rather use Open Source Digital Voting (http://www.osdv.org) software that has been extensively hacker tested or use commercially available software developed in secrecy by a large corporation like Diebold? However, because of the nature of Open Source software any company can brand OSDV as their own.
The reality of Open Source is even more complex, involving crowd sourcing and complex international social networks. On an interesting side note, Ubuntu and Open Source are worldwide phenomenon. Consequently, software and reviews are written in multiple languages and intended for people of all skill sets, ages, religions, and beliefs. North Korea runs a version of Linux titled Red Star, and Chinese users can install Ubuntu Kylin. Ubuntu is available in great variation in customized versions developed by programmers and intended for specific target audiences.
Linux is an Open Source operating system originally based on UNIX but taking UNIX to the next level. Linux is available in various flavors like Ubuntu or Red Hat and is used in a wide variety of computing applications from personal computers, to cellular phones (Android is based on Linux), to Television, and to web servers. Note that Mac OS X is a UNIX based system and UNIX was widely used before Linux became available. Ubuntu is a common Linux-based operating system developed for regular users. New versions of Ubuntu are available regularly and are referred to by release date and name. The current version is 13.10 Saucy Salamander.
Like Mac and PC, the Ubuntu system alerts you to updates regularly, and in general, Ubuntu flaws are identified and fixed much quicker than in the PC and Mac world. Unlike Mac and PC, the Ubuntu updates are typically not security fixes put in place after security problems have been identified and exploited by black hat hackers.
The choice to use any operating system locks you in to the software that runs on that operating system. Choosing to use Windows locks you into Windows programs, choosing to use Mac OS X locks you into Mac OS X software, and choosing to use Ubuntu locks you into Linux based programs. However, Linux users have developed ways to install software initially designed for other operating systems such as Windows or OS X. For example, both authors use LibreOffice as well as Microsoft Office in an Ubuntu environment. Many software engineers will build their software for multiple operating systems, and some will not, choosing to focus their efforts on the software rather than adjusting it to fit in many different computing environments. Corporations will develop software for large markets because that means more potential profit, and there are a lot of Windows users.
Choosing Ubuntu gives you access to a smaller universe of native software, mostly because fewer people use Ubuntu. Estimates of the number of Ubuntu users vary because there are no sales receipts to count, but the Ubuntu home page lists at least 20 million users worldwide. In the global IT market this is small potatoes. Barratt is the only faculty user of Ubuntu on his campus and many of the IT staff on his campus use Red Hat Linux. Barratt sought and received permission to install Ubuntu alongside Windows on his office machine at the cost of not calling the Help Desk if things went wrong. Wikipedia users maintain a list of Linux adopters, which includes the White House, the US Army, the French Parliament, and Amazon.com.
Ubuntu is a Debian-based Linux operating system owned by Canonical Ltd. that comes with Unity desktop. Ubuntu is also available for phones and tablets. The Canonical business model is to achieve profitability through providing services to the free software and the Ubuntu world. Alternative flavors of Ubuntu include Lubuntu for older laptops with less memory or hard drive space, Edubuntu comes with a suite of educational software, and many more types are available. Kubuntu comes with the KDE environment pre-installed, Xubuntu provides a light and flexible desktop as well as the Xfce desktop, Mythubuntu, supports an addon for the integration of the Myth TV network and PVR system, Ubuntu Studio focuses on multimedia production. Various desktop programs are available that manage the look and feel of the screens for the end user. Ubuntu comes default with Unity Desktop and Lubuntu comes with KDE Desktop. All are easy to learn and use and have a wide variety of users as well as documentation to help new users adapt to the Linux environment.
Resistance to Change
The authors selected Ubuntu Linux as an introduction to Linux due to its ease of use and ability of Ubuntu community to create an Operating System that will teach the users how to transition from a Windows/OS X environment to a Linux environment. Resistance to change comes from many sources. When either of the authors suggest using Ubuntu to a user the nearly universal reaction is about trust. “Is it safe?” “Does it have spyware?” “I am afraid of viruses.” “Who are these people?” “Is this supported?” “Someone is making money off this.” If our metaphor is expensive software easily infected, then these questions make sense because viruses, spyware, malware, and a whole host of uninvited programs are a regular feature of the PC and Mac world.
Ubuntu, because it is Linux based, is a different software architecture that makes it much more difficult to infect. Those behind malware and spyware go for easy pickings and large markets, which means Windows and some OS X operating systems in the current IT environment. Hackers, black hat, grey hat, and white hat, typically use Linux on their own machines. Making hackers, even honest hackers, angry by attacking their favorite OS is not generally a good idea. Practically, people writing malware do not target Linux machines since it is much more difficult and there are far fewer Linux users than Mac and PC users.
Low Cost Computing As Social Justice
We offer this idea as a social justice example around the issues of software cost. Purchase a used laptop, desktop, or netbook, one that may not be up to today's standards. These are often available from universities in their surplus equipment auctions for under $100 or from pawn shops for slightly more. Install Ubuntu for free and get the array of programs that come with it. During the installation process Ubuntu gives users the choice of keeping the current OS and adding Ubuntu as a choice when you start your machine or replacing the current OS with Ubuntu. Install whatever else you want; for example, Chrome, PSPP, and Gufw Firewall, GIMP, and a few games are a great start. The Ubuntu Software Center lists 395 software packages for education and 226 packages for science and engineering.
Installing Ubuntu on a 9-year-old obsolete Dell Dimension 5100 desktop took 20 minutes, updates took another 10 minutes, and adding programs took another 10 minutes. The old and tired desktop has a new life and runs a great deal faster. While this is not the one laptop per child initiative, think how many people can have access to the digital realms for the cost of a used computer. The transition to Ubuntu should take the average Windows or Mac user about an hour, and this includes getting used to LibreOffice that replaces Microsoft Office. It is a transition about which many bloggers have written, so donot just take our word (Davies, 2010; Francisoud, 2010; Vincent, 2007). Many bloggers have found tedious differences when switching to Linux but are impressed with the level of advancement in user friendliness that exists within Linux today.
Where we spend our money is an action with social justice implications. Each individual software consumer makes a choice to support a large corporation or they chose a new alternative where an individual’s rights are respected and encouraged. Supporting low cost computing for everyone seems like a worthy social justice initiative. Supporting software that supports personal freedom seems like a social justice action worthy of effort. Encouraging others to consider the social justice implications of their software choices seems like a worthy social justice effort.
What can you do? Increase your awareness of Open Source and free software by reading more on the Debian Project, on GNU General Public License, on the Free Software Foundation, and on the variety of socially conscious people behind these movements. Try Ubuntu, or whatever version of Linux you want, on your personal machine. The install disk that you download has the opportunity to try it without actually installing it (http://www.ubuntu.com/download/desktop). Talk with other users about your experience, even if it is bad. Increasing awareness is the first step to social justice. Advocate to your IT staff and students to use Ubuntu, or some version of Linux on their personal machines.
Davies, G. (2010, November 25). Switching to ubuntu. Retrieved from https://www.boxuk.com/blog/switching-o-ubuntu/
Francisoud, B. (2010, January 4). Switching to ubuntu (2 months after). Retrieved from http://francisoud.blogspot.com/2010/01/switching-to-ubuntu-2-months-after.html
Tutu, D. (nd). Ubuntu. Retreived from http://www.tutufoundationuk.org/ubuntu
Vincent, T. (2007, September 26). Switching to ubuntu linux. Retrieved from http://tlvince.com/switching-to-ubuntu-linux
Overcoming the Digital Dilemma: Developing and Measuring Critical Thinking Gained through Cocurricular Experiences in a Time of Information Overload
Adam E. Peck, Ph.D.
Assistant Vice President and Dean of Student Affairs
Stephen F. Austin State University
According to the website, InternetLiveStats.com, Google now processes over 40,000 search queries every second, conducting over 3.5 billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide ("Google Search Statistics,” 2014). Wikipedia claims over thirty-one million articles in two hundred and eight-five languages (“About Wikipedia,” 2014). Today’s students have greater access to information than ever before. As Keeling (2004) articulated, “…knowledge is no longer a scare or stable – commodity. (It) is changing so rapidly that specific information may become obsolete before a student graduates and has the opportunity to apply it” (p. 4).
And while this vast quantity of often conflicting information should make students less confident in what they know and believe, it seems too often to have the opposite effect. Highly dubious information passes as truth based only on the credibility of being found on the Internet. In many cases, students lack the skills to evaluate the claims of various sources.
This constitutes the sort of “digital dilemma” referenced in the title of this piece. Having access to more information than ever before does not appear to be helping students to achieve new levels of understanding, but rather often prevents them from differentiating between good quality information and poor quality information.
Throughout the past twenty years, educators have placed an increasing emphasis on the concept of critical thinking as a means for helping students to evaluate the information they receive. And while the term has become a part of the common parlance of educators, Moon (2008) asserts that critical thinking is an “elusive concept” which has evaded simple definition (p. 19). Perhaps it is this abstract quality that has limited the utility of critical thinking theory as an educational tool. In general, critical thinking, according to Henderson, et al. (2008), “is a process of reasoning by which one can decide what to believe and what to do” (p. ix). Few have been able to articulate what such a process should entail or how one would know if the process were working.
King and Kitchener (1994) have put forth a very promising model for explaining and tracking an important, and “neglected facet” of critical thinking: reflective judgment (p. 1). According to Pascarella and Terenzini (2005), this model “…rests on considerable empirical evidence” and defines, “a hierarchical, increasingly complex seven-stage sequence relating to what people ‘know’ or believe and how they justify their knowledge claims and belief. (p. 36). Its focus on “ill-structured problems” or problems which do not lend themselves to simple solutions (King & Kitchener, 1994). At the lowest level of their model, students treat all problems as if they are easily solved. This is likely something many student affairs professionals have personally observed.
The King and Kitchener (1994) model of reflective judgment is a three-stage model which bases its sequential stages of epistemic cognition on the work of Perry and Dewey, closely following Dewey’s graduated stages. As depicted in Table 1, in the “pre-reflective stage, knowledge is certain, absolute and knowable. Experts determine what is true and what is not. In the second stage, “quasi-reflective,” knowledge is uncertain. There is greater ambiguity in what is known, and it is believed that people who have differing beliefs must be looking at different evidence. In the final stage, “reflective reasoning” conclusions about ill-structured problems are drawn after a careful review of a variety of sources and knowledge claims are based on the relative weight of the evidence used to support them. [For a thorough review of each stage, see King and Kitchener, 1994].
|Knowledge is certain; trust personal experience.
|"I know what I've seen."
|Knowledge is certain if information is available, but uncertain if it isn't.
|"We may never know what killed the dinosaurs."
|Knowledither certain or temporarly uncertain. Trust the opinions of experts.
|"If the professor says it, it must be true."
|Recognize that knowledge is uncertain.
|"I don't know who to believe."
|Understand that your perspective and agenda influence what you see.
|"Your pive influences what you see."
|"Certainty is rare, but I know enough to take a stance."
|Understand how to evaluate evidence and arguments to reach conclusions.
|"Reasoning and evidence support my conclusions."
One area that would seem to contain all of these essential elements and would therefore seem intuitively to be fertile ground for the development of reflective judgment would be cocurricular programs. These experiences often provide active, hands-on approaches to ‘ill-structured’ problems and dilemmas, and because of the potential for complexity inherent in engaging in working in teams to reach a common goal, hold tremendous promise for teaching critical thinking skills and enhancing students’ capacity for reflective judgment. Strange (1992) suggests that a late-night session in a residence hall or student organization meeting room are just as apt to evoke thought, insight, and discovery as a class lecture or seminar, maybe even more in environments like auditorium-sized classes with multiple choice exams that compromise the “personal exchange that stimulates reflection” described by Strange (p.32) King and Kitchener (1994) describe campus activities and organizations as “…designed to help students think about life’s complicated problems, and a probable cause of changes in levels of reflective judgment” (p. 231). Tsui (2006) concurs that co-curricular environments offer meaningful and challenging experiential lessons in critical thinking.
In the midst of the assessment movement in student affairs, critical thinking can be added to the list of skills that many assert are being developed in student affairs, often without ample proof. The Reflective Judgment model presents student affairs scholar/practitioners with a perspective on critical thinking that can be easily measured and described. The authors have also developed an assessment they call the, “Reasoning About Current Issues” questionnaire that can be used to measure the development of reflective judgment over time. Of course, the seven stages of reflective judgment may look different in different contexts and can be contextualized to describe development in many different cocurricular contests.
Demonstrating learning and development in college is of critical importance at this point in the history of higher education. Public confidence in higher education has never been lower. A Gallup survey conducted on behalf of the Lumnia Foundation found that only 11% of business leaders and only 14% of the general public felt strongly that students graduated from college with the skills and competencies that are needed for success in the workplace (“The 2013 Lumina Study,” 2013). Additionally, as lawmakers and other stakeholders seek less expensive ways to deliver higher education, it has become increasingly important for student affairs to demosntrate the impact that many suppose we are making. The deluge of information bombarding today’s college students is staggering and calls for colllege graduates who know how to critically evaluate the information they receive. If student affairs can target and impact ways to help students improve in this important area we benefit not only our students, but we ensure and sustain the future of our profession.
The 2013 Lumina study of the American public’s opinion on higher education. U.S. Business Leaders Poll on Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/file/strategicconsulting/167552/2013%20Gallup-Lumina%20Foundation%20Report.pdf
About Wikipedia. (2014, January 1). . Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About
Google Search Statistics. (2014, June 24). Retrieved from http://www.internetlivestats.com/ google-search-statistics
Hendrickson, N., St. Amant, K., Hawk, W., & O’Meara (2008). The Rowman and Littlefield handbook for critical thinking. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Keeling, R. (2004). Learning Reconsidered: A campus-wide focus on the student experience. Washington, D.C.: National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.
King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. S. (1994). Developing reflective judgment: Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Moon, J. (2008). Critical thinking: An exploration of theory and practice. New York City: Routledge.
Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (2005). How college affects students: A third decade of research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Strange, C. (1992). Beyond the classroom: Encouraging reflective thinking. Liberal Education, 78, 28-32.
Tsui, L. (2006). Fostering critical thinking in college students: A mixed-methods study of influences inside and outside of the classroom. Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertation Services.
Peggy C. Holzweiss, Ph.D.
Sam Houston State University
The purpose of this study was to examine use of a website designed to increase community among distance education students. Participants were graduate students in a fully online Master’s program and their usage of the community site was tracked over two academic semesters. Results indicated that usage built over time with the assistance of weekly updates to the site. In addition, usage became more diversified with students starting out with specific informational needs then expanding to other resources by the end of the study period. Implications for higher education administrators are discussed including suggestions for how to attract distance education students to such a site and what type of information to include.
Researchers estimate that up to seven million college students in the United States are taking at least one distance education course as part of their educational strategy (Allen & Seaman, 2014). Approximately 13% of all students are enrolled exclusively in online courses at either the undergraduate or graduate level (U.S. Department of Education, 2014). This accounts for more than 900,000 students who may never physically access our campuses but still need our services and programs to succeed.
Retention of this population is especially concerning because distance education students are up to 20% more likely than traditional face-to-face students to drop out of courses (Britto & Rush, 2013). While they are motivated to join online programs due the convenience and flexibility the format offers (Noel-Levitz National Online Learners Priorities, 2010), distance education students can experience feelings of isolation, problems with technology, time management and personal organization issues, challenges seeking needed assistance, and problems understanding the expectations of their online courses (Fetzner, 2013; Song, Singleton, Hill, & Koh, 2004).
Delleville and Ortiz (2013) recommend that institutions provide distance education students with administrative support including an orientation to online learning and relevant resources for succeeding in their courses. The authors emphasize the need for a “one-stop shop” (p. 4) so students can quickly find needed information. Other researchers support this idea, suggesting that distance education students can experience problems finding support services (Britto & Rush, 2013), and providing information about institutional services on one website can help alleviate these challenges.
Yet, while having one primary location of information is a good beginning for this population of students, Crawley and Fetzner (2013) point out that the needs of online students go well beyond an introduction to distance learning and links to all accessible campus services. Just like face-to-face students, distance students need connections to people on campus who can recognize their individual needs and direct them to needed services and resources. This means developing relationships with online students and sustaining ongoing interactions with them over time.
The current challenge with the online environment is that distance education students are primarily interacting with faculty, not the diverse array of administrators who can help them on their path to success. Students’ only activity on the virtual campus is to attend class, which automatically directs them towards faculty to answer every question they may have on how the campus works and where to find needed services. This puts a burden on faculty that harkens back to the origins of higher education when they served all roles and responsibilities for students (Cohen & Kisker, 2010). Currently, distance education faculty must know what resources are available along with how to direct students to them appropriately (Crawley & Fetzner, 2013), yet they are not often trained for this role or may not have the time or inclination to serve this purpose for students. While student affairs administrators are ready and willing to serve online students, strategies for connecting with them are lacking.
One potential strategy is to move beyond just providing an orientation to online learning and links to services. With more oversight and planning, it is possible to create an online community for distance education students that is sustained over time. Online communities can be created when the participants have common interests and the focus is on interaction and communication (Ingram, 2005; Omrod, 2004). The common thread for this population of students is that they are completing a degree from a distance. This provides a shared foundation on which to build a community.
This case study will highlight a community that was constructed for an online graduate program and how students responded to it. The data addresses resources provided through the community website, what students actually used, how much time they spent on the site over two academic semesters, and what resources they sought. In addition, informal feedback was sought to help capture students’ reactions to the community.
This case study was conducted over the course of two academic semesters (spring and fall 2013) at Sam Houston State University, which has a total enrollment of more than 18,000. The overall student population is predominantly White (61%) with growing Hispanic (17%) and African American (16%) populations. Over half of the students are female (57%) and approximately 2,500 are enrolled in graduate courses. Almost 2,000 students are enrolled in fully online distance education programs.
The students involved in the study were enrolled in a fully online master’s program in higher education administration. All students had access to the community website, which was housed inside the campus Blackboard Learn® system where their courses were accessed. The students often were unfamiliar with each other except through interactions they may have experienced in courses, so there was no community focus prior to the creation of the website. The community coordinator added information to the site each week during the study period and sent out email announcements to all students every Friday to alert them to the new information. Content areas included resources for the program as well as professional and career development. Table 1 contains a list of specific content areas and examples of the information included.
Table 1: Content Areas and Resources Included
|Examples of Included Information
|Videos, Websites, and Documents Referencing the Professional Citation Standards for the Field
|Listing of New Job Openings around the Region and Nation, Common Interview Questions and How to Respond, Career Development Resources
|Discussion Board for Any Concerns, Questions, Feedback, or Issues.
|Comprehesive List of Professional Associations in the Field, List of Professional Competencies, Professional Development Resources such as Articles, Listservs, Webinars,and Workshops.
|Online Orientation Sessions to the Program that were Videotaped, Frequently Asked Questions about Program Specific Activities and Requirements, Registration Information, Course Schedules
|Contact Information for the Campus Help Desk, Tips for E-Learners, Tips for Using the Provided technology Assignments
All content areas were structured to collect user data over a 115-day span of time each semester. The data included log-in times, what resources were viewed, and how long participants viewed each resource.
Due to changes in enrollment over the course of the study, participants included 70 students in the first semester and 60 in the second semester. Individual courses had a maximum enrollment of 15 students. The entire group of participants had an average age of 36, with an age range from 22 to 61. Over half (53%) were Caucasian, 24% were African American, 15% were Hispanic or Latino/a, 6% were Asian American, 1% were Native American/American Indian, and 1% were multi-racial. Females accounted for almost three-quarters of the participants. Almost all were working full-time while attending school online.
Over the course of the case study, 86% of the participants accessed the community site at least one time during the first semester and 82% did so the second semester. As illustrated in Table 2, the percentage of participants who accessed the site multiple times increased from the first semester to the second.
Table 2: Number of Accesses
|Number of Accesses
|1 to 5 times
|6 to 10 times
|11 or more times
Accesses by day of the week changed across the study as well. Table 3 demonstrates that during the first semester, participants primarily spent time on the site on Fridays, the same day email announcements were sent each week. However, by the second semester, other days of the week, especially Mondays, increased in usage. This may indicate an increasing awareness of the community and what it has to offer.
Table 3: Usage by Day
|1st Semester Total Minutes Spent on the Site
|2nd Semester Total Minutes Spent on the Site
The amount of time spent on the site stayed about the same across semesters. On average, each participant who visited the site spent 4.6 hours reviewing information during the first semester, while participants in the second semester spent 4.46 hours. This equates to participants spending approximately 30 minutes a week with resources pertaining to their needs.
For accesses by time block, Table 4 illustrates that participants visited the site primarily from 12pm to 6pm, followed by 6am to 12pm. In other words, more than two thirds of the students were engaged during normal work hours each semester despite the fact that almost all of them held full-time jobs.
Table 4: Hit Times by Block
|1st SemesterPercentage of Hits (n=1,539)
|2nd SemesterPercentage of Hits (n=1,483)
|12am to 6 am
|12pm to 6pm
While some participants logged in to the site and viewed just the main page, others explored the various sections of information available to them. As indicated in Table 5, the primary focus of interest during the first semester was the jobs content area. Almost half of participants during this time wanted to view jobs that were posted each week. However, other information was not as interesting to them at the time. The second semester, participants exhibited more of a balanced interest between jobs, citation resources, and program resources. This represents a growing interest in resources that could help them increase the skills and knowledge required to be successful in the academic program.
Table 5: Usage by Content Area
|1st SemesterPercent of Hits (n=541)
|2nd SemesterPercent of Hits (n=624)
One interesting decrease in access worth noting was the Open Forum content area. The Forum was a monitored discussion board providing opportunities for students to share questions, concerns, and feedback and receive replies. After some initial interest during the first few weeks of the community’s formation, no participants accessed this part of the site further. During the second semester, the only accesses occurred during the first week of courses and were done by students new to the program. This may indicate that an Open Forum may not be an attractive feature of such a site, or that it may take additional time to engage students in this type of resource.
In addition to user data, informal feedback was sought from participants to help gauge their reaction to the community. Seven participants voluntarily shared comments that were all positive about the usefulness of the information provided on the site. One participant explained how information about interview questions assisted during a job search process:
The interview questions provided in Blackboard were very insightful. I was able to use them in practice scenarios. I thought the interview process went very well. I was able to give thoughtful responses to the questions in large part due to the practice interview questions. Thank you for your thoughtful weekly notices. They are truly helpful at making a connection in the online learning process.
A second participant said, “The website is very informative and it gives the students information on open jobs, interviewing pointers and a wealth of resources, thanks this information is very useful.”
Conclusion and Recommendations
While this study focused on developing a community site for a specific academic program, the information discovered can be applied to the broader distance education community. For instance, one of the lessons learned from this study is a reminder to be patient and communicate regularly. Traditional face-to-face students must be made aware of resources and reminded frequently in order to encourage use. They may not access services immediately, but when they have a need, they will discover what is available and will come back for more. The same philosophy holds true with online students. In this study, a majority of the participants accessed the community at least once per semester, with more than a quarter logging in almost once a week by the second semester. With sustained interaction and an emphasis on regularly sharing information relevant to the target population, the students demonstrated an increasing interest in the site over time.
The weekly communication sent by the coordinator seemed to be the primary catalyst that encouraged students to visit the community site regularly. During the first semester of the community site, students would log in primarily on Fridays after they received an update on what had been added that week. By the second semester, however, students began accessing the community more frequently on other days as well. According to Connors (2012), a weekly email helps distance students feel connected to their community of learners while not overwhelming them with messages. In this case, email communication provided a consistent opportunity to share information while also prompting students to look for that information. The change in how often students were accessing the community site by the second semester indicates that it was becoming a more integrated resource that students wanted to visit regardless of having an immediate reminder to do so.
Another interesting finding of this study is that the 68% of students accessed the community during normal work hours in the first semester, and access increased to 77% in the second semester. While distance education students tend to be older and maintain jobs (Fetzner, 2013; Noel-Levitz National Online Learners Priorities, 2010), it is clear that their schedules still allow for them to seek information during a regular work day. This opens up many possibilities for reaching this population of students including activities such as live chats with featured administrators or participating offices. Scheduling a rotation of chat sessions throughout the semester and reminding students of those opportunities can be a great way to interact with this population of students.
The key to developing an online community is to first focus on what interests the target population. This may involve an evaluation to determine where most of the initial attention should be directed. In this study, the target population was seeking advanced degrees in order to obtain promotions or better jobs. As the first priority, the primary goal was to develop a jobs page that provided a list of new positions each week. That helped increase the interest in the site and allow for expansion of other resources that students may need. For a general population of distance education students, initial resources may need to highlight specific services each week in order to provide the information they would need. For instance, posting a video from the Director of the Writing Center describing how they serve online students would be an effective way to share information about the resource. Then, it can be archived for use by students who may not see it the first time.
Logistics for coordinating an online community are just as important as what content is provided. It is critical that at least one student affairs administrator spend time designing the site and interacting with the online student population. Once information is shared and regular communication is provide, the students will begin turning to the person behind it all for assistance. Allowing that administrator the time it takes to serve distance students will help build a significant connection between them and the campus.
In terms of a community site location, it is best situated within a familiar environment such as the learning management system where these students take their courses. If they have to use other links to find the community, the traffic may not be as high and the needed connections may be more difficult to build. Placing it on the same landing page as their course links can increase the likelihood that these students will spend some time in the community.
Use of technology also matters. Distance education students may appreciate graphics and presentation formats such as podcasts and videos to access information. For instance, asking the Vice President for Student Affairs to record a brief welcome video for distance education students and placing it on the home page would help communicate that these students are important to the campus community. Other resources such as a podcast on how to register, a video on ordering texts for class from the campus bookstore, a chat option for the technology support office, or an infographic about all the services available to distance education students would be a good way to attract students to the community. Periodic surveys of this population can help identify additional resources and opportunities that would be relevant.
An added benefit of developing a distance education community site is the opportunity to introduce or build partnerships with faculty. Faculty can share the types of information requests they receive from online students and in turn can obtain assistance from higher education administrators in developing ways to easily share that information. This simple outreach can pay dividends as faculty feel their load lifting and develop an appreciation for the responsibilities that administrators can address.
Distance education students are a special and growing population with unique needs. However, they also require the basic connections every college student needs such as interacting with members of the campus outside of their faculty. Receiving a weekly email directing them to resources designed specifically for their needs can help these students understand that the institution cares about their success. While building such a site takes time and patience, the reward can be to help our campuses increase the retention of online students.
Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2014, January). Grade change: Tracking online education in the United States. Retrieved from http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/survey/grade-change-2013
Britto, M., & Rush, S. (2013). Developing and implementing comprehensive student support services for online students. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 17(1), 29-42.
Cohen, A. M., & Kisker, C. B. (2010). The shaping of American higher education: Emergence and growth of the contemporary system (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Connors, P. (2012). Delivery style moderates study habits in an online nutrition class. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 45(2), 171-175. doi: 10.1016/j.jneb.2012.04.006
Crawley, A., & Fetzner, M. (2013). Providing service innovations to students inside and outside of the online classroom: Focusing on student success. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 17(1), 7-12.
Delleville, V., & Ortiz, S. (2013, Spring). Supporting and engaging online graduate and professional students: How to do so while accommodating student preferences. NASPA Bold without boundaries: The Annual Knowledge Community Conference Publication. Retrieved from http://www.naspa.org/kc/Spring-2013-KC-Publication-FINAL.pdf
Fetzner, M. (2013). What do unsuccessful online students want us to know? Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 17(1), 13-27.
Ingram, A. L. (2005). Engagement in online learning communities. In J. Bourne & J.C. Moore (Eds.), Elements of quality online education: Engaging communities (pp. 55-69). Needham, MA: Sloan-C.
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Ormrod, J. E. (2004). Human Learning (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.
Song, L., Singleton, E. S., Hill, J. R., & Koh, M. H. (2004). Improving online learning: Student perceptions of useful and challenging characteristics. Internet and Higher Education, 7, 59-70.
U.S. Department of Education (2014). Enrollment in distance education courses, by state: Fall 2012 (NCES 2014-023). Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2014023