In a college or university not so far away . . .  SA Wars: The Online Menace. In this episode of SA Wars, I want to talk about something that’s been lurking for a while, yet as a field, we don’t seem to say or do much to prepare for it. The online menace I’m talking about isn’t Yik Yak, but rather the growing numbers of online learners. I originally published part of this post on LinkedIn in September 2015.

What is the role of student affairs in online higher education?

After reading Keith O’Neal’s blog post about community in online courses, the answer to the above question came to me as two interrelated concepts:

  • Community building
  • Engagement

These two things are central to the work of most student affairs educators who work with students in face to face environments. Thanks to our #sagrad programs, we are all well-versed in approaches and techniques in helping students develop communities that are supportive of meaningful and purposeful engagement. We should be able to take those concepts that we rely on for face to face interactions and settings, and simply duplicate them for online students, right?

Not necessarily. Hopefully by now you’ve come to recognize that most of our students do not fit a narrowly conceived definition of “traditional” college student. And, hopefully you’ve adapted your approaches to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population that is stretched thin thanks to myriad responsibilities beyond those of a “traditional” college student. Online learners require this same type of recognition and mindset. If you’ll bear with me, I have some suggestions of how student affairs can support community building and engagement of online learners.

  1. Check your ego at the web browser. We have to remember that helping students build community and become engaged isn’t about us. We should be seeking to help online learners because we’re experts in community building and engagement, just as faculty are experts in their content areas. We have different roles in supporting online learners.
  2. Talk to faculty who are teaching online. Chances are, their online class structure is the one place online students interact. Find out what the interactions are like. Are the faculty engaged? Do faculty rely on discussion boards for course-specific topics? We need to know what types of efforts (f any) exist to help students connect and interact.
  3. Assess. Talking with faculty can and should certainly fit into a broader assessment approach, but there needs to be a broader assessment approach, and an assessment plan. It wouldn’t make sense to charge ahead to serve online learners without first assessing their needs.
  4. Remember that online learners are online for a variety of reasons, and there’s a chance that building community and engagement are not on their radar. But, thanks to decades of research, we know that these two elements go a long way to fostering student success.

It is time for student affairs to assess its role in promoting community building and engagement for online learners. Not all functional areas will have an active role with online learners, but we all have a vested interest in supporting these students. Why? Because they’re our students, regardless of where or how they learn and engage.

If you’ll be at the 2018 NACA National Convention in Boston, come to my session “Meeting Students Where They Are – Online!” on Monday, February 19 at 10:10 AM (part of the Mid Manager Professional Track). In the session, I’ll share some findings from a study I worked on with Dr. Josie Ahlquist, along with suggestions for ways campus activities professionals can leverage their expertise to supporting online learners.