Are blended universities “online graduate student-centered”?

I am a lucky doctoral student. Very lucky. The day I decided to embark on this crazy journey, all the puzzle pieces fell in place at once. Thanks to a generous SSRHC grant, I was able to resign from my position and I have been studying full time ever since. My loved ones support me 110%. I have the utmost respect for my co-directors and we have an excellent relationship although it’s too early in the process for me to praise their efforts publicly 😉 I learned a great deal from my supervisor and I am passionate about my field. All the conditions for success are in place and I am very grateful.

There is another reason why I am very lucky and this one is the focus of this post. As an online student, I really enjoyed my doctoral courses and I am extremely proud of the excellent graduate education I received, thanks to innovative teaching methods. But you’ll probably agree with me: there’s more to a doctoral student’s life than courses and comps. There are so many things to learn, from writing a good abstract to getting published, from being able to print a poster to teaching, from speaking in public to managing your references. Good universities help their students navigate these choppy waters by offering workshops, training sessions, simulations, etc. This is an area where I feel even the best are lagging behind when it comes to online students needs. What do institutions have in place to ensure that their students will benefit from the same quality of education as their on-campus counterparts? Tricky question because everybody’s already overwhelmed with the demands of online learning and most just don’t see the broader picture.

And it goes beyond mere academic content. Being student-centered means responding to student needs as a whole. Just because an institution decided to go hybrid and invest in quality online courses does not mean that it is ready to actually meet its online students needs. I’ve been asked so many times to “pop in my office to sign this form” while I live 1000 kms away. I cannot join student associations or sit on committees because they meet face-to-face. I can’t participate in the little get-together sponsored by my department. And the list goes on.

Personally, I am very lucky because I was warmly greeted by a local university’s community. For a while, I was invited as a Researcher-in-Residence and was provided with office space, internet access, library access, and could fully participate in the campus life. My term ended recently and I have been invited to stay as a visiting student. Being able to access these workshops, discussions and training sessions has proven unvaluable. I feel much more confident and knowledgeable and being a social animal I truly enjoy meeting fellow doctoral students every now and then.

So if you’re a graduate online student in a blended university, my message would be: find a local institution where you can access the type of services I mentioned earlier. It will make a huge difference for you. And if you’re an administrator in a blended university, please please please consider maximizing learning opportunities and looking beyond mere academic content because it just doesn’t cut it with regard to today’s requirements for new faculty members.

Just as I am writing this, the Chronicle of Higher Education publishes this interesting article about online student retention.

You can improve retention, and the University of Illinois at Springfield has done so by assigning staff members to serve as informal advisers and advocates for online students, says Ray Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research, and Service.

Called program coordinators—different colleges have varying names for the position—these advisers basically become the on-campus “best friend” of online students. They help them navigate the university bureaucracy and facilitate communication with professors.

Right on! In closing, please allow me to thank a wonderful woman who really made a difference in my life. Carolyn, please accept my heartfelt thanks for everything you did for me, the outsider enrolled in a program not even offered by your university. Thank you for your tremendous support from Day One and for finding great ways to “include” me. On top of being such an achiever, you are a great mentor just by being who you are. You are a great mentor because you truly care. I hope I can emulate you some day. Hats off.

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