DAN: Let’s meet Wired Ivy’s guests for our panel discussion. From west to east, Laura Miner will soon hold a Master of Arts degree in Organizational Leadership from Gonzaga University. Laura is the owner of Laura W. Miner, a consulting firm, where she applies her expertise to business consulting, speaking, and writing. Hello, Laura.
LAURA: Hello. Thank you for having me.
DAN: It’s our pleasure. We’re glad you’re here. Rachael Mandell graduated last month with a Master of Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Florida. Rachel is an associate planner in the Planning and Design Department at the Louisville Metro government. Rachel applies her knowledge to land development code amendments, board of zoning adjustment case review and minor subdivision plats. Welcome Rachel.
RACHEL: Hi, thank you for having me.
DAN: It’s our pleasure. And Brianne Roos, who is now Dr. Roos, having just graduated from the Doctor of Education program at Johns Hopkins, is a speech language pathologist, and soon to be the undergraduate director of the Department of Speech Language Hearing Sciences at Loyola University Maryland, where she is also a lecturer. It’s nice to have you with us, Brianne.
BRIANNE: Thanks, Dan. Nice to be here.
DAN: Today’s plan is to have a little bit of a free-for-all conversation. I’m going to throw a bunch of questions out for our panel to get their sense of how an online program works from the learner’s perspective.
I’d like each of you to give us a little bit of a sense of how graduate school fit into your lives, where you physically were during graduate school, how intensively you took courses, what sort of professional work you were doing while you were in grad school, that sort of thing. We’ll start with Brianne and then we’ll work East to West on this one.
BRIANNE: Sure. So Hopkins EDD program is billed as a part-time program. We laugh a little bit about that, but, uh, that’s what they say. We took two or three courses per semester and our dissertation is embedded so you’re writing your dissertation along the way. The whole thing is remote, of course, online, almost all asynchronous. I’m in Baltimore. I happen to be near Hopkins but most of my colleagues are not local to the university.
And then professionally, as you mentioned, I teach at Loyola. So I’ve been teaching a four-four load throughout my three year program. The program at Hopkins for most of us is a three year program, some people take a little bit longer and do it in four or five years.
DAN: Rachel, why don’t you give us a little background on how your experience was?
RACHEL: So for my program, it’s technically full-time. It is a little bit longer than if you were to do it on campus, but it’s still considered a full-time program. The online format does allow you to be a lot more flexible in terms of your class schedule so I was able to work full-time during the day and then do classes at night. Definitely not much of a social life over the weekends but it was good to manage both work and school and get them both done at the same time ‘cause I couldn’t imagine not having income while going to school.
I originally was really torn between doing an on-campus program versus an online program because I was really concerned about that social component and building relationships and resources along the way, especially like professional resources. But I went ahead and chose the online just because of the fact that I could work full-time. I did the whole program in Louisville, Kentucky. I actually had just moved to Louisville when I started the program.
DAN: Laura, so where were you during your program and what was your context for, for your graduate studies?
LAURA: Yeah, so one thing that was really important to me was actually having a hybrid model. And I had intentionally looked for a program that gave you a mix of both on-campus time and online time, which was something that was really unique about Gonzaga. So that was a huge attracter for me.
But you get to choose how much time you spend on campus or in the different immersions as they call them versus strictly taking online classes. So during certain semesters where maybe I was traveling, I would take only online classes, and then other semesters, when I wanted to have that community experience and be on campus, I would take immersion-based courses. I took an average of three courses each semester and that gave me the flexibility to do the program a little bit faster than most students. Normally it’s a two-year program. I’m doing it in a little less than a year and a half. But it still gave me time to continue working and having my professional pursuits.
DAN: Going back to Brianne, you had mentioned to me earlier that you also were specifically looking at online programs?
BRIANNE: Yes. I have two young children, they’re 11 and 13, and I couldn’t imagine being away from them in a way that was structured by somebody else. So being online, I knew it would be a lot of hours, but I also felt like I could do those hours in the morning, I did in the evening, I could do them, you know, at a lacrosse game from my car. So there was a lot of flexibility and I really needed that to make this feasible.
DAN: That’s great. So let’s just jump into the deep end here. And I’m going to ask, what, if anything surprised you about studying and working online, even though each of you clearly made a conscious decision that that was going to be an important part of your going to graduate school?
LAURA: This is Laura. I’ll go. I think one of the biggest surprises for me was seeing that community could still be established even in an online environment. So the reason that I intentionally looked for a hybrid program was because I had just finished up a bachelor’s on campus. I had really grown accustomed to how you connected with your professors, with fellow students, and I didn’t want to lose that connection completely. And I was blown away by how a specific approach within an online organization can really fuel that connection, even though you’re physically distanced. For me, that was a huge surprise and a great learning lesson for how it can apply to business, especially with the pandemic that we’re dealing with. So for me, it brought a lot of lessons from several different angles.
BRIANNE: Laura, my answer is the same actually. I was really surprised by the strength of the community. I’m a speech language pathologist. I’m trained in human communication and I crave verbal and nonverbal cues from people. I was afraid, kind of, of jumping into the deep end of something so intense and rigorous in what I thought might be a really isolating environment. And it was not at all. The community was strong among my colleagues, my fellow students, and also the faculty. So that was a pleasant surprise throughout.
DAN: Did you have the same surprise Rachel or any other surprises when you went to school?
RACHEL: I definitely feel the same way. The sense of community was a lot stronger than I was anticipating.
Another component for me that I was a little shocked by, and this could just be because of how my on-campus bachelor’s program went, but I was pretty impressed by the standard that we were still held to versus being an on-campus student. There’s a stigma, I feel, that online degrees can be not as high quality or that you don’t ever receive the same level of education. We’re getting the same exact degree as an on campus program.
DAN: I am curious to sort of drill a little bit deeper in the idea of community. So clearly it was something that you had in mind when you started school, that this was going to be important, and you had a sense of it happening. Were there things that the program did specifically that fostered a sense of community? Were there things that happened in courses? I mean, I’m talking about actual techniques. Was that a conversation coming into the program? We want you to feel connected to each other, or was it just kind of serendipitous?
RACHEL: I can’t believe I’m saying this but group projects were actually one of the assignments that really bolstered community, and that’s how I created friends who lasted from, you know, the very first course where we worked in a group group project together all the way down to watching each other’s theses at the end of the program.
In my bachelor’s degree, I would have never in a million years said I was grateful for a group project, but in an online master’s degree, I think it was something that really enhanced my experience in a master’s program.
Also, this really comes from the professor. If they want to be more engaged with the students, they can be, and I could tell which professors were more determined to, to gain that relationship with their students versus those who were not. So it’s a two-way street there. It’s not just the students wanting to create community and friendship and resources with each other, but it has to come from the professors as well.
DAN: How about you, Brianne? What was your experience?
BRIANNE: I agree about the small groups. I think there were some other things as well. Hopkins has a face-to-face residency program. Unfortunately not this year but typically we do. And that was three days of very intensive time together which kind of helped to establish relationships early on. But beyond that things that happened in class to facilitate community include video introductions, synchronous sessions–it’s largely asynchronous but there were a few synchronous sessions for each course. The office hours and having a discussion with the faculty members was great.
So it does take some effort on behalf of the students to take advantage of the opportunities that are put out there. But if the faculty are intentional about those designs within their courses and the students take advantage, there’s a lot of potential for connection.
LAURA: To echo Brianne and Rachel, we had a lot of the same types of things. Our program early on does have a three day on campus residency where you’re meeting the professors, your other students. We also have the small group work, which I agree with Rachel, I never thought I would say I was grateful for that, but I am.
I interviewed a lot of different schools when I was trying to find the right program and the right fit for me, and the thing about Gonzaga’s sense of community is that it starts from day one when you start interacting with the admissions department. That is what set the tone for it. It’s very personal, it’s very engaged. It’s very involved. It carries you through the process. The gal that was in charge of walking me through the admissions process, she’s still somebody who regularly checks in on me today.
So for Gonzaga, it’s part of the fabric. It starts at the beginning. It carries all the way through. The very first course that you have to take in the program is intentionally designed on a foundation of community, and it’s where the context is set. How do you engage? How do you participate in the weekly dialogue that takes place online? What type of communication do you foster with how you frame your questions or how you interact and engage?
So for us, it’s difficult not to have really high standards for community, because it is just part of the fabric of Gonzaga. And it’s one of the reasons that I was drawn specifically to that program over others.
DAN: Do you have questions of each other about your experiences on that front?
RACHEL: I have one. For my program, there was never a required in-person meeting of any kind. So for both of you, it seems that you did meet some faculty and students, you know, in, in real life. Do you think if you ever had just regular online meetings and never met them in person, that it would have been that same sense of community?
BRIANNE: Before COVID I would have said yes, it’s essential. It was such a highlight of my experience. Now, knowing that our incoming students will not have that experience, I would say it was nice to have, and we’re looking forward to getting it back, but it’s not essential.
I’m the TA for the cohort lead for our program. I helped to onboard our incoming students. That is something that’s changed since I went through as a first year… our program is relatively young and so we had a cohort lead but it wasn’t as established and as rigorous as it is right now.
To Laura’s point, as soon as the students accept we start to establish that community really intentionally from the beginning. Typically it would include the three-day residency. We’re working hard to do an online residency, but design it with the same ideas, taking away the things that don’t have to be synchronous, being really intentional about giving people space to establish community and relationships with people who are geographically close to them, people who have similar research interests, faculty members, that sort of thing.
LAURA: Yeah. And I would agree completely with Brianne. It was a really nice thing to have, but I actually had my most recent immersion canceled because of COVID and there’s debate whether or not I will be able to attend the next two that are in the fall that may also have to be canceled.
But because of the way that the community experience is framed for us — I’ll give you an example: I’ve had the same professor for two different classes. She’s an adjunct professor. It just so happens that she lives here in, in Vegas, where I live. And because there’s this sense of community, we all feel comfortable enough to reach out to other students or other faculty to get together, have coffee, explore a relationship in person because you have that geographical advantage, even though you may not normally do that in other circumstances.
So I feel like it just frames it differently. But I agree with Brianne, it’s such a nice thing to have, and I love that Gonzaga gives you the option. It’s not forced. But if you don’t have it, there are other ways in our digital landscape to still build community.
DAN: So we’re talking about building community… how does it happen? I mean, what tools are used to do that?
RACHEL: So outside of the course shell, where I established relationships just through required group projects and the like, we eventually branched out through text messaging and FaceTime. FaceTime was really convenient for when someone wanted to meet last minute, and maybe you weren’t home at your laptops.
Even by any sort of camera-involved conversation, you kind of see the background of that person’s environment. You see people’s kids, you see people’s pets, you see their backyards, and in a weird, observational way you, you learn about that person, more so than just what they’re saying about the topic you’re discussing for the class. By kind of bolstering that online community, again, you end up becoming friends outside of that as well. Like I’ve watched a friend’s plant grow in the background and by the end of the year, I’m like, “Your plant has grown, like, 10 inches! That’s amazing!”
DAN: I love that. I kind of loved that, that sort of personal context that you would never have otherwise, but that’s great. Brianne, you were about to say something, too.
BRIANNE: Yeah. But I’m glad Rachel started. So I think there’s a rawness and an authenticity to this type of communication that you would not have in a classroom. That was something that was unanticipated for me. So yes, you do see cats and children and spouses and everybody kind of in the background. That helps to connect you in some ways more quickly than you would have that bond, you know, in a classroom setting.
Our cohort uses several ways to connect. There is a WhatsApp group. There’s a Facebook group. I do not participate in either of those because I found it very overwhelming. It was too many people’s opinions about the paper we were supposed to write.
We also text. I have like two separate groups of EDD friends who I text constantly. We collaborate using things like Google docs, shared spreadsheets, things like that. So there’s the synchronous, there’s the asynchronous. We tell the incoming students to choose what’s gonna feel the best for them. There are a lot of tools and there are a lot of ways to connect and you have to do what’s comfortable and what will be beneficial to you.
LAURA: Yeah, we have certain tools that were provided by Gonzaga. So we have the, you know, the traditional online learning shell. It’s a little bit limited in terms of the dynamic communication that you can have with a WhatsApp.
Gonzaga has also provided all of the students with Zoom and that’s been a really powerful tool when we’re working in small groups and working on a particular group project. What I have really appreciated is the organic nature of how connection has evolved outside of the school structure. I had one small group that, it just so happened, for whatever reason, all seven people that were placed into this one group were all women with a lot in common. And it’s not like our program is all women. There’s a lot of diversity in our program. But for whatever reason that happened and we all just really gelled. And then next thing you know we wound up with a, a private group text message, and that’s something that we still, that class was a year ago, we still communicate with each other all the time.
We are not in a cohort model and we have different concentrations, so you may have one class with somebody and never have another class with them again. But the means of connecting privately, separate and apart from the tools that are supplied by Gonzaga, have been a really important part of the process and an important part of developing our individual communities.
DAN: What I’m hearing is that there really is a myriad of technology out there and whatever type of communication you’re looking for, there’s going to be some technology that will facilitate it. And that obviously online students have the skill to pick the technology they need to get the job done, I think is really what it comes down to.
Speaking of online skills, there is a certain type of skill that online learners have to develop in order to function in their program. Do you see those as being valuable skills going forward professionally?
BRIANNE: Certainly we have to have some baseline level of comfort with tech. I mean, we Zoom all the time. I can’t believe I didn’t mention that before. It’s probably because it’s just part of my every day. Of course those skills are transferable, especially now with COVID because everything is moving online, at least in my context.
Another thing I think is transferable is just this idea of intentionality. So we have to be intentional about relationship building and things like a workflow and how we communicate with one another, more so than you would in a face-to-face context. I think that intentionality benefits face-to-face communication as well. I think I’m probably a better face-to-face teacher now because of my online learning experience as a student.
DAN: Rachel, do you find that these skills useful for you, as a planner, in your career?
RACHEL: Absolutely. Especially as, as Brianne mentioned with the epidemic going on, one of the big changes that we’ve made in terms of Louisville Metro is taking public hearings and moving them to an online platform. For me that’s pretty seamless. I’m very used to using a webcam to show my face and to speak to others in a group setting. Because of that, I think I was able to adapt a lot easier to working from home, and having to do things differently using my computer.
Secondly, I think one thing that you’ll learn from doing mostly online school or all online school is: how do you effectively communicate by typing. Being able to show expression through a simple email sentence or showing lack of expression through a simple email sentence. One of my problems is I’m, I’m incredibly sarcastic in real life. So just knowing how to say something to someone only using words and without a facial expression, but still conveying your feelings behind it is something that I learned.
DAN: In online classes, particularly ones that are written discussion-based, you kind of have to hone your writing skills. I mean, you’ve got to be able to communicate succinctly, in writing, and it’s there for everyone to see for at least the entire semester, if not longer.
Laura, it’s probably a softball to you because I know your business runs in a distributed fashion, but I assume that the skills that you develop as an online learner are also applicable to your profession.
LAURA: Yeah, for sure. In fact, I feel like there are a lot of circumstances where I’ve had somewhat of an unfair advantage because the digital tools have been part of my workscape for the last 15, 20 years, and I’ve leveraged evolving technologies along the way. So I feel like one advantage that I had was coming into this understanding that the more tools that you have in your arsenal, the more you can match other people’s style of communication.
One important transition that I saw was that a lot of times in the classroom, the professor would have a particular style of how he or she educated the students, but it didn’t necessarily match what the students needed to learn best. And online I feel like there is that need to be more deliberate with how you deliver the message in a way that can connect to multiple audiences. Because, to Rachel’s point, maybe one method that you are comfortable with in terms of delivering sarcasm–which, a high five to Rachel on that because I’m in the same boat–you have to learn how to deliver it differently in a way that doesn’t offend people in a way that connects with multiple audiences.
So I feel like it’s an incredibly important skill but not just for the student. I feel like it’s an equally important skill for the professor to get a little bit more diverse with how they approach it.
DAN: That segues actually very well to something else I’m quite curious about. What advice do you have for faculty in general, not necessarily your own, to help online students feel they’re part of a community, or for that matter the bigger question, to foster really high quality online learning. We’ll start with Brianne.
BRIANNE: So Laura just talked about having a career before she went to school. In my program they talk about students coming in as practitioner-experts and also novice-scholars. Those things don’t necessarily jive comfortably together for students in the beginning. You feel like you’ve got your thing down, whatever it was that you were doing before, but this idea of being thrown into the world of research may feel really new and uncomfortable.
I would suggest, regardless of where you are in the K-12 / higher-ed space, that you prioritize fostering a sense of belonging for your students. Understand where they’re coming from, be really intentional about getting to know them, honor that diversity in the course and in all different ways, and then use that as a tool and help students to see those as assets and not as detrimental, uh, as they move forward through their studies.
Because I think that belonging is really critical for community. I don’t think you can necessarily have community without a sense of I belong here and my voice is respected. People want to hear what I have to say.
That can be tricky in some ways, and also easier in some ways online, because in an asynchronous context, we have the chance to rehearse, right? You can write something and delete it. You can perfect your message. So that’s nice. It’s especially nice for students who might feel shy about sharing their experiences in a classroom setting. I think we can leverage that online and give people the chance to do something like an intro video and share their context.
At Hopkins, the new work that we’re doing with our cohort is intentionally having these meet and greet sessions by Zoom to connect them with one another. We have a shared Google sheet going for them to put their geographic location and their areas of research interest. No one’s really talking about papers that you’re going to write. They’re not even enrolled in courses yet. The exclusive purpose at this point is to establish that sense of belonging and to really start to establish community.
DAN: Laura, what’s your advice for faculty?
LAURA: This sort of goes on the back of what Brianne just shared. Everybody does want to feel that sense of belonging but how we feel a sense of belonging can be very different. One of the things that can happen to really foster that is ensuring that you leverage different modalities in terms of how people can connect. So not just the online discussion boards, but creating a video or leveraging audios, which is something we did in one of my courses that was really fun. You recorded a message into your phone and then uploaded it. But that takes on a different tone because now you’re hearing somebody’s voice. You can sense through the tone of their voice if they’re smiling, if they’re cheerful, and now you start to develop that sense of belonging at a deeper level and in a different way.
We all have different learning styles. We all have different ways that we feel that sense of community and belonging. And when you are more deliberate in making options available that tap into everybody’s different strengths, then really you find a space where they all intersect and then that community naturally evolves.
DAN: That’s great advice. I’m feel like I’m learning so much here. Thank you. Rachel, so from your experience at University of Florida, you know, what advice do you have for faculty everywhere in the world?
RACHEL: Oh, wow. I have to advise the faculty and the whole world?
Intentionally break down the barrier between faculty and students. Especially in an online program, we already have that spatial barrier where we’re not seeing you every day, we’re not coming to your office hours every day because we live across the country. Just take that first step to engage in communication with the student, rather than giving the student the opportunity to engage with them.
Out of the several classes that I’ve taken, professors would always say, “I am available between two and four every Thursday. Please feel free to reach out to me.” Which was good. You know, they are opening the door to communication. But one of the best professors I had, the only professor that did this, rather than wait for a student to reach out to them, the very first day of class, they personally emailed each student and asked questions about the student like, “Hi, my name is Ms. So-and-so. What do you do? What’s the best way to contact you? How do you prefer to learn?”
Just opening that door of communication, I felt so much more comfortable now going to that professor with any questions or concerns I had and that bolstering communication then leads to better understanding of the course material in general, just because I’m not afraid to reach out anymore. She started it, you know? So that was really comforting to me.
DAN: The message is well taken, that everyone comes to the table from the place that they are, and those are all different places, so we have to acknowledge that, affirm that, and obviously work from that position.
Let me ask a corollary to a question I had earlier, and that is: what advice do you have for other learners, in general, who are considering an online professional degree or an online graduate degree?
RACHEL: My advice would be to just think of what you want out of the program. In both an on-campus program and an online program, you do have the opportunity to make what you want out of it. You can kind of stay in the shadows and do the bare minimum, get your degree and go, or you can, you know, really dive in and kind of be vulnerable to the online experience and get a much broader education than what you could have ever imagined.
So my advice would just be to turn on your webcam, like maybe do your hair if you need to, but just do it. Throw yourself out there. Don’t be scared. Email your professors, email them twice if they don’t respond. Email friends, text friends. If you’re staying in the shadows,no one’s going to pull you out so you just make yourself vulnerable and have fun with it.
BRIANNE: Rachel, I love that you used the word vulnerability because I’m a big Brené Brown fan and she talked a lot about the power of vulnerability. I think it’s really something that’s, uh, relevant in this online context. For one, like we were talking about before, just the rawness of having your camera on in your home, it’s super different than getting up and wearing your school clothes and going to school. Right? Where you kind of have that space to define you and your purpose.
RACHEL: That’s almost more scary to do it that way.
BRIANNE: I would say that for people considering my program or other online programs, just to be aware that it’s still a significant investment of time. It’s not like you’re going to do school when you check your email, it’s a big commitment. Be prepared to jump in as wholeheartedly as you would in a face to face context.
I think part of that just involves a lot of proactive communication. So going to office hours, taking the leap to email somebody in your class about a project, just being really intentional and proactive about communicating and establishing yourself as a valued member of your community.
LAURA: One thing I would add to that is before you get to the point of being that involved, of taking the steps to be vulnerable, to be involved in the community, make sure that it is a program and a community that you want to be involved with. Make sure that it matches what values are and what your long-term goals and views and vision are and what it is that you want to get out of life.
One of the big ah-has for me as an adult learner, who went back to school later in life, was that when I finished high school, high school was forced. You know, I was in high school because I had to be in high school and I took what I had to take. Whereas with this, I got, I got to define and dictate what my future was going to look like. And so when I selected a graduate program, I was very deliberate in selecting a program that fit me and not trying to make me fit the program. Because of that, I was able to naturally evolve into a place of connecting with other students, of sharing vulnerabilities, of being so connected passionately to the program itself that a lot of the other pieces just fell into place.
DAN: That’s wonderful advice. I’m going encourage you to share a reflection with the others.
BRIANNE: I loved having the opportunity to talk with you all. One of the things that was really exciting to me when I saw your bios is that neither of you are in education. I know you’re online learners, but my world as a faculty member, my work world, my school world, it’s all among educators. So I didn’t really know very much at all about organizational leadership or urban regional planning, and what those things are. It was so neat to hear your experiences align really strongly with mine. In some ways I think the subject matter is irrelevant. It’s really about this experience of connection through online learning. Best practices are best practices regardless of the topic at hand.
RACHEL: Speaking with you guys, it’s just been affirmed to me that being in an online program doesn’t that we’ve received any less of an education than someone who went to an on-campus program. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed learning about your individual programs and also just how passionate you are about the schools that you’ve attended or are attending because I feel the exact same way about the University of Florida, and I think just us loving our schools and loving our programs, it basically just signifies how great online learning can be.
LAURA: I want to thank everybody on this call for the opportunity to do this because we just spent the last hour enjoying the type of community that we were talking about, how important it is within our environment. So I think it’s really neat that here we are sharing personal about our different experiences even though all three of our programs are a little bit different and have their nuances. We had more in common than not. I think it really demonstrates the best of what higher education in an online environment can be.
Hopefully, those are different practices that we can all build into our businesses. I took a few notes as you guys were sharing things because it’s relevant beyond the walls of our education. And I just love where it’s taking us collectively as a group and as a society.
DAN: Well, I certainly couldn’t improve on any of that other than to say, it’s been great getting the chance to talk with each of you. Rachel Mandell, Laura Miner, and Brianne Roos, thank you very much for joining us on Wired Ivy.
BRIANNE: Thank you.
RACHEL: Thank you.
LAURA: Thank you, Dan.
KIERAN: Hello Professor Marcucci, what did you learn from our guests?
DAN: I learned what a great panel of guests that we had, for one thing. They had so much to share that wasn’t a singular experience, but there were a lot of commonalities in their life situations, what got them to graduate school online, as well as their experiences in graduate school.
KIERAN: I immediately noticed this was an audio example of something you discussed in Episode 3, Connecting the Dots, where you explained how there’s a point at which students in your asynchronous discussion groups stop talking to you, as the teacher, and start engaging directly with each other, having actual conversations.
DAN: When I listened to them talk, I thought it’s amazing to me that these people have never actually met each other before. They just seem to be able to talk to each other so easily.
KIERAN: I was astounded how fast that happened with this panel!
DAN: Yeah, it really can happen quickly and certainly did in this case. I was really pleased with that.
KIERAN: Your conversation definitely addresses any concerns people may still have about whether a community can form in a virtual space. Of course, we know it can because that’s the foundation of how social media sites operated–groups of people from various geographic locations who will never meet in person but ,nonetheless, find one another and connect over a shared interest or experience or viewpoint. And yet, somehow, it still surprises folks to see it in an academic setting…. Or in this case, to hear it.
DAN: What was your impression when you listen to the interview?
KIERAN: The fact that all three guests had clearly given some thought to their graduate experience, and the broader experience of being an online student… that surprised me. Maybe it was in response to being asked to join a panel discussion on the subject but I was definitely impressed. Of course, Brianne is an educator as well as a recent graduate, so thinking about learner experiences is part of her profession, but Laura and Rachel had plenty of insights to share, too. I learned so much from hearing their perspectives and I talk to students all the time! Throughout the interview I found myself thinking, “Why do we not ask students for their input about programs and classes more often?”
DAN: Yeah, I think it’s a great question ‘cause, clearly, they understood their objectives and their role in the graduate program, but they really saw the bigger picture. They understood the context, they understood their colleagues within their program. They understood the faculty and the philosophy of the program. There’s no question about that. So, yeah, more feedback from students would only help all programs develop and all instructors to put together a better learning environment. It really is, as Rachel mentioned, a two-way street.
KIERAN: Well, it needs to be. I don’t know that it always is, but I think that was her point, right?
DAN: I think her point was well-taken correct. Yeah.
One of the things that I learned, as an instructor, was there’s really value in building more recorded response opportunities into my courses. It’s something I’ve shied away from quite frankly. Part of it is we’re an asynchronous program. But one of the things I heard from our guests was the value in hearing other people’s voices and seeing other people in context. I think going forward, I’m going to be doing more of that.
KIERAN: Yeah, Rachel’s observation about the benefits of seeing someone in their personal habitat, that was an eye-opener for me. Even though I’m interacting with students all the time, it’s usually is by phone and email rather than by video conferencing, so it never crossed my mind that being able to see people in context, especially in their home surroundings, that that could be a doorway into a greater sense of connection with other students or the instructor or your advisor, even when I listened to your conversation from Episode 7 with Thomas Hawkins at University of Florida, Rachel’s home program, it still didn’t occur to me.
And while they were all talking about having real-time exchanges, on Zoom or FaceTime, I could immediately see that the video exchange doesn’t have to be synchronous to work. Someone who watches a video, even if it was recorded earlier, they’re still going to see the art on your wall, your dog snoozing on the couch, the books on your shelves, all those little hints about who you are as a human being.
DAN: It goes even beyond the social, of course, because they did comment, and we have talked about this in earlier episodes, the ability to present yourself in a video, or run a zoom meeting, is an important skill to have. So beyond the fact that this is a way for them to get a better sense of each other socially, they’re developing a skill that is going to be applied in their work settings.
KIERAN: Right. One beneficial thing to come out of the pandemic pivot to remote instruction, and so much reliance on video conferencing, is that it forced a large-scale leveling up of distributed team skills. Add to that the general expansion of video, and even live video, on social media platforms, we’ve reached that point with a video, just as we spoke about with Mike Carey at Gonzaga, where the technology is familiar and stable enough to assist and not distract.
I’ve never asked faculty to use more video in their courses, in part, because we’re not a lecture-centric program and that was my limited view of video’s role… but I think it could really help, especially for introductions, to create a warmer, more welcoming sense of community. I’m definitely going to be taking steps to encourage that going forward.
And now I’m wanting to reach out to our guest from Episode 6, Elisabeth Hamin Infield of UMass Amherst, I’d like to find out if she’s planning to use more video–live or recorded–even after she and her students are able to safely return to campus, for just the reasons that have been talked about by our guests.
DAN: I was quite interested in the importance of a formalized orientation, and more importantly, that there was a social aspect to the orientation. It wasn’t a matter of figuring out a plan of study or figuring out how your LMS works. It was an opportunity to get to know some faculty, but I got the sense, even more, the colleagues you’re gonna be working with in school. And it wasn’t left to chance. There were processes and procedures in place where people could begin connecting with each other right away. And I thought, yeah, that just makes complete sense. Why not?
KIERAN: Olivia mentioned in Episode 5 the critical role that a face-to-face orientation has had in the Hopkins EdD program, as well as the fact that she finds it really helpful to have some kind of one-on-one interaction with her students, so I was glad to hear Brianne say that Hopkins is finding ways to continue having an orientation event, albeit in a virtual space.
DAN: It seems like it just compounds the benefits if something happens at the programmatic level and then the courses are equally welcoming and inviting for people to begin interacting with each other.
KIERAN: You know, for years I’ve wanted to create that kind of welcoming environment for students entering our program. I want to give them a chance to connect with each other beyond group work and discussions in a course. But, honestly, I continue to grapple with how to pull that off because our students are so dispersed. How can I offer a meet-and-greet that’s equally accessible to the student in Chicago and the student in Kinshasa? I don’t want to exclude anyone, and I certainly don’t want their first experience with the program to be feeling left out.
But I do wonder if any of our colleagues have found a way to help students connect as a community across their program, not just in class. Listeners, if you’ve managed to crack this nut or know of a colleague who has found a way to host an asynchronous welcome event, please let us know! We’ll definitely want to have them on Wired Ivy!
KIERAN: The other thing I got out of this conversation was… it reinforced my gut feeling that online students need and appreciate what is sometimes referred to as a high touch approach–creating a supportive environment from recruitment to conferral and beyond, especially since alumni should be our greatest ambassadors.
So it was really gratifying for me personally, to hear that students notice and appreciate the extra effort. In fact, as Laura pointed out, they notice from the very first point of contact and it influences their program choice. It’s not that online students don’t need any support, and they definitely don’t need a climbing wall, but they do need different kinds of support.
DAN: They do not need a climbing wall. Absolutely.
Our guests knew going in that they wanted to be connected to the program. So that whole idea of I’m going to jump in here and then jump out real quickly, didn’t exist. I mean, they were, they were joining a community and a program, there’s no question about that. And, quite frankly, it was not my experience in graduate school.
I really think that in some cases, the online programs develop a tighter sense of community than the campus programs. And it makes sense because we’re setting them up with the tools where they can be in touch with each other every single day, if not 24/7. When I was in graduate school, I might see some of the other people in my program once a week at happy hour, maybe not even that often. So there was no chance that I was going to be in constant contact with the bulk of the people in the program. There were two or three people I worked with closely. I talked with them regularly and that was my community.
The online alumni that we spoke with really have a lot more options for building community, whether it’s a work group that then persists past the course, whether it’s some sort of social group that they could put in at orientation, whether it’s staying involved in WhatsApp, they really have a lot more opportunity than, I think, exists if people are going to campus, you know, somewhat regularly or irregularly when they’re in graduate school.
KIERAN: I definitely did not have to block out time to engage with a learning community when I was a graduate student taking online courses. I wasn’t in a formal online program. In many cases I was the only remote student in the class. I was flying solo and blind through the experience. Times have changed!
And yet, I guess not everything has changed? Were you as surprised as me when Brianne reminded potential online graduate students that it’s still a big commitment of time, that they’re not going to get a graduate degree by reading their email?
DAN: Doesn’t work that way in my courses, I can tell you that. No, you’ve got to set aside the time and really apply yourself. You’ve got to connect both socially and intellectually with the material.
What takeaway did you have from the panel?
KIERAN: Something Laura said… how, even though all three of our panelists were from different institutions, different degree programs, they still have more in common than not, because of their online student experience. That made a light bulb go off over my head.
You know, we don’t have good terminology for higher education that takes place off-campus. At various times we’ve called it distance, distributed, online, virtual, digital, but this instructional channel never agrees to be limited by the terminology we create to define it.
More recently, the metaphor of a “cloud campus” has been gaining traction and as I listened to Laura, and Rachel, and Brianne, that may be more accurate than anyone realizes. Maybe online students have this ability to immediately connect with each other because, in a sense, they’ve all attended the same metta campus, composed of various institutions in the same way a university is a collection of colleges. Our guests are each proud and passionate about their home institutions AND equally proud of their membership in the community of shared experience as online students.
DAN: A big takeaway that I had is that everybody in online education is on the same team.
KIERAN: Isn’t it interesting how, as online educators, we recognize the need to create a sense of community among our students but then haven’t recognized the same need to create our own community? The connection our guests feel with one another is so similar to what we’re trying to create for online faculty through Wired Ivy. Online educators also have a shared experience but we don’t often have the chance to connect with each other unless we go to a professional conference on the subject.
DAN: It’s ironic. I mean, we have a lot of diversity in the faculty, as far as some are part-time adjuncts, some are full-time faculty, some are full-tenured faculty, different fields and professions that people are working in, a variety of different institutions, and yet there is a very strong common experience that working in this space creates. That is exactly what Wired Ivy’s hoping to do, provide space for people to connect, to share thoughts and ideas.
KIERAN: Because we’re not all enrolled in the same class or program, right? We don’t have a professor orchestrating our connections.
DAN: Exactly. We don’t have a shared LMS. We don’t have a single space.
KIERAN: And it would be more than a little unwieldy to all pile into a WhatsApp group.
DAN: Yeah… I think it was about a year ago today that you called and asked if we wanted to start doing a podcast together about online education.
KIERAN: And weren’t you in the same place that you’re recording from today?
DAN: I was, it was June, so I was on vacation.
KIERAN: After that conversation last June we took baby steps in that direction for about 9 months, then the pandemic hit, higher education made a hard pivot to remote instruction, and we realized, in your words, Dan, “If not now, when?”
So we took off the training wheels, launched the podcast, and now we’re at the end of Season One with 9 episodes in the can. We’re creating a Summer Shorts series to keep everyone engaged until the start of the Fall term… Those 5-10 minute episodes will be released at various points in July and August so, listeners, if you don’t want to miss any of them be sure to subscribe to Wired Ivy on a podcast app or on our website to receive the newsletter. And, of course, we’ll also be working on episodes for Season Two, which will begin shortly after Labor Day.
All in all, it’s shaping up to be a full and productive summer!
DAN: It’s exciting to think about going forward and what our next season is going to be about.
KIERAN: I know we’re not going to be running out of topics any time soon!