Making Connections: University of Online

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In our previous blog post, we discussed Governor Cuomo’s recent partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to “reimagine education.” As he introduced the initiative to the public, he openly questioned the current educational framework. He asked why students still need to come to school every day and learn from a teacher. His comments became a point of contention among educators as they see the value of in-person education on a daily basis. After a careful analysis, we found that these teachers may be right. Students need schools and their teachers—and they need them for more than just understanding their algebra homework. 

But what about after students have fully developed, can speak for themselves, and have developed a sense of autonomy? Do college students still need their professors and a physical campus to succeed? Online colleges and universities will ardently tell us no; students don’t need all the frills colleges package to learn. The trends say something similar. In fall of 2017, nearly 34% of students were learning completely online. The number of fully online students grew about 15% from the year before.

In direct opposition to the growing number of students in online courses, however, is the result of a survey conducted by Educause. The researcher surveyed 40,000 students across 118 US colleges and universities. 70% of respondents preferred a mostly or completely face-to-face learning experience. According to “Choosing Between Online and Face-to-Face Courses: Community College Student Voices,” when students take courses online they expect to “teach themselves.” The study found that students are averse to taking a course online if they believe the course will be difficult or important to their college career. As mere human beings, students understand the efficacy of synchronous communication, where body language, tone, and nonverbal cues can be the difference between a passing or failing grade. 

Beyond the school work and lectures, online courses often do not provide room for students to develop deep connections with faculty members. Some online courses occur where the professor and student never meet. These missed connections leave a gaping hole in students’ college career in the form of guidance and professional network. Despite this, the Gallup-Purdue Index found that having “a mentor who encouraged your goals and dreams” was the strongest correlation for success in college graduates. Dear Faculty: You Matter More than You Know cites the study and states that 64% of those surveyed reported that their mentor was a professor. 

However, these meaningful student-professor relationships do not simply occur. They need very delicate and specific ingredients to flourish. In a research study titled “Faculty Mentoring Undergraduates: The Nature, Development, and Benefits of Mentoring Relationships,” researcher Elizabeth McKinsey finds that the first step in creating a professor-student relationship is connection. She finds that modern students specifically look for relationships with their professors. The formation of these relationships are often “encouraged when faculty are available and accessible to talk outside of class. This means holding enough office hours so that conversations can be more than cursory, but it also requires approachability, making students feel invited and welcome when they do come.” In most online courses, students work alone and do not have set class time. They often email professors rather than staying after class or going to office hours. There are not a great deal of opportunities for a student or professor to establish the connection needed to foster a mentor-relationship. 

In the wake of coronavirus, some believe the future of college is online. Others affirm that the seismic shift to online will only last as long as coronavirus remains a threat to public health. “Will Coronavirus Forever Alter the College Experience” assumes the stance of the latter. “There will be some important lasting impacts, though, experts say: Faculty may incorporate online tools, to which many are being exposed for the first time, into their conventional classes. And students are experiencing a flexible type of learning they may not like as undergraduates, but could return to when it’s time to get a graduate degree.” The article states that many schools will likely use technology as a complement to students’ education as opposed to an overhaul of the brick-and-mortar structure. 

Whatsmore, colleges’ students are unhappy with it. A whopping 75% of students are unhappy with the current elearning due to COVID-19. Rising college freshmen aren’t too keen on the idea either. One-third of the students tested said they would defer or cancel admission if their college experience is all online, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Yes, brick-and-mortar institutions can be clunky and outdated and expensive. But they are the breeding grounds for meaningful relationships, quality learning experiences, and student accomplishments. We still need one another to move forward. In the time of social media and iEverything, we can still rely on something as minute as human interaction in our classrooms to predict success throughout students’ lives. And that is something to celebrate. 

Making Connections: University of Online

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