Building Global Community for Online Students and Faculty
by Darlene A. Smucny and
University of Maryland University College
Online education has become an important part of the undergraduate curriculum at many colleges and universities in the United States, particularly at institutions that serve non-traditional students (e.g., students who are full-time working adults, active military). While the online format offers students flexibility and convenience of access, instructors are faced with the challenges of promoting a community of learners at a distance (Ammendolia 2006). Online students and faculty may feel isolated from the greater university community; students and faculty in online programs may never even visit or attend classes at the physical university campus. To be academically successful, online students need to be technologically competent, they require instructor and classmates interaction, and they need strong social support to attain their educational goals (Dabbagh 2007, Liu 2007, Seckel 2007). Providing students and faculty with the opportunity for collegial and academic interchange of ideas outside of the classroom environment is an important part of the higher education experience—but how is this accomplished for online students and faculty?
University of Maryland University College
Our institution, University of Maryland University College (UMUC), serves non-traditional adult students. Most UMUC instructors are adjunct faculty. Students and faculty are globally distributed. In 2007, the UMUC student body consisted of more than 90,000 students, with about 75,000 undergraduate students. UMUC students are adult learners, often the first in their families to attend college. The average age is 32 years old, with 82% employed full time. UMUC does not have a traditional campus; our face-to-face classes are held at regional sites in Maryland and on U.S. military bases throughout the world. The college has been a leader among state universities in distance and online education (graduate and undergraduate).
The Social Science Department includes four disciplines: anthropology, behavioral sciences, gerontology, and sociology. The department currently has about 500 undergraduate majors worldwide. In order to inform and involve our globally distributed social science majors and also invite interested students to the major, a special online classroom—the Online Student Club for the Social Sciences—was established. A number of online student clubs, all oriented toward specific undergraduate majors, were established through an initiative of the UMUC Office for Academic Success. Among adult learners, student retention is a concern, therefore the online undergraduate student clubs seek to improve communication with the university and provide a community to students in order to improve retention, academic success, and eventual degree completion. Students who are interested in joining the Online Student Clubs contact the UMUC Office for Academic Success and request to be rostered into a specific club classroom.
Social Sciences Online
In the Social Science Club, students, faculty, and invited guest speakers engage in online discussions about social science careers, research opportunities, student publishing opportunities, current events, and social issues (Miller 2007). In the first year of the online club, the faculty advisers determined the activities, discussion topics, and schedule. As more students enrolled in the club, leadership, organization, and direction of the club and its activities has been handed to the students. There are currently 272 student members, primarily social science, criminal justice, gerontology, and psychology majors. The club discussions, guest presentations, and online activities are asynchronous and held within the online UMUC club website.
Faculty members are encouraged to be guest speakers in the club through presentations about their research. At UMUC, because most instructors are adjunct faculty, they provide perspectives on "real-world" applications of the social sciences (e.g., in government, research, and public service). Students also have served as guest speakers, as in a recent online student panel on volunteerism. Recent guest presentations have included: Exploring Your Career Options (UMUC Career Services), Caring for the Aging During Winter (Faculty), Explorations in the Sociology of Popular Culture (Faculty), Publishing Opportunities for Undergraduates (UMUC Library), Mastering APA style (Faculty), and Research in South Asia (Faculty). Topics in the student club have included Careers and Graduate School in the Social Sciences, Networking in the Social Sciences and Gerontology, and "Ask the Director."
The asynchronous nature of the student club offers students and faculty more flexibility; they can enter the site whenever they want and wherever they have Internet access. Working in an online community requires an exploration of innovative ways to engage students and faculty in "real time." For example, online chat and Instant Messaging functions could be further explored for enhancing synchronous online club activities.
Future Ideas and Conclusions
Overall, the Student Club has created a stronger connection for students and faculty to the University, undergraduate school, and social science department. As in any club or organization, some members tend to participate more than others. In an online context, non-responsiveness does not necessarily mean that students or faculty are not engaged in the club as there may be a fair number of "lurkers," or those who quietly observe the online transactions. Just as instructors struggle with ways to interpret the online "silence" in their classrooms (Zembylasa & Vrasidas 2007), an examination of how to better connect with "lurkers" in an online student club is needed. How can we engage students to become a more active part of the social science community at UMUC? As a new academic year approaches, we will refresh the Student Club site and we look to new efforts to promote greater student and faculty involvement, including involving our honor society chapter more into the Student Club site and organizing an Online Social Science Research Festival in the club classroom. The latter follows the model of Online Science Festivals that have been successfully implemented in K-12 classrooms (Tubbs 2007).
Online education comprises an important part of higher education today, particularly for non-traditional adult learners. Through our Online Student Club for the Social Sciences, non-traditional students (who learn online) and adjunct faculty (who teach online) can feel more integral to the global UMUC Social Science Department.
The authors would like to acknowledge Donna Maurer, faculty adviser to UMUC’s online Social Science Club.
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