Thinking Outside the Digital Box, Part II


In part one of this essay, I explored how Westminster College’s master of strategic communication program has sought to inject more in-person touches to our online curriculum — most notably, a class trip to Cambodia.

In this follow-up, we lay out 10 ways we’ve found to create a more robustly confluent online program. My colleagues and I haven’t fully figured this out, but here are a set of practices we’ve had some success with — and that I would strongly encourage.

  • Require an in-person residency two to three times per year. Bring students to your physical campus and let them interact and network with each other, with faculty and with college staff members. This really establishes a connection with people, which seems to strongly enhance motivation, retention and success. Even students who live out of state will fly in for these residencies. Most students repeatedly say how important residencies are, and many have even requested that the residencies last longer!
  • Make the program client based. Set up a structure where students select clients of their choice, requiring students to interact with organizations that utilize the students’ expertise every semester or course. Don’t neglect the important theoretical instruction, but require work for each course/semester that forces students to work with organizations and produce materials that will actually be used. Client-based work requires personal interaction, adaptability, positive pressure and motivation to learn and produce at the highest levels.
  • Require team projects. In addition to having students work with a client on their own, require, in the same course or semester, that students also do the same or similar project with a team and a different client. Have students establish team roles, assigning one as a leader each semester. Doing this does four things: 1) it allows students to work with two different clients each semester, broadening their insights and building their portfolios; 2) it reinforces learning as they do the same work twice — but with peer collaboration — learning simultaneously from each other; 3) it builds important leadership and teamwork skills; and 4) it improves project management, time management and motivation as students are accountable to each other for both learning and production.
  • Hire performance coaches. In addition to faculty mentors, create a system where students have one-on-one access to a generalist expert who can coach them in areas not necessarily related to the content of the course, but critical to their success. Our performance coaches provide students with personal access to coaching in writing, project management, leadership, research, presentation delivery and even career advice.
  • Schedule site visits. If your students don’t live in the same state or area, you can schedule by region or require them to set up their own visits. Regardless, it’s important that students are visiting key locations and people in their fields of study. My online students have done a variety of visits, including visiting a sports branding agency, doing a walk-through of a large-scale printing press and dining at a humanitarian awards dinner.
  • Require frequent, substantive interaction. Hold regularly scheduled phone and video calls with your students and have them do similar phone calls with their performance coach and peers. If students live close to your campus, invite them to visit you in person as well. “Substantive” interaction is more than just written feedback on assignments. It’s interpersonal communication where conversations can be elaborated and insights can be deepened.
  • Connect them with your college’s resources. Online students should know that their tuition pays for the same resources as in-person students: access to the physical health and exercise facilities, the library, online databases, discount tickets to arts and entertainment, and so forth. Helping them feel a part of a physical campus community where actual humans learn and work strengthens motivation and sense of belonging.
  • Keep technology loose. Utilize a variety of accessible, free technologies with which you can interact with your students. Consider products like Slack (project management), Google Hangouts (videoconferencing), WeChat (social media that allows file sharing) and the good old-fashioned cellphone. Students should be in regular conversation with you, with their coach and with their team. Never limit yourself to a learning management system and email. Communicate the way people communicate in real life. Isolation should rarely happen in confluent online programs.
  • Give students the reins. While this is a difficult venture for many educators, students find learning to be meaningful when they can adapt the learning to something they care about. Let them define some of the parameters. Allow students to modify projects (while still maintaining the integrity of the content they need to learn) so that it fits their professional and educational goals and also meets the needs of their clients. One of the problems with online education is that it tends to function with prefabricated content, and it doesn’t change during the course. But if a student can tailor their project, the course will become far more dynamic.
  • Include an all-inclusive trip with a project. While large-scale international trips to Cambodian jungles may seem unrealistic for some institutions, programs, faculty and students, all-inclusive trips don’t have to be overwhelmingly complex. In-state, regional or national trips may also be considered where students travel as a group, network and establish relationships, and learn from each other and the experience. Making the trip all inclusive (as an integrated part of their tuition) encourages students to attend and to not back out based on financial limitations. Making the trip last multiple days and in a less familiar location creates more memorable, thought-provoking opportunities. Integrating a project makes their programmatic learning become tangible and valuable. Students make long-lasting professional relationships from these trips that simply don’t happen if they never come together with a united purpose.

While many online programs cherry-pick some components from the list above, the goal is to integrate all of them. Our attempt to do so has been bumpy, to say the least, but the confluency of digital and humanistic learning has been a rewarding adventure — not just for the students (who matter most, of course), but for us educators as well — because when there is an ambiguous outcome in the jungle, learning is almost always guaranteed.


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