Space: Where are all these distance students?
A relatively recent article from the WCET website re-ignited an old conversation among the student support staff in our department. The article, entitled Where in the World Are Our Distance Education Students?: IPEDS Reality Check, explored the location of distance education students relative to the institutions who serve them. I won’t belabor the results of the study, which you are welcome to explore, but suffice it to say the results vary greatly from state to state. The study reveals that as little as 7% to as much as 92% of distance education students reside outside the state where the school they “attend” is located. Why am I glossing over this data? I’m not sure it really matters…
Take a moment to consider a few of the reasons students choose to take their classes online. Work and family are commonly cited factors for choosing to study online among students. And it’s not hard to imagine how online classes offer convenience and flexibility for students with busy work schedules or family members who demand a lot of time and attention. Accessibility and cost are also factors that make online learning appealing. Students with disabilities, students with limited mobility, or students who struggle with language often prefer online classes. Also, many online students find the financial savings on transportation, textbooks, printing, and course fees attractive. Personal learning preferences and increased engagement are also valid reasons why online classes appeal to some. Frequently, communicating in writing results in more thoughtful participation and helps some students to organize their thoughts. Students who are often too intimidated to speak in traditional classes find they excel as discussion participators in an online forum. Location is one of the more obvious reasons a student would choose an online class. It makes sense that students living in rural areas, or who don’t have local options for their preferred degree programs, would seek out online alternatives.
However, even though location seems like one of the most obvious reasons to learn online, it doesn’t always rank highly as a deciding factor. To cite the Online College Students 2014: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences report, “Among undergraduates, about half live within 50 miles of the campus or center and this has held constant over the past three years. However, there has been a shift from 25% to 31% living more than 100 miles away.” The same study from 2013, asked students what the greatest advantage of studying online is, and found that only 9% cited “elimination of travel” as an advantage, yet flexibility regarding schedule, work obligations, and pace of learning dominated their top perceived advantages.
It seems to me, based on the data and my experience with online students, that the primary concern for online learners isn’t necessarily place, but time. While many aspects of modern distance education courses allow students a great deal of flexibility in regards to location of course activities and support, similar considerations for time flexibility are not as common. Most online students have come to expect that their learning experience won’t require that they do much travelling. Course materials, communication options and support services are typically available available online or by phone. While valid arguments can be made about the questionable quality of some student support services in the online modality, there is typically a way to provide a reasonably equitable student experience regardless of location.
The considerations made for the time limitations of our online students are much less extensive. We know that many of our online students chose their course delivery method based on schedule related complications. Furthermore, online class options are intentionally recommended to students who are working full time or burdened with parental obligations. Despite knowing that online students keep odd hours and have limited time for school, most student support services still maintain traditional “business hours” that approximate the Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm model.
While some support needs can be addressed by email in an asynchronous fashion, not all support interactions can occur asynchronously, and not all student service departments will provide services by email or even offer email contacts for students. For a student with a full time job during “business hours” who is not allowed to make personal calls from work, this essentially means they have no options for engaging with some college services.
This problem doesn’t only impact distance education students. Many on campus students have busy lives which leave them little time to be on campus. While they may manage to carve out time for their scheduled class meetings, many on campus students don’t have time to stay late for office hours, or to wait in line at a student service office during drop in appointment hours. In the distance education department, we are all too familiar with on campus students who regularly contact our staff for support because they simply don’t have time to engage with on campus staff during regular business hours.
To take the argument a step further, I’m not entirely sure why a community college would feel compelled to adhere to a traditional business hours model for offering services regardless of online or face-to-face modality. In the context of a traditional 4 year university with on campus residential housing, it makes sense to limit service hours for what is essentially a captive audience. But it’s no secret that community college students are considered “non-traditional” more often than not. Our students are diverse in age, educational history, income, and many additional ways which make their needs unique. As a college we openly acknowledge and celebrate that we serve an unusually large student population and geographically vast district. Anyone who has spent time at our different campus locations can quite easily observe that they’re not all equally located in convenient central or residential areas with ideal public transportation options. Why not acknowledge our unique student populations and geographic location challenges, and build our service models around their needs?
P.S. So what?
Acknowledging that my audience here is largely comprised of college faculty, I suspect at this point many feel compelled to get out their red marker and comment about my lack of practical solutions. And I will admit that I don’t have all the answers. I was asked to post about this topic as a conversation starter, and hopefully I have accomplished that. Lest I lose too many points on this assignment, I humbly offer the following potential “extra credit” solution options.
- As a college we could revise our definition of “business hours” to offer more evening and weekend support options
- Improve and expand the options for asynchronous support interactions and offer more effective online “self help” materials for students
- Allow for after hours support services by appointment when real time interaction is required
- Build online support communities where student service professionals and peer advisors can engage students who cannot or prefer not to come to campus
And finally, I humbly offer a possibly unexpected partial solution: re-branding. In my years as both an online student and online student service practitioner I have always felt that “Distance Education” is a misnomer. And I hope I have made clear why “distance” isn’t the primary concern for our students. Instead, I feel that “Online Learning” is a far more appropriate description of what we do and who we serve. Our students are online, independent of space and time, and it’s time we acknowledge that and not keep them at a distance.