Stalking Distance Ed Part 3: High Tech and In Touch

If an institution like Mason (GMU) takes the path to more on-line courses, there are going to be intended and unintended consequences to the student experience.  We know that many students coming to university already have exposure to on-line content delivery from high school.  What we don’t know is how this innovation will change campus culture. Indeed, we don’t know to what extent the on-line methods will diminish our particular brand of educational experience.

To be honest, Mason has never been known as a campus with a “there,” or strong sense of place.  When I enrolled as a graduate student in 1989, few students lived on campus, there was no local “student ghetto” and on weekends the campus was deserted.  I returned after completing my doctorate at Penn in 2001, finding a more lively environment, more students (but still no ghetto).  The only complaint students had (and to some degree, still have) is a lack of centralized communication.  When I asked, “Did you attend that lecture from the Prof. from UCLA at noon today?”  Most often students said that they would have liked to attend the event, but they didn’t know about it.

Since then the university has instituted Today@Mason, which gives a list of the major events on campus.  I know that many of my colleagues are unaware of the site, so they don’t always post their events there. Instead, they rely on word of mouth, Facebook, and posting flyers around campus. I’m also not certain how often students check the site.

The most effective way to reach students is still word of mouth.  I know, it seems counter intuitive.  People often ask how I manage to always populate the events that we sponsor as part of the Folklore Studies Program.  It’s simple. I tell my colleagues and ask them to tell their students. I target specific student populations based on the event.  I find that students respond to their professors while they tend to tune out social media blasts.  Too much noise not enough signal, I suppose.

This brings me back to my concern about campus culture and tradition.  What is going to make Mason distinct if we adopt MOOCs and an extensive distance education curriculum? I think the answer to this question lies in the redevelopment of university life programs.  If the university is going to invest in technology, we will have to put more energy toward being in touch with our students.  This means maximizing face-to-face encounters on campus and developing community-based learning programs that foster student-faculty engagement.

I envision campus events where faculty present informal lectures to students in dorm lounges, having regular “chat and chews” (a regular feature of the Folklore Studies Program) luncheons and dinners where small groups of students dine with professors to talk about scholarly and research interests and their applications to real-world experience.  I teach a field school for cultural documentation each summer in collaboration with colleagues from the Library of Congress. It is a model developed for ethnographic research, but could work well with other community-based research projects.  It puts me in the field as a research supervisor, by necessity requiring more face time with student teams than is common in a conventional classroom.

Too often faculty think of university life programs as unnecessary frosting on a cupcake.  The cupcake is already too small, so why add frosting?  In other words, why spend money on mere entertainment?  To that I answer that if we expect our students to work hard, and we should, the university should offer constructive opportunities to play hard.  Play is not necessarily unintellectual.  Any number of entertaining activities can reinforce classroom learning.  (Can you tell I just took a Coursera course from the Wharton School on Gamification?)

What I propose here will require more and creative collaborations between academic units and university life.  Our outstanding faculty will have to re-envision their courses beyond the classroom.   But if the university works to balance the distance education and curricular activities with more intensive and meaningful contact between students and professors in co-curricular programs, I believe we could build a model 21st Century university here a Mason.

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