Recently, I had the privilege of attending the graduation ceremony of a large, online university. The next day, I also got to tour the campus of another college along with a group of prospective students. Seeing students at both the beginning and the end of their educational journey caused me to reflect on what it is we educators, both online and face-to-face, do each day and how valuable it truly is.
Lost in the Shuffle
On a day-to-day basis and within our respective roles as faculty, administrators, tutors, and staff, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. As a department chair, for example, I have days with no direct contact with students. Rather, I am engrossed in making decisions about curriculum, scheduling, implementing procedures, reviewing escalations, and other such administrative tasks. Sometimes I feel disconnected to the mission of our profession: helping students learn and achieve their goals. Even when I was in the classroom each day, there were times I felt this disconnect while spending hours evaluating papers or completing various reports.
To be clear: I am not referring to burnout or any feelings of discouragement about education. Simply the sensation of feeling lost in the shuffle of duties, responsibilities, and spreadsheets more than the desired exhilaration of seeing students grow and progress along their path of learning.
Experiencing both a F2F tour and a graduation of online students so close together helped me realize, however, that those tasks that seem so mundane and disconnected in the present, form the steps of progress into the future.
Heroes and Helpers
Obviously, students don’t go from an initial campus tour to graduation in an instant. The journey from start to finish is a heroic one, during which students must overcome a number of obstacles to achieve success. As I watched and listened on the tour, I became even more aware of the fears and concerns of both parents and potential attendees as they asked questions about the school, its faculty and support services, prospects for gainful employment and other such concerns. On the other hand, at graduation, I observed the relief and exhilaration as students succeeded. As they walked across the stage to accept their hard-earned diplomas before the eyes of friends and family, they also expressed gratitude toward the educators present who had assisted them along the way.
To break this down further, a look at the demographics of online students (2011) reveals some of the challenges our students face on a daily basis as they pursue postsecondary education. Most are attending school full-time (68%), while working a job (81%) and raising a family (60% ) on an annual income lower than $40,000 (74.3%). Additionally, about one-half of the e-learners are minority students vs. around 22% at ground campuses.
At each step of the way, from the moment students contacted an admissions advisor with questions to the awarding of a postsecondary certificate or diploma, there was someone in education who offered their help. This may be a staff member who provides a tour of the virtual course site, a tutor who walks a struggling student through an assignment, a professor who provides enlightenment on a key concept, or an administrator who works to ensure the delivery of solid course content. All of these helpers at each step of the way are necessary to ensuring a successful outcome for students.
In addition to providing help when needed, these daily interactions and activities serve another important purpose: keeping the students moving forward through academia and into their future careers.
This assistance with helping students move forward was clearly evident when during the campus tour, I felt the proverbial “electricity in the air,” as students viewed dorms, classrooms, labs, and other structures and opportunities at the university. This feeling was intensified at graduation as students and attendees looked forward to the next stage, that new career and better life they were initially seeking when they decided to attend school.
Educators at all stages of the journey not only provide information, but they also offer the encouragement students may need at times to keep moving forward. Eric Sorrentino of Grantham University recently posted the “four biggest challenges with going to school online: 1) lack of face-to-face interaction; 2) juggling family, work, and school; 3) distractions; and 4) technology (16 May, 2012). He also offers some suggestions to students for each one, as I know many educators have done to keep students motivated and moving forward.
More specifically, educators are concrete examples to students of people who have succeeded at what they wish to do. Many of us share with our students our own struggles with the desire for social interaction, multiple competing commitments, and rapidly advancing technology as we worked through our own postsecondary education. I know my own students have often appreciated knowing that as a single parent, working more than one job mostly from home, I was able to complete my graduate education and pursue the career of my dreams. Having someone available to them—even virtually—on a daily basis who can say, “I’ve been there and done that. You can, too!” offers students the encouragement they sometimes need to advance toward their goals.
Those tasks that feel so mundane sometimes not only help students academically, but also emotionally. That momentum prospective students exhibit on a campus tour and at graduation has its connection in what educators do each and every day.
Safety and Security
There is at least one final reason the daily grind feeling educators sometimes experience is important, and that has to do with safety and security. The prime example of this is gainful employment. Students on the tour had a lot of questions about whether or not the school and its programs could ensure that graduates would find suitable jobs after graduation. One that would allow them to pay off any student debts as they continued to support themselves and their present or future families. There were similar discussions at graduation as online students likewise shared their struggles to find jobs, or more often, their successes at finding new career opportunities with their degrees.
Again, to break this down on a more daily basis, students often look to educators for guidance on issues such as physical safety (see, for example, the ten questions posted by Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services); advice on how to approach or complete an assignment so that they may feel more assured that it will be evaluated favorably; and assistance on how to effectively and safely use technology. Each one of these near daily scenarios that may be routine for educators to respond to means much more to students who are working toward their educational and career goals each day.
Overall, we want our students to be helped, energized, and safe as they pursue each step along their educational path. We also want graduates to carry these tools forward as they move securely into their careers. It is a shared goal, and each task along the way, no matter how repetitious or mundane it may feel at the time, is an important contribution toward their overall success.
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