When universities and colleges across the country began reopening their doors, it wasn’t going back that was so uncomfortable for many students. It was differentiating between the option to attend in person or digitally. As a semi-recent college graduate who experienced first-hand both traditional and online schooling, I imagine that many students felt pressured to attend on campus versus online. When campuses opened back up, it was a step towards normalcy. According to Inside Higher Ed, in 2019, of the 20 million students enrolled for fall classes, only 17 percent were enrolled entirely virtually. Sixty-three percent of students took no online courses, and the remaining 19 percent took only one virtual class. For a long time, traditional learning was the only option, which could be why students perceive it as the “best” or “preferred” option. When online instruction became more available, thoughts like “professors prefer students who come to class” contributed to my and other student’s hesitation. Why did we feel that way? Because we did not fully understand the online culture at my institution. We were uncomfortable simply because we didn’t know how online learning was perceived at my university. Yes, getting back to traditional campus culture is essential. But building and establishing an online culture is more critical than ever, with approximately 2,200 colleges and universities reporting a 93 percent increase in the number of students enrolled exclusively online, also noted from Inside Higher Ed.
Culture is just as much individual as it is collective, and it is what makes a campus unique. According to The New York Times, at higher education institutions, culture is best defined as the institution’s perception of norms, including but not limited to peer norms, shared behavior, customs, and beliefs of a social group. When a student chooses to attend your institution remotely, the on-campus climate must reflect to its online constituents. A student, whether new or returning, needs to feel a sense of belonging. According to EDUCAUSE, one of the biggest factors that influences student engagement and performance is their sense of belonging in their higher education experience. Students also need to feel comfortable about deciding to attend digitally versus in a traditional setting.
In a recent survey of Tambellini Group colleagues, I asked whether they think culture can exist virtually. Every person answered, “Absolutely.” However, it is something that an institution must work toward. Dave Kieffer, Vice President of Research and Analysis, stated, “cultural norms could range from how communication is done to the technology used on campus.”
The landscape for using technology to provide online instruction has completely shifted. Sure, the unexpected and unprecedented experiment was fun, but the effects are permanent as students’ expectations have begun to change. Students want to return to campus, but they will also expect the option to attend remotely. In a recent article, the argument for culture reads, “If the culture of our schools and divisions will need to exist online, then we have a collective responsibility to sustain our schools’ cultures and keep them alive and maintain their vitality. This will require leadership.” Numerous Tambellini resources target the new role of the CIO, including that of change maker. In a 2020 Top of Mind podcast, Keith McIntosh, Vice President for Information Service and Chief Information Officer at the University of Richmond emphasized the courageous leadership needed in higher ed in the aftermath of the pandemic, including navigating the challenges of new learning environments. Without leadership from our IT leaders, the culture of an institution is in danger of not translating to online students.
Focusing on building and maintaining an online culture for your institution will have long-term benefits. At the top of the list are enrollment and retention. A recent EDUCAUSE article stated, “Without a strong sense of community, students are struggling to keep up academically.” Students have more reason to apply and stay when they feel like a campus community member, despite their preferred learning environment. Establishing a virtual culture can also assist in setting the framework for deciding which innovative learning-delivery models are the best fit for your institution. Inevitably, your entire campus will have the ability to identify as a community, no matter where they attend class.
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