APU Online Learning Original

How Student Organizations Aid University Students (Part 1)

Note: This article is part 1 of a two-part series about the value and impact of student organizations for students enrolled in online universities.

Are you a student at an online university looking to enhance your learning experience? Are you a professor who wants to interact with your students outside of the classroom? If you are ready to expand your horizons, student organizations offer plenty of opportunities to get involved, personalize your learning experience and forge meaningful relationships.

Today, students at online universities like our school have numerous options to interact with their peers and pursue their interests outside the virtual classroom. Online students who want to improve their digital learning experience, develop relationships with peers, and craft an individualized learning experience should join one or more of the student organizations available at our school

Similarly, professors have the opportunity to learn from their students outside of the classroom by volunteering to help one of these student organizations. For instance, they can serve as faculty advisors.

Currently, there are 74 student organizations available at the University. These groups offer students valuable learning and relationship-building opportunities that enable students to create a personalized, student-centered academic experience.

Challenging Dated Misconceptions about Online Universities and Student Organizations

Despite the massive technological changes over the past decade, there is a dated misconception that attending an online university requires students to forego opportunities like student organizations. Some also feel that an online university doesn’t allow students to create meaningful relationships with their peers.

These ideas about the limitations of online universities are not based on the contemporary student experience, where students can engage in a wide range of student-led groups or create a new organization. So, the idea that a person is making a sacrifice or must forego extracurricular experiences by attending an online university does not fit with current reality. 

Moreover, online universities allow students to network with their peers, form study groups, and engage in other activities like their brick-and-mortar peers. Online universities like ours can do so because we provide students with an easy-to-access platform to network with their geographically dispersed peers and form connections via technology.

Tremendous Progress in Distance Education Has Been Made Since the 1990s

Before discussing the current state of online education and student organizations, it’s necessary to have a firm understanding of the historical context and how this context shaped perceptions about digital education and the student experience.

Innovative initiatives that influenced my thinking occurred overseas during my formative years. For example, I have been monitoring activities in educational experimentation, especially developments in Europe, since the early 1990s.

The Erasmus+ program, launched in the 1980s, aimed to provide educational opportunities for students across the European continent. It emphasized cross-cultural exchanges and cooperation between institutions.

At the time, European institutions were also experimenting with various educational models that sought to connect students separated by language, space and place. These experiments laid the foundations for digital education, but they were limited by the technology of the time.

My personal experience with non-brick-and-mortar education began in the early 1990s. At the time, I thought it would be fascinating to use distance learning to attend a university based in the United Kingdom. The term “distance learning” describes learning that did not require physical attendance in a United Kingdom classroom.

In the days before the internet, students corresponded with their instructors and completed assignments via mail and other means. For example, students would work independently, listen to recorded lectures and complete study guides with much of the work done in correspondence with a professor.  

In part, distance learning in the pre-internet era worked because the United Kingdom system requires students to complete independent essays and other research assignments. These materials could be completed by the student and mailed to the instructor, who graded and provided written feedback on the submissions.

These programs in the early 1990s were innovative at the time. They allowed students to continue their education by allowing students all over the world with access to world-class institutions and excellent professors.

However, at the time, I decided not to pursue a degree. I believed that those universities did not provide me with what I considered to be the heart of an educational experience: the ability to create relationships with my peers and professors. 

While this discussion of educational experimentation in Europe in the 1990s may seem like a tangent, it is important to discuss this history. Unfortunately, many educators’ perceptions of non-brick-and-mortar education was forged in prior generations. But much has changed since the 1990s.

Peer-to-Peer Relationships Form the Basis for Any Strong Educational Experience

While coursework, class design, and skilled professors are essential to education, my best and most vivid memories from school come from my interactions with others. There were both positive and negative experiences with my peers and the various activities available to me in high school and college.

Fortunately, advances in technology since the 1990s have provided current online learning students with more opportunities. These opportunities were unimaginable when I was a college student considering my post-graduate options. 

Online Students Benefit from Technological Advances

Over the past decades, technology has made significant advances. The costs associated with using technology in the 1990s, including learning management systems and video conferencing, have decreased tremendously to the great benefit of students.

For example, in the ‘90s, it would have cost nearly $1,000 to host an hour-long video conference between students in different geographical locations. This type of conference would have required students to travel to designated locations to participate in such conferences and access the technology needed to conduct those meetings. At the same time, a lot of technology was expensive and inaccessible to the public. 

Related: Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality in the Classroom

COVID-19 Accelerated Communication with Others Around the World

Now, students at our school have access to a learning platform that provides them with the means to improve their subject matter knowledge. Students access this platform from their laptops and smartphones. At the same time, they are in contact with their professors and peers who are spread all over the world.

The same technology used by students at our school before COVID-19 was rapidly adopted by millions of people during that era. For instance, the mass adoption of videoconferencing during the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated how far technology has come. Tools such as Zoom® and Microsoft Teams® also allowed companies to survive and thrive during an extraordinary period.

For both universities and businesses, the COVID-19 experience showed that it was possible to stay in regular contact with others no matter where they were geographically. But that ability to reach others and be productive was first spearheaded by online universities.

Related: Student Engagement and Classroom Changes after COVID-19

Zoom is a registered trademark of Zoom Video Communications, Inc.

Microsoft Teams is a registered trademark of the Microsoft Corporation.

James Barney 3

Dr. James Barney is a Professor of Legal Studies at the School of Security and Global Studies. Dr. Barney has been the recipient of several awards. He teaches undergraduate and graduate law and history courses. In addition to having earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Memphis, Dr. Barney has several master's degrees, including one in U.S. foreign policy and a J.D. from New York Law School. Dr. Barney serves as one of the faculty advisors of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity and the Model United Nations Club, and he is the pre-law advisor at the University. He is currently writing a book on the politics of New York City during the administration of David Dinkins, New York City's first African American mayor, 1989-1993.

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