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Cyber-Go-Seek

Finding what clicks with online-degree alumni

By Stefanie Whitby


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Eva Tatcheva



When the alumni relations office at Wilmington University surveyed our online students in 2012, we expected that they might feel significantly less connected to the university than their on-campus counterparts. To our (pleasant) surprise, the numbers were not only close but online students were actually more interested in remaining connected with us after graduation.

At Wilmington University, based in Delaware with branches in Maryland and New Jersey, the online population makes up 37 percent of our more than 19,000 students. When our survey of these online students revealed that 96 percent had at least some interest in staying connected with us after graduation, we realized we needed to take a closer look at how to create that relationship for alumni. How can we make sure their experience is valuable and personal? Do they want the feel of a traditional university experience? What new tactics should we implement?

Advancement teams need to ask these questions. Online students constitute 15 percent of the higher education market, and adult learners make up 40 percent. Online enrollments have grown 9.3 percent since 2011, compared to a 2.6 percent rate for the overall higher education student population, according to the Babson Survey Research Group. If we don't engage these students while they are taking courses, we may lose them as alumni.

Yet online students are continually overlooked. Cara Quackenbush, vice president of core research at the education consulting firm Eduventures, saw this firsthand at a recent conference for development professionals. Sixty-five people attended the conference. Only two went to a session on raising money from online students.

The crickets you hear in the room are not due to lack of interest—it's because this type of student is still new to advancement professionals. To develop an effective engagement strategy, we must first figure out who online students are and what they want from us.

Many online learners are working full- or part-time jobs, raising a family, and/or caring for aging family members. Three things are most important to them, our survey found: a focus on career skills, the quality of instruction, and the integrity of the program. These students are focused on their career and networking. They take their education seriously but want to adapt their learning for their busy lives. Because of their needs, these students are often misunderstood. Here are some common misperceptions:

Myth: Online students lack school spirit.

Even though online learners might not have a traditional on-campus experience, they take pride in their school. "There is an appeal based on brand," says Brian Fleming, a senior analyst at Eduventures. "Online students may not interface with the campus, but they want an institution that has a good reputation. They might not go to the football game, but they like that the university has one."

During our 2013 homecoming weekend, Wilmington invited online students and alumni to view a double-header soccer game through a live stream and participate in a mascot mask-decorating contest. More than 1,800 viewers tuned in for the game, more than double for any previous live-streamed Wilmington game. An even bigger bonus: The numbers increased for games after Homecoming, suggesting that students enjoyed the experience and wanted more events like it.

On-campus and online students at Wilmington also reported the same level of interest in giving to their alma mater. This contradicted the assumption that online alumni would probably not contribute to their university.

Myth: Online students don't want to interact with other students.

When asked how they would like to participate after graduation, Wilmington online students ranked mentoring current students highest. Many online learners are proud of the path they took to get an education and want to help students in similar situations. The University of Maryland University College recently started a mentoring program for this purpose—alumni wanted a chance to connect with online-degree students and share their knowledge and lessons. More than 80 alumni signed up in the first week.

Online students want to attend events, especially related to community outreach, job fairs, and resume workshops. And even though students can study online from anywhere, most choose local institutions: 75 percent of prospective online students would prefer to enroll within 100 miles of their home, a recent study by Eduventures found. They want the convenience of an online education, but they also want an institution they've heard of—and one that employers will recognize.

Blending online gatherings and in-person programming can also help build affinity with nontraditional students and alumni—especially if those events are targeted to their professional and personal needs. Washington State University, for example, hosts events for online students in various parts of the state—a recent tailgate party drew more than 100 participants, some driving more than two hours to get there. The university's online college, Global Campus, also provides virtual research webinars on topics such as home-brewing, beekeeping, and career assessment.

Myth: Online students are tech savvy.

In 2012, about 70 percent of online students spent 10 or more hours per week on the Internet in addition to their coursework, according to Aslanian Market Research and the Learning House. Many online students, however, choose web-based learning for the flexible schedules and easy access (no driving!), not because they're computer geeks.

At Wilmington, 40 percent of online-only students had never completed a course online before enrolling in their current program. Because of this, institutions need to create platforms that are intuitive and easy to navigate and that provide exceptional technical support. Many universities offer 24-hour online live chat opportunities to assist with issues from password troubleshooting to tutoring support. New platforms and tools—including adaptive learning (personalizing the coursework based on each student's performance and skills), social engagement networks, better designed interfaces, and quality multimedia experiences—are making online learning easier and more interactive, regardless of your skill set.

Myth: Online students know their career plans and just want a degree.

Although many online learners work full- or part-time jobs, they are often going back to school to change careers, increase their salary, or secure a better position. Seventy-eight percent of Wilmington online students identified networking events as a top interest—suggesting that they, like traditional students, are still finding their way professionally.

Online students were equally excited about alumni orientation and student-alumni sponsored events—any gathering that provided possibilities to connect with mentors or professional contacts. Career services departments should look more closely at how to cater to these types of needs and adapt their resources to the online population with events such as virtual career fairs or online job boards.

Changing strategy for the new graduate experience

Wilmington has launched several initiatives to address the unique needs of online students. In 2010, the Online Learning and Educational Technology Department created a bimonthly meeting of 17 student services departments, from academic advising to web communications-the types of departments a traditional student would encounter on campus. This group meets to identify online student needs and share ideas. It has even devised creative solutions to challenges, such as live chat sessions to offer tutoring services to online students.

The alumni relations office participates in this group, and we've also partnered with an online student navigator—a staff member designated to serve online students—to craft unique opportunities to engage distance learners. An online student association averages about 400 visits per month. The university also hosts monthly live webinars and discussions on topics such as how online students would like to participate in commencement ceremonies and stay in touch after graduation.

We have not yet solved the mystery of how to best engage online students and alumni. Alumni relations professionals and staff in other departments on campus need to converse more on the topic. But we must go beyond the myths and misperceptions about online students and create targeted programs that make sense. Our online learners are equally as proud as traditional students are of their degree and institution. We just need to make sure that they know we're proud of them too.

—Sallie Reissman and Matthew Davis also contributed to this article.

Share Your Ideas

Has your university created innovative programming for online-degree students and alumni? CURRENTS wants to hear about it. Email us at currents@case.org, and we'll publish the best responses.

About the Author Stefanie Whitby

Stefanie Whitby is the senior director for alumni relations at Wilmington University in Delaware.

 

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