The Voice of the Online Graduate Student: Solutions for a Better Experience

Article excerpt

"We can believe that we know where the world should go. But unless we're in touch with our customers, our model of the world can diverge from reality. There's no substitute for innovation, of course, but innovation is no substitute for being in touch, either."

- Steve Ballmer, CEO, Microsoft

Distance educators lack the face-to-face interaction characteristic in brick-and-mortar universities, and so are constantly challenged to "see" the true learning experiences of their online students-and to use this knowledge to provide the best possible learning experience.

At American Military University (AMU)-a 100% distance learning institution with more than 20,000 students studying in 130 countries-we take this challenge very seriously. Our origins lie in providing relevant and affordable education to the military. Today, we serve more than 6,000 graduate students, with special emphasis on serving professionals in the military, national security and public safety sectors, and beyond. Many students have more than 15 years experience in their professions.

Each morning, key members of our academics, student services, and operations teams meet to discuss student issues or experiences from the previous day. Some issues may affect only that individual, while others may have a much wider reach. The team leaves these 10- to 15minute meetings with a solution or a resolve to find a solution. Ideas are also brought forward into future strategic planning meetings. The real result, however, is that the student voice is heard-and heard immediately. More broadly, AMU educators and services team members connect with the students through the typical university course and program surveys.

We also recently went a step further in listening to our students-and keeping their comments at the forefront of our decision-making and planning discussions. During the summer of 2006, we surveyed current AMU graduate students and graduates who attended the university between 2003 and 2005. We wanted to gain deeper insight into the overall graduate student experience. We were pleased to learn our students wanted to tell us their stories. More than 700 of those surveyed (13.46%) completed the questionnaire. Responses came from Afghanistan, Iraq, Timo, Cuba, Okinawa, Germany, Italy, Muscat, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Bosnia, Iceland, submerged in the Pacific Ocean, Southwest Asia, South Caribbean Sea, Kabul, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, across the United States, and more.

GRADUATE SURVEY

We asked our students about the strengths and weaknesses of completing a graduate degree online. We also probed for a greater understanding of the value of flexibility, self-discipline, and characteristics of the overall learning environment. In addition, we structured our questions to better understand the similarities and differences between online institutions and traditional brick-and-mortar universities. Table 1 presents the initial findings - findings that can provide insights for all distanced educators as they strive to understand their students.

SUCCESS FACTORS

FLEXIBILITY

Flexibility was a predominant theme across student responses. Graduate students must integrate study into an already busy personal and professional life. This is especially true of those serving in the armed forces. This comment was representative of many:

I appreciated being able to work on courses at times and in environments conducive to my own learning. I don't work as well in the restrictiveness of a traditional classroom. It was available to me anytime, anywhere, even in the middle of the night.

We must continue to recognize the importance of flexibility to the ongoing success of online institutions and their students. Continued improvement of programs, policies, and initiatives can enhance student flexibility. It is important to remain student-focused as a university grows and matures.

PROFESSORS AND THE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT

Professor commitment, excellence in teaching, and attention to students and their needs are characteristics of online and traditional universities. …