Graduate education requires both independent and group learning to create a community of engaged learners who not only develop content knowledge but also become socialized into their chosen discipline. Traditionally, much of this community building and socialization happens in face-to-face interactions with both faculty and other graduate students. Replicating these types of interactions and experiences can be very challenging when graduate programs move online. In spring 2016, two individuals (authors Christina Yao and Brian Wilson) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) came together to address the challenge of creating a community of engaged learners in the Department of Educational Administration (EDAD). Our department currently has 423 students, with 66 percent of them fully online. In our discussion, we realized that online learners in graduate studies often face two new realities at the start of their academic career: shifting identity into becoming graduate students, and developing online course competency. We identified three overarching problems in online graduate learning and used these questions to guide our approach to this challenge:
- How do we prepare graduate students for online learning who may not have prior online experience?
- How do we prepare graduate students to function in a community of learners that requires active participation and community building?
- How do we better socialize online graduate students into their chosen field? (e.g., practical application, graduate-level writing skills)
In later evaluating our fully online Educational Administration graduate program, we began to notice a common theme in student responses to survey questions, as well as faculty perceptions of student preparedness. Students not only struggled with the basics of graduate school on-boarding procedures, they also expressed a general disconnect with our department. Not only did they feel that resources were scattered and often difficult to find, they also felt that making real connections with the people who had the answers (faculty and staff) was also difficult. It is a common refrain among fully online students that, although they take classes in a college, they feel more disconnected from their collegiate community than face-to-face learners.1 Distance students may e-mail or communicate sporadically with faculty and staff on the phone; however, unless the faculty and staff were intentional about engaging the students in conversations rather than simply answering questions, students often had a hard time perceiving them as real people. These types of connections often happen naturally for students who are on campus — casual conversations between faculty/staff and students are common. These types of interactions allow students to perceive the faculty/staff as real people with whom they can make personal connections.
We knew that establishing a strong orientation to online learning2 and graduate education3 would provide a foundation for establishing a community of learners. Through that community of learners and with frequent interactions with instructors and staff, students can begin the process of becoming socialized into our department and their field of study. After discussing the need for an early and detailed orientation, we actively sought key collaborators at UNL who would have vested interests in graduate student success: departmental faculty and staff, colleagues from the UNL Libraries, and current graduate students representing the EDAD Graduate Student Association (GSA). Thus, the first inaugural working group for the EDAD Orientation Site, which was later renamed the EDAD Student Success Center, included the five members who are co-authoring this article.