A recent Inside Online Learning chat session (#IOLchat) that focused on planning future online learning projects included the question, "What are your favorite strategies for goal setting and prioritization?" One of the responses was "considering student preferences and interests when planning new programs." This strategy has a lot of possibilities, but it's one that is not used as often as it might be. End-of-term surveys are now commonplace, gathering feedback from students about their instructors and courses, but how is student input gathered before the courses and programs are developed?
Roles for Students in Program Planning
Inviting students to participate in discussions and decisions about new programs can take place in multiple forms. Adding their voices to those of their school's instructors and administrators can inform the process in new ways. Here are just a few examples of how students are currently involved in program planning in higher education:
Strategic Planning Groups: At Mount Holyoke College, two student representatives are part of the 16-member Strategic Planning Committee, which includes faculty, staff, administrators, alumnae, and trustees. Some of the tasks performed by student representatives are researching information to report to the larger group, participating in goal-setting discussions, and conducting outreach with their student peers to gather more feedback for the committee's consideration. Many institutions similarly involve students in the strategic planning process.
Councils and Working Groups: Student representatives can play a part not only in planning at a higher level, but also in implementing projects. Student membership in Penn State University's Sustainability Council Working Group is an example of this kind of participation. Students, along with other group members, work to achieve specific deliverables within specified time lines.
Student Groups and Associations: Student leadership groups are not new, and can now be found in online environments, as well as on campuses, as representatives of the larger student body. There are many opportunities for administrators to connect with students through these organizations and some of these groups are becoming quite specialized. Arizona State University's Ashoka Exchange conference is focused on the development of "social entrepreneurship courses, programs, and partnerships" inviting students and faculty members to be part of the process. The goals of this initiative include "push[ing] disciplinary boundaries" and "creat[ing] new career paths and employer connections." Groups like Kaplan University's Student Military Association (KUSMA), provide services to, and represent students with, current or prior military affiliation. Student organizations like KUSMA can be a great resource for institutions seeking perspectives and program suggestions from specific student populations.
Surveys, Conversations, and Special Events: Dartmouth College's student-run newspaper recently highlighted an effort announced by Maria Laskaris, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, to "ensure that students 'have an opportunity to share thoughts and perspectives' about education." A new website will provide updates on the school's strategic planning and announce events at which students are invited to attend and "voice their opinions." Savannah College of Art and Design issued a call for student ideas and suggestions via email as part of their accreditation review preparation, while Baker University included students as part of their accreditation site visit. Baker's officials recognized that the accrediting reviewers "will want to talk with students as part of their visit. There may be campus conversations that involve students to talk about some of the areas that need improving." This kind of input is increasingly part of the accreditation process and a great way for decision makers to learn more about their students' perspectives.
Benefits and Challenges
A 2003 report from educational researchers at Brigham Young University and the University of Michigan lists "Thirty-two Trends Affecting Distance Education: An Informed Foundation for Strategic Planning." Among these trends, you'll find that "students are shopping for courses that meet their schedules and circumstances." As programs at all types of universities face increasing pressures related to cost and demand, student input can be helpful in determining which programs should be continued and others that might be added in the future.
What are students in your programs using in terms of technology for course access and communication? And what are their preferences for interaction within their courses? Studies like the annual updates from the ECAR National Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology and the Noel-Levitz reports on online learner satisfaction and priorities help us to get a big picture of what students want and expect, but each school's student population has unique characteristics worth investigating through student representatives and other forms of student feedback prior to making decisions about online programs.
Students also want to be included in the process of program development, as is evident in a recent demand from Mount Holyoke students to be represented on additional college planning committees. Faculty Focus also provides evidence that students want to influence the curriculum at the course level, describing the "ideal professor" in a 2004 study as one who "solicits student feedback two or more times per course." This desire to have a voice in the process of course revisions may also carry over to the program level.
Including students in the decision making process is not without challenges. Students who fill committee positions must be committed to the process, attend meetings, follow through with assigned tasks, respect the expertise of other committee members, and serve as productive members of the team. This may mean outlining a description of the role and conducting a formal search of some type to fill student representative positions. Helping students to understand the expectations involved, on top of their coursework and other obligations, is critical. Including uninvolved students in strategic planning efforts is a lost opportunity for all involved.
Additionally, student feedback, whether it's part of a formal committee appointment or through an informal survey, comes with logistical challenges, especially when all involved are working at a distance. Access to communication and meeting technologies is required, along with consideration of time zones and academic term schedules when planning meetings of members. Student availability may be more limited at different times of the year for both on campus and online students.
Working Together to Shape the Future
The development of new academic programs and initiatives can benefit from student involvement. Including them in the process requires administrators to establish these kinds of opportunities and invite students to provide meaningful and thoughtful input. It also requires students to take advantage of these opportunities as they become available, and to commit themselves to the work involved.
Students can bring a new perspective to the table, contributing their ideas to those of the college or university's faculty and administration, helping to shape the future of their university. How are students' ideas and preferences being heard at your school?