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Culture of the Online College


shutterstock_3179985With an increasing number of online learning options to choose from, how do you decide which program is right for you? There are essential components you should research to ensure academic quality and a fit with your goals and resources.

Accreditation and affordability, for example, should be at the top of your checklist for comparing online programs. But when all else is equal, a closer look at a school’s culture may be helpful in this kind of decision-mkaing. How do you determine the culture surrounding online learning and find a good fit?

I was interviewed by Dice.com earlier this month for an article addressing issues related to job-seeking and company culture. Our conversation challenged my assumptions and left me with more questions: What is company culture? How do you “know it when you see it?” And more importantly, how does it factor in with an individual’s fit with an organization? A poor match can lead to a host of problems, including discouraged employees and unhappy employers.

Fit with an educational institution is also important and the talk of traditional campus tours all over the country. Whether your goal is a full degree or a few courses for professional development, you’ll be committing a great deal of your time and financial resources to pursuing an education, so making sure it’s a comfortable environment, that it “feels right,” is not a minor consideration.

Defining College Culture

After one of my neighbors returned from taking her son on visits to various college campuses last Fall, she explained that there was one school that had been his first choice, his dream school, even before the visits took place. But when then they got there, she could quickly see that he was disappointed. It wasn’t a good fit. Everything from how they were greeted to the meetings they attended — and even the appearance of the campus — played a role in how her son saw himself as a future student there. But when the campus is a virtual one, determining the culture of the place gets a little more complicated.

During the last few weeks I’ve been reading more about culture in general and was struck by this description from National Geographic: “behavior shared by an identifiable group and acquired through social learning.” This basic definition can be applied to groups and organizations of all types, including higher education institutions. The culture of an online college could then be identified by the behavior of its students, faculty, and administration. And each school’s culture would be unique in some way based on the individuals working and learning there.

As Penn State professor William Tierney presented in his article “Organizational Culture in Higher Education: Defining the Essentials,” it’s important to look at how an institution works. He wrote, “An organization’s culture is reflected in what’s done, how it is done, and who is involved in doing it. It concerns decisions, actions, and communication both on an instrumental and a symbolic level.”

Looking for Clues

So what can you do to find out more about what takes place in an online college before you enroll? Here’s a short list of areas to explore in your research of online schools, programs and virtual campuses.

Branding and Online Presence

Even traditional universities have marketing teams that conduct outreach and establish the school’s brand. What do they say about themselves?

  • Online: Review institution websites for vision and mission statements at both the institutional level and program level in the disciplines in which you are interested. Look for descriptions of the college’s priorities and the ways in which they serve their students.
  • Culture Statements: You may even find obvious references to organizational culture in web-based and other materials. Kaplan University’s careers page, for example, outlines a multi-faceted culture that describes the priorities of those working for the school as related to innovation, diversity, and results. Waldorf College‘s online degree programs also address the concept of culture, highlighting a “dedication to individual attention” and “establishing relationships.”
  • Social Media: Colleges and even individual academic departments develop their online presence through various social media and networking platforms. In the Dice.com article, I recommended that job seekers connect with potential employers this way, and it also makes sense for potential students and schools. Engage in conversations with your favorite schools through Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and other online communities to gauge their communication style and level of interaction.

Connections and Networks

Online colleges and universities rarely operate in a vacuum. They are connected to a wide range of other organizations and agencies that help them perform their mission. How are these schools and programs part of a larger community? These connections can tell you something about their culture in terms of the activities they are involved in and the relationships they value. It’s not uncommon for schools to partner, for example, with businesses and hiring companies.

  • Employers: If you are currently employed, check with your company to find out if it is affiliated with an online institution for professional development and training opportunities. You may discover sponsored programs that align with company goals are already in place and supported by your supervisor.
  • Career Services: Look at the information provided by online college career centers as well. These offices often work directly with hiring managers and recruiters to connect students with upcoming opportunities, showing a priority in student success and employment after graduation.
  • Alumni: Prior graduates can be another great source of information about a school’s culture. These former students have experienced it first hand and can advise you on the day-to-day details of being an online student. Look for alumni directories and testimonials, as well as for alumni communities online and off-line (i.e., formal associations, local clubs, LinkedIn Groups).

Third-Party Perspectives

What do others say about the schools you are interested in? The voices of those not affiliated with an institution can help you connect the dots as you try to get a sense of the organization’s culture.

  • Media coverage of school activities and politics, whether it’s local or national, focus attention on the organization’s priorities and values.
  • Industry publications, from the fields you are interested in pursuing, can inform you about innovations and potential challenges faced by the institution. Search for articles about school initiatives and interviews with faculty members.
  • Reviews are increasingly common online, although the validity and reliability of sources vary. Ranking lists can include more information about an institution’s goals and accomplishments and many sites include student feedback.

Questions to Ask

Not all of the sources I listed above will be available, and some will offer biased opinions and information based on their perspective and relationship with the university. Communicating directly with members of the culture – in this case, admissions counselors, academic advisors, and alumni – can help. But be sure to conduct your own research including a variety of resources to get a more objective picture.

As you try to determine an online college’s culture, take a cue from Tierney’s Framework of Organizational Culture. Use this list of elements to identify evidence of culture and prompt questions for further investigation:

  • Environment: What is it like to take courses there? What is the tone and approach of instructors, advisors, and admissions counselors?
  • Mission: What does the school list as its goals on websites and marketing materials?
  • Socialization: How are students oriented into their programs? How do students interact both in and outside of their course sites?
  • Information: What is available before you make a connection with the school? Levels of transparency and openness of communication will vary by institution.
  • Strategy: Think about decisions related to your educational priorities. What initiatives exist to help you reach your goals, and the institution to stay viable and current?
  • Leadership: Find out more about the structure of the academic program, faculty members, and support services. What are their credentials and how do they connect with each other and students?

A good cultural fit has the potential to affect everything about your learning experience. A critical piece, however, in determining if a school’s culture is a good fit for you, is to define your values and priorities. You may already have a solid grasp of what you are looking for, or find your list evolving as you compare the options available. Take the time to consider culture before you enroll, and make an informed decision about your academic future.

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May 31st, 2013 written by (learn more about our authors)

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