For many of us this past winter season was among the dreariest and coldest in decades; the spring season, which seemed forever far away has arrived at last! The ever-present blanket of snow is slowly giving way to patches of ground and tiny tufts of grass. I see spring as an annual time of renewal; blooming flowers, sprouting trees, and the rekindling of neighborhood friendships. Of course, if you are like me, the season is also about cleaning. Like a child counting down the days until Santa’s annual delivery, I find myself anticipating the perfect warm and sunny day to start clearing out my over-packed garage. There is a bitter-sweetness to the ritual of “spring cleaning”. While I clear out what on the surface appears to be clutter, I am reminded of the experiences inherently attached to each item. The nostalgic experience happens once a year for me, but for higher-education faculty, each semester is like spring. As higher education increasingly shifts to the remote, technological space of online platforms, how does the process of “de-cluttering” occur?
Each semester, faculty must prepare for a new class of students. The preparation often involves closing down the online learning community, refreshing discussion boards, archiving student emails and updating course content. However, unlike my garage, the technological space is seemingly infinite; which leads to the idea of maintenance, rather than renewal. As educators, faculty members believe not only in the power of knowledge but also in the process by which knowledge is gained. Therefore, how can the interactions and relationships between students, and with their educators and mentors, lose value just because of the end of a course?
The ending of a course or semester is not the end of these relationships. It actually is just the beginning. Just as seasonal changes mark the life cycle of our physical planet, course and semester changes mark the student lifecycle. An understanding of this lifecycle, influenced by peer relationships and faculty-student relationships, is the key to encouraging student retention and ensuring institutional effectiveness. Institutions have successfully transitioned to the digital environment; now it is time to improve the quality of the emotional experiences of students, during and at the end of each course and semester. Technology does not have to be separate from the emotional experience; rather it can address the need for continued mentoring after the class has ended. In the form of a private social network, it can provide a safe and efficient hub of communication, connecting online students with on-campus students, and building enduring relationships.
As humans, people seek friendship and require a feeling of belonging. Private social networks or online campus communities provides a means for socializing, in an environment that is increasingly digital and remote with institutional control and ownership. Positive personal interactions foster a sense of belonging, which goes a long way in ensuring that the student life cycle will develop to the maturity of an alumni-institutional relationship.