By Henry Kronk December 03, 2017
The benefits of online education and remote degrees has been proven. It may not be able to replace all in-person, traditional instruction in every field, but it can come pretty close. In some cases, it can even exceed a traditional college course.
But online programs also come with their challenges. A singular obstacle is that, by their nature, they can be isolating.
“In the 1990s,” wrote Professor Wen-Li Chyr in a recent study, “it was found that students felt physically isolated when they participated in online courses, especially when the instructor could not immediately provide feedback to learners … These issues are still present today.”
Undoubtedly, the isolating nature of online programs have kept learners from enrolling, especially those who thrive in a social setting.
For other degrees, some things simply can’t be taught online.
What many learners do not realize, however, is that many programs offer in-person residencies for online degrees in almost every field.
An online degree residency will vary by institution, field of study, and level of degree. A typical residency might include gathering an online class on campus one or two weekends per semester. It might be a ten day retreat every summer. It might involve team building exercises, soft skills workshops, networking events, or hands-on coursework.
In other words, there is no typical residency for an online program. It is difficult, in fact, to extract any commonalities, even between residencies in the same field.
One constant is that educators who lead residency programs seek to provide learners with an experience that cannot be delivered via the internet.
“We don’t want to repeat anything on campus that couldn’t be accomplished online,” said Sean Bulger, a sports sciences professor at West Virginia University, according to U.S. News. The online sports sciences master’s program at WVU includes a residency requirement. This includes checking out WVU’s athletics facilities to get an in-person understanding of how things work. According to Bulger, the residency also “gives experienced teachers the opportunity to watch other experienced teachers do their thing, which is difficult to replicate online.”
The online MBA at Penn State begins with an orientation residency. During this time, students meet one another and their faculty members for opportunities to network and gear up for the program that will advance their careers, not to mention acquire skills regarding how to succeed in a virtual learning environment.
Southern New Hampshire University has long been a leader in online programs. Their Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Non-fiction has been a stand-out success when it comes to teaching the fine arts remotely.
Students meet with professors and mingle with each other once at the beginning of each semester at a hotel in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. After that, each student works with their assigned professors to develop their work-in-progress into a finished, publishable piece. The program allows professionals to keep their job or maintain their role in their family while pursuing their MFA on the side.
The International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY Buffalo State offers a master’s level distance program in Creativity and Change Leadership. The program is a true example of blended learning: it is divided up into six different ‘blocks.’ Four of these blocks are taught remotely, while the remaining two occur on campus during the summer. These two different blocks occur at the beginning and end of the program. They are intentionally scheduled to overlap, so that students who are about to complete the program can mingle and network with those who are just entering.
In the words of education expert Judith Boettcher, “we learn as social beings in a social context.” While advances in technology have helped improve the eLearning experience, educators still struggle to create a collaborative engaging experience with online programs. Residency programs have the potential to bridge the virtual gap between learners, their peers, and instructors.