Best Practices: Engaging Online Members

Heather Herbert initially found her college experience to be very lonely. As an online student enrolled at Darton State College in Georgia – more than 200 miles away from where she lived – her options for engagement were limited. That is, until she found Phi Theta Kappa.

Chi Xi member and now co-advisor Heather Herbert with Advisor Frank Malinowski at Herbert’s graduation from Darton State College in May 2013

“In general, online students benefit from campus involvement the same way that on-campus (students) do – it helps foster a feeling of community, of belonging and of personal engagement,” Herbert said. “This is critical for a student population that may feel disenfranchised simply because of the way they learn.

Chi Xi advisor Nicole Jones, then-chapter president Amber Miller, advisor Frank Malinowski, and then-Regional Secretary and Officer of Online Heather Herbert at Phi Theta Kappa’s 2013 Annual Convention

“Phi Theta Kappa is a great way to bring the best of the college experience to students everywhere.”

Herbert is among a growing legion of college students taking online courses. A 2013 study by Babson Survey Research Group entitled “Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States” found that the percentage of college students taking at least one online course has steadily increased over the last decade, jumping to 33.5 percent in the fall of 2012 from just 9.6 percent in the fall of 2002.

Phi Theta Kappa is embracing this growing demographic by offering such tools and resources as, Competitive Edge, the Leadership Development Studies Facebook Study Group, Nota Bene and the USA TODAY Case Study Challenge, all of which can be done online. The Society even chartered its first online-only chapter in 2012: the Beta Tau Chi Chapter at Ashford University, based in San Diego, California, which serves students nationwide. And, the Society’s Facebook page is followed by more than 84,000 members and advisors.

“(Online students) can’t participate in everything we do, but they can participate in most things that we do,” said Frank Malinowski, advisor of the Chi Xi Chapter at Darton State College and Georgia Regional Coordinator. “With things like our Honors in Action and College Projects, online students have just as much of an ability to participate. It’s really a matter of letting them know they can be involved.”

Malinowski is dean of the School of Science and Mathematics at Darton State. Since joining the school five years ago, he has taught numerous computer science courses online. He became a chapter advisor shortly after.

After holding his first induction ceremony, Malinowski met a new member who was interested in a leadership office. But, he was an online student.

“So I just created a position for him – Vice President of Online,” Malinowski said. “Phi Theta Kappa was completely new to me, so I was just learning as I went. We wanted to test the waters.”

Malinowski estimates that about a third of the students at Darton State College are online only. And, he said about another third take at least one online class. He believes that engaging these students in addition to the on-campus ones is critical.

“We need to be flexible and meet the needs of the students,” he said. “Of course you will run into some situations where it’s easier if you’re in the same location – or where you both have to be in the same location – but for the most part, we now have the technology to include everyone.”

The Chi Xi Chapter streams its regular chapter meetings online to help increase member participation. Someone there at the meeting runs a live chat with online members so they can ask questions and make comments.

By allowing this interaction, Malinowski is able to find potential leaders from his entire membership, not just those he sees regularly and in-person. Heather Herbert was one of those leaders.

Herbert is a 43-year-old mother to three young girls, so she found that receiving her education online would best suit her lifestyle. A friend encouraged her to accept her invitation to join Phi Theta Kappa when it arrived, and she admits that she initially did so to gain access to the scholarship opportunities.

“As an online student, I never thought I could be involved,” she said. “However, Frank and I had a long chat during one of my (then) infrequent visits to campus, and he let me know that not only would it be possible for me to be involved with the chapter, but I would be welcome. For an online student, that is wonderful to hear.

“We get used to hearing about things we cannot do. Frank was encouraging and eager to facilitate my involvement and always made me feel valued.”

Soon, Herbert was more engaged than she ever thought possible. She served as both a chapter and a regional officer; she ran for international office and received the Orlowski Candidate Scholarship; she received a Reynolds Scholarship for work selected for publication in Nota Bene; she was instrumental in the Hallmark Awards writing process; and she received a Distinguished Chapter Officer Award. Now, she’s a co-advisor for the Chi Xi Chapter.

She received three associate degrees from Darton State College – in psychology, history and English – and is now an online English major at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. She will graduate in May and is in the process of applying to an online master’s program.

“I do not think I would have done this well without Phi Theta Kappa to keep me fully engaged and motivated,” she said. “Students on-ground are given extracurricular activities to foster a feeling of engagement and community, which in turn aids retention and graduation rates. Students online can benefit from the same types of programs.”

Malinowski echoes this sentiment, saying that engaging online students “completely changes” the college experience they’re having. It also helps them gain visibility for faculty- and administration-nominated awards and scholarships, such as an All-State Academic Team. He said there are also benefits for the organization and for the college itself.

“Whatever it is, it’s better when you have more involvement,” he said. “You have better discussions, you get more ideas, and you increase the potential that you’ll do more interesting things.”

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