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Using an Online Immersion to Teach and Learn about Student Affairs and Technology

Kristen Renn
Assistant Professor
Michigan State University

Jessica B. Rehling
Residence Director
Colorado State University

Louise Michelle Vital
Assistant Director of Student Activities
Simmons College

In spring 2004 at Michigan State University, we introduced a unit on technology and student affairs to the core curriculum of the master?s program in Student Affairs Administration (   The goals were three-fold:

1. Provide opportunities for students to consider theory and practice in relation to issues of technology in student affairs.

2. Teach students practical professional technology skills (e.g., creating PowerPoint presentations; creating and editing web pages).

3. Expose students to the experience of being online learners, so that they could make more informed decisions about their own coursetaking and become better advisors to online students with whom they work or will work.


To accomplish these goals and others related to the overall student affairs curriculum, course instructors Kristen Renn and Dawn Zeligman (a PhD student in the department) designed a hybrid course that met in person and then, for five weeks, exclusively online. Elsewhere, they discuss their assessment of student learning outcomes from the course (Renn & Zeligman, forthcoming). The purpose of this article is for one instructor (Renn) and two new professionals (Jessica Rehling and Michelle Vital) who participated in the class to describe the course and highlight themes that emerged from the online immersion.


The Content and Structure of the Hybrid Course

The co-instructors decided to integrate a five-week online immersion on the topic of technology into an existing course that introduces first-year student affairs master?s students to current issues in higher education.  The first five weeks of the semester were spent in traditional face-to-face (F2F) format and addressed the topic of student affairs assessment. In conjunction with lessons on assessment, there were lessons related to technology skills: making newsletters, using PowerPoint, creating web pages, using MSU?s online course software.


The course then shifted to an online immersion, and the rules were that students and instructors were to act as though the course was entirely online. They could communicate with one another about the course through online means (synchronous or asynchronous discussion boards; email; instant message) or other media available to distance learners (telephone, mail, etc.). The topic of the five-week unit was technology and student affairs. The general format included readings, discussion in a variety of formats, personal reflections, and a small group case study. Each assignment was designed to introduce students to the experiences of online learning, complete with whatever challenges and rewards it might bring. Assignments were scheduled on a week-to-week basis, with the entire class moving from one section to the next. Work could be completed any time before the stated deadline, which was once as short as three days from the posted assignment and for the case study was two weeks in advance.


Week One was an introduction and focused on the question ?What do we mean by ?online student services??? A lively, all-class discussion was based on the discussion questions: Drawing from the three articles, how do you define ?online student services?? Do you think they can be provided effectively? Give examples of how you might go about doing so. The overall consensus: a reluctant ?maybe.? Key themes included the necessity of assessing needs in various environments before determining the appropriateness of providing services online.


Week Two focused on using technology effectively in student affairs and learning to have more complex online discussions. Readings included Boulais and Sturgis (2003), Cawthon, Havice, and Havice (2003), and Lewis and Zhou (2002). The instructions for weekly discussion were more complicated than those from the first week, requiring multiple posts and responses and inviting disagreement and challenges among students.


Week Three was dedicated to applying student development theory in online environments.  Readings included Wallace (2000) and Estler (2003). The goal for weekly discussion was to create smaller learning groups focused on specific functional areas in student affairs. The instructions were:

After you read the articles linked to this week, you should choose one area of student affairs administration:

        1. Residence Halls

        2. Leadership/Activities/Fraternity & Sorority Life

        3. Academic Advising

        4. Admissions and Financial Aid


Join the discussion thread corresponding to your interest and make at least one original post, then reply to at least two other posts IN THAT SAME DISCUSSION THREAD (other original postings or responses to your or someone else's original post). Your original post should propose how you could use technology to apply a student development theory (Perry, Chickering, various racial/ethnic identity models, or your other favorite!) in your chosen student affairs specialty. To receive credit for this unit, you MUST make your original post by [date and time].


So, for example, you might choose Chickering's Vector on Developing Purpose and write about how you could use online personality and values assessments to help students in Career Services to clarify their sense of purpose.


Discussions using this format were more in depth, and students responded positively to the opportunity to have smaller discussion groups.


Weeks Four and Five found the students in assigned groups working on a case study related to Internet harassment (Kezar, 2000). Using online resources related to managing IT and to Internet rights and responsibilities (e.g., Rogerson, 2000), students worked out case study solutions using synchronous (e.g., chat rooms, IM) and asynchronous (e.g., email, message board) technologies. After several unsuccessful attempts to generate solutions in asynchronous formats ? and one group meeting F2F in a caf? before they realized that was not the intention of the assignment ? all groups chose synchronous media to work out their solutions. Solutions were uploaded into a site that all members could access, and we discussed them at our first meeting back in person.


The Experience of the Online Course Immersion

Though the participant reaction to this type of online learning was varied, a number of themes emerged from the discussion boards, surveys, and informal conversations. Benefits included flexibility, location, and interpersonal communication issues. Disadvantages included problems with structure, time commitment, interrupting an established cohort-based learning community, reliance on others work, and difficulty achieving in-depth discussions.


There were a number of positive responses regarding this process. Students appreciated the ability to work and to process information at their own pace. For example, with the varied work schedules of the participants, many students liked the flexibility to do their work at very late hours in the evening. For some students with physical limitations, the lack of a physical class location was a highly valued benefit. One student stated, ?I really like the fact that I can sit here in a comfy chair, and lay down if necessary, rather than have to walk to class and sit uncomfortably.? Others enjoyed the opportunity to process and speak at their own pace. For example, introverts had the chance to process thoughts and then communicate, giving the class a better chance to hear from those students. Meanwhile, extroverts were forced to sit back and process thus providing a better balance of what one student called ?talk time.?


Along with the benefits, class participants identified a number of disadvantages. Structure was a common complaint, as the online immersion was only a portion of the overall course. The instructors implemented some unannounced changes in structure, including a requirement that readings be done by Friday for a class that was scheduled to meet ? and had been meeting in person ? on Tuesday. Students also recommended that the instructors provide more clear directions for first time online learners. They also noted the stress of having participants read not only the replies to their posts, but also the replies of others to all posts. This requirement created a lot of reading in a short amount of time. As one student explained, ?I?m a slow reader and am challenged at reading comprehension, so having to read 30+ posts is a headache and takes a TON of time.?


Another challenge to this particular group of participants was that the cohort system was already in place and relationships were formed. Many students missed having personal interactions on a regular basis. This cohort was also known for its use of in-class humor, irony, and sarcasm, which was difficult to understand contextually online, and consequently created some misunderstandings. Adding to this dynamic was the fact that the instructors had not previously worked with this cohort, so they were joining a well established group dynamic and had only five weeks of class in person before going to the online immersion. Instructors who were more familiar with the individuals and with the group dynamic might have responded differently online to craft challenges and help resolve conflicts in the group.


Students frequently raised the issue of reliance on others? work, a challenge that manifested itself in a number of ways. First, participants were unable to write their required responses on time if an original post by another student was delayed. Second, as members of this cohort tended to be both articulate and passionate, many of the responses were lengthy and dense. Thus, reading and responding to posts that read nearly like formal papers took a great deal of time (a busy week could include 50 posts and responses to read). The participants repeatedly stated that the online course took more time and energy than a typical class.


Students also stated that they learned a great deal about their individual learning styles and were better able to articulate their impression of the balance between incorporating technology in student affairs and maintaining student interaction and connections. Students developed an overarching theme: technology is a large part of our profession and our students? lives. As such, we need to come to terms with it and find a balance. One participant wrote, ?[This portion of the course] gave me an opportunity to look at the love-hate relationship between technology and student affairs, look at various perspectives, but most importantly, it allowed me to be at peace with that relationship.?


In addition to what students learned through the online immersion about themselves, others, and the process on online education, they also formed ideas about the uses to which technology can be put in student affairs. In the next section, we discuss some of the students? conclusions about the pros, cons, practicality, and advisability of integrating technology into various student affairs responsibilities.


Technology and Student Affairs: Utilities, Possibilities, and Challenges

Throughout the course, students gathered and synthesized information on technology and student affairs, then challenged themselves and one another to consider how technology will influence students and the work of student affairs professionals. In this section, we highlight themes from the online course and emerging questions that must be addressed in student affairs graduate preparation programs if new professionals are to be ready to deal with emerging challenges posed by technology. We begin with positive elements and continue with concerns and challenges.


Students in the online immersion concluded that incorporating technology in the work that student affairs professionals perform is useful in a variety of ways, the greatest of which is the convenience and ease of computers, software capabilities, and the endless possibilities of the Internet and being online. Services that students have come to expect have been enhanced by the use of technology. Applying for admission to an institution, enrollment with the registrars office, applying for and managing financial aid, and in some cases, academic advising has moved in part, and in larger institutions almost entirely, online, giving students the opportunity to interact with their respective institutions at their own pace.  Examples from the course and from course participants? work in student affairs support these conclusions.


The course and students? experiences also support the claim that access to important information is easier for administrators and for students as well. With the Internet in particular, students are able to conduct research more quickly, interact with professors and other students from any convenient location, and participate in online courses. In this capacity, learning becomes more global. Students who participate in online courses not only benefit from the knowledge of their professors, they have the opportunity to learn from students all over the county, and in some cases, all over the world as well. The emergence of online journaling and networking through services such as thefacebook (see Barratt, Hendrickson, Stephens, & Torres, 2005 has given students the opportunity to become more reflective and sharing, though questions arise about the ethical use of information posted in such virtual spaces (Wodarski, 2004).


There are some further possibilities for technology and student affairs. Paperless offices, with major functions (e.g., employment applications, applications to graduate, etc.) placed online, may give administrators more time to interact with students. Moving these functions online has made possible access to student information, grades, and even student identification pictures.  Increased, easy access to student information has potential benefits for students, faculty, and advisors. Yet for all of the advantages and possibilities of technology, there are also challenges.


Online learning, for example, poses several challenges. Students who choose to earn their degrees solely online may never have the opportunity to meet their professor or classmates. Consequently, the role that student affairs professionals play in the development of students will have to change if it is to become and remain central to the educational experience of distance learners. In addition, the pace of online courses may be a challenge for some learners. Students who do not take in and process information at the same rate as classmates and instructors can fall behind with course requirements and during online interactions. Of course, for some students, the information processing style and pace of online learning is optimal; a challenge is in assisting students to self-assess their learning ability in a variety of online course formats.


Course members raised the important issue of the financial burdens of technology. Institutionally, administrators will need to ensure that their budgets can meet the demands of up-to-date computers and software for students as well as with their own work. In addition, as the use of technology has become a necessary component of the academic experience, institutions will need to guarantee that students who cannot afford their own computers create the means for students to have access to them through, for example, financial aid or computer loan programs. Off-campus students will need to have the same access to computers and software, in addition to accessible technical support for online courses. A major theme of course discussion was on the topic of technology ?haves? and ?have nots,? with an emphasis on maintaining the historical commitment of the student affairs profession to working toward equity of educational opportunity, whether in person or online.


Another key theme in the course was the ever-increasing problem of student abuse and accountability in relation to technology. With the growth of the Internet, access to information is easier. Some students argued that as a result, opportunities for cheating and plagiarizing work have increased. Peer-to-peer music and movie file sharing not only affects the institutional server?s ability to move information quickly, but it has also resulted in criminal charges against students who are alleged to have shared files illegally (Read, 2005).


Finally, administrators will need to respond to students? increased reliance on Instant Messaging (see Guidry, 2005), online journaling (see Wodarski, 2004), and unofficial (i.e., not institutionally sponsored) online communities for specific institutions that, among other things, rate classes and professors, and sometimes provide information that is inappropriate or unethical, like specific testing information. Technology has impacted our everyday lives.  Colleges and universities, and in particular, the student affairs profession, will need to ensure that they keep up with the ever changing face of technology and its inevitable impact on their work with students.



On the whole, the online course immersion was judged a success by students and instructors. A repeat version offered in spring 2005 yielded some different themes, but similar experiences in terms of online learning. Key challenges for online teachers and learners include pace, format, and adapting to different modes of communication. Key challenges for student affairs professionals in working with the changes technology brings to higher education and college students include understanding how students use and respond to technology, how we can use technology to enhance programs and services, not merely replicate those we offer in person, and how our work lives are enriched as well as complicated by emerging technologies. Participants in this experimental online immersion are now in the student affairs workforce, and their continued reflections on student development theory, student affairs practice, and technology form an ongoing dialogue about graduate education for the changing world of higher education.


Increased use of technology has reshaped the way students develop throughout their collegiate careers, and now it is reshaping how student affairs professionals work. Understanding how students use emerging technologies is one piece of the puzzle, and equally important is understanding how we can use technology to enhance our work as educators concerned about student development. Graduate preparation programs in higher education and student affairs have an obligation to ensure that new professionals are well-versed in technology skills and that they can also make theory-based decisions about how to incorporate technology into student affairs practice and anticipate and respond to new challenges and opportunities that even a decade ago could not have been imagined. As we have attempted to show here, the incorporation of a five-week online immersion is a step ? a small one to be sure, but a step nevertheless ? in the direction of preparing new professionals for this task.



Barratt, W., Hendrickson, M., Stephens, A., & Torres, J. (2005). Computer mediated social networking.  Student Affairs On-Line, 6 (1). Retrieved June 23, 2005 from


Boulais, N., & Sturgis, T. (2003). Changing the channel: Using technology effectively in student affairs. Student Affairs On-Line, 4 (4). Retrieved January 15, 2004 from


Cawthon, T. W., Havice, P. A., Havice, W. L. (2003). Enhancing collaboration in student affairs: Virtual advising. Student Affairs On-Line, 4 (4).  Retrieved January 15, 2004 from


Estler, S. (2003). Designing student development curriculum as though technology matters. Student Affairs On-Line, 4 (1). Retrieved June 23, 2005 from


Guidry, K. R. (2004). Instant Messaging: Its impact on and recommendations for student affairs. Student Affairs On-Line, 5 (4). Retrieved June 23, 2005 from


Kezar, A. (2000). Challenges of the new frontier: The Internet and student affairs practice. In F. K. Stage & M. Dannells (Eds.), Linking theory to practice: Case studies for working with college students (2nd ed.). Philadelphia, Accelerated Development Group.


Lewis, B., & Zhou, C. (2002). College unions use technological advances to create dynamic web sites: A hands-on guide to creating a virtual tour of today?s college union. Student Affairs On-Line, 3 (4). Retrieved  January 15, 2004 from


Read, B. (2005, April 22).  Recording and movie industries sue Internet2 file swappers. Chronicle of Higher Education, A37.


Renn, K. A., & Zeligman, D. M. (forthcoming, Sept/Oct 2005). Learning about technology and student affairs: Outcomes of an online immersion. Accepted for publication in the Journal of College Student Development.


Rogerson, S. E. (2000). Computer-based harassment on college campuses. Student Affairs On-Line, 1 (1).  Retrieved January 15, 2004 from


Wallace, H. (2000). Campus ecology theory and websites: One example of applying traditional student affairs theory to technology. Student Affairs On-Line, 1 (3). Retrieved January 15, 20004 from


Wodarski, K. D. (2004). Attack of the blogs. Student Affairs On-Line, 5 (3).  Retrieved June 23, 2005 from


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