While attending the HBCU Faculty Network Conference in New Orleans, I was privileged to meet, discuss and interact with a number of college and university professional educators, faculty and staff from around the United States. During my presentation on “How to Reach the Non-Traditional Student Using Non-Traditional Means”, I observed a reoccurring question or theme of, “…how do keep my student engaged after the classroom instruction/discussion or lecture ends?” The question spurred several practical techniques which are not limited to “face to face (F2F)” but can be used in online instruction as well. The approach to student learning engagement is not unlike the advancement from the turn of the century bicycle which transported you from point “A” to point “B” – to the 21st century bicycle (Segway ™ ) which performs the same task…only better.
Identifying Student Needs
One of the first things needed for the successful student engagement Beyond the Classroom is a clear understanding of the student needs, as identified by the student – not the instructor. Regardless how the information is collected and assessed, the review must be done in an unbiased manner; there should be no limitations pressed into student responses. Obviously this may result in lengthier responses, but it is here that the richest information can be mined from those responses. A simple and effective way to collect such data in a non-threatening manner is to use a “Three-minute survey“, which requires little preparation and will yield valuable results. To maximize participation and results, the survey should be administered and collected at the beginning of a class session. Three minutesis not a set time limit, but is intended to generate first impressions, rather than deep philosophical ponderings of the student. One recommended structure for the survey is one that includes two or three questions/directed responses, which students are instructed to answer in one or two sentences.
“List in order from greatest to least, the three toughest challenges you have with this course.”
This question is vague enough to allow the student to interpret whether the question is seeking physical, mental, financial, comprehension or other challenges, yet directed enough to elicit a specific response set. As a result the response to the question is student driven, rather than instructor guided. Further by having the student rank-order their response, a clear picture may develop with regard to common themes. At this point some may be asking “what does a survey have to do with reaching students beyond the classroom“? The short answer is that until or unless the instructor knows what their student sees as significant challenges they may be operating from a hypotheses based on incomplete data. Or in lay terms – it is tough to hit a target when you don’t know what it is.
Another benefit of such an assessment for the instructor looking to engage students beyond the classroom is identifying the ‘blind spots’ in content delivery. For instance students may identify that the biggest challenge is their ability to comprehend the subject matter; the noise level in the classroom; or the length of reading assignments, etc. After teaching for some time some instructors harbor an expectation far beyond the capabilities of some students; are able to ‘tune out extraneous noise’ and hone in specific conversations; or take for granted that the 1 chapter reading assignment for the student ignores every other required reading from other courses the student is enrolled in. This last point is not to suggest eliminating such assignments, but rather is aimed at ensuring such assignments are necessary for the course success, rather than general knowledge.
With regard to the other possible challenges, the astute instructor may make some minor adjustments for significant impact. For instance, information “chunking  ” may allow students to engage with the course content in more manageable amounts of material, whereas a simple classroom arrangement in ’round-table’ design in rooms with movable equipment – or small group clustering in fixed seating room (such as auditorium or stadium-type seats) may focus conversations centrally on specific topics. In the area of information comprehension and retention, the assignment of shorter readings followed by a quiz focused on terminology, themes or key points in conjunction with ‘chunking’ could improve student satisfaction and motivation as well as comprehension and retention.
Looking Back for a Way Ahead
In seeking to engage students beyond the classroom a survey I administered disclosed students biggest challenge was managing and completing the voluminous online assignments and activities. My blind spot was in the assumption that within the 48 hours between class sessions, those students would have the opportunity and ability to complete what appeared to be basic reading and response assignments and activities. This was irrespective of other courses, other personal or professional commitments or ‘life’ in general. As a result of the survey, I revisited the course objectives and made some modifications to better improve student participation in out of class activities. A follow-up survey later in the semester (or at the end of the semester) may disclose the impact of the modifications. The key is that unless asked, the instructor may erroneously assume student low performance is due to lack of effort.
In the early 1990’s software developers limited by the costliness of memory and storage capacity worked tirelessly to develop applications to use little memory and were as small as possible. Also countless weeks or months were spent testing the application for bugs and errors before it was operationalized for public use. This effort routinely resulted in the release of the highest quality program, which used the least amount of memory or space, and provided the best software the developer could offer. There were complete word processing programs with spell check, thesaurus, and dozens of font types (of which Arial, Comic, Courier, and Times New Roman were used most frequently), and could fit on a single disk; several databases that could hold thousands of records which could be rapidly searched, saved and transferred. Ever wondered what happened to those days of quality products? Simple – as technology advanced and the limitations and cost constraints evaporated, less effort was needed for development and quality was supplanted by quantity. As an example the word processing program used to produce this article has over three hundred font types, of which perhaps three are used.
If we are to reach students and engage them beyond the classroom adding more stuff (quantity) is not the answer. If we wish to effectively cause the student to learn then it is essential that we return to the mindset of providing quality content which has relevance for today and application for tomorrow. The betterment of the student should be at the focus of our efforts rather than the more politically driven mindset of graduation rates. For what good comes from a graduate who is unable to function at or beyond the level of others in the field?
How to…and Why?
While it is easy to assume we know how students communicate with each other beyond the classroom – such assumptions can be dangerously limiting and wrong. If we assume we know, and construct the instructional content on what we assume to be true, we are more apt to discount information that does not support our assumptions. After all, we may have invested time, resources and funding, as well as our collegiate reputation on the assumption only to later discover that what we believed was universal was only used by a select few. To obviate unproductive resource expenditures another question offered in a “Three minute survey” might be;
“How do you typically communicate with your friends and classmates outside of class?”
The assumption might be that they get together and study at the library, or student lounge or some other organized activity. Another assumption might be that they send and receive frequent emails or perhaps call one another on the phone. The reality was that based on the advancements of technology, the digital social networks abound and are used and discarded by students regularly. MySpace™ was a popular communication site and largely lost favor and was replaced largely by Facebook™, Twitter™, etc. It might be surprising to know that the idea of social networks stemmed from research conducted in the 1800’s by noted French sociologist David Émile Durkheim and German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies who posited that social groupings could be divided by community or society, also suggested that individuals who might otherwise have no obvious common connections with each other could be linked through a variety of shared interests, or values  . Regardless, we must be prepared to accept that what we believed to be true may or may not exist in reality.
The guiding principle in the question is ‘typically communicate’ and the limiting assumptions are ‘friends and classmates’. In this question we did not introduce other considerations such as family, co-workers/customers, professors or others. Much as we academicians might wish otherwise, it’s likely that not all communication with friends and classmates outside of the classroom will revolve around class or course activities or assignments. However, simply by having a grasp as to the mode commonly used by most of the students in a particular course/class to communicate can provide the instructor with a possible platform for reaching students beyond the classroom.
In recent times there have been a number of innovative uses of common social networking applications to reach students and engage them in learning outside of the classroom environment. Certainly some risk is assumed when considering using such methods in lieu of an in-house learning management system or integral communication platform. Now before I move on to some methods that have been applied by other instructors to reach students beyond the classroom, I want to offer a disclaimer. I do not endorse, support, or oppose any of the methods shared here…I merely share them as a point of discussion or conversation for consideration. Other than Madge, Meek, Wellens and Hooley (2009)  paper which explored pre-registration at a university using Facebook™, I am unaware of any longitudinal or quantitative research which has been conducted.
Interestingly the method discussed during the HBCU Faculty Network symposium was the use of Facebook™. What was shared was that the instructor created a Facebook™ page for the class, restricted entry to current students participating in the class and invited authors of the textbook, composers and artists of music or art into the discussion. The results were that the student experience with regard to the topic was significantly enriched through the social interaction with the source or originator. Obviously this type of interaction would not be effective for every course or topic of instruction, but the fact was that for this instructor offering this course to these students – they were successful in engaging their students beyond the classroom.
Another interesting option employed by a colleague was the use of the Weblog – commonly known as a ‘Blog’. This instructor would post specific thought provoking comments, questions or scenarios for students to respond to, and would require their responses to meet some criteria beyond that of baseless opinion. Perhaps there was a word count associated with it or a reference requirement, etc. According to the instructor the richness in responses exceeded their expectation and appeared to fully engage students beyond the classroom – even more so than in class.
What was common in both of these examples was that the method applied was not seen as a replacement for scholarly discourse or discovery, but rather a tool used to enhance discussion and student interest/interaction. The choice in methods to reach students in non-traditional ways and to engage them beyond the classroom are vast, varied and available – but only to those willing to look beyond the deadliest phrase or seven most dangerous words in education;
“That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
For those willing to accept and incorporate innovation rather than simply tolerate it – the opportunities to reach and engage beyond the classroom are at their virtual fingertips.
 Gobet, F., Lane, P.C.R., Croker, S., et al. (2001). Chunking mechanisms in human learning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5, p. 236-243
 Aldous, J. (1972). An exchange between Durkheim and Tönnies on the nature of social relations. The American Journal of Sociology, 77(6),pp. 1191-1200. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2776225
 Madge, C., Meek, J., Wellens, J., & Hooley, T. (2009). “Facebook,” social integration and informal learning at university: “It Is More for Socialising and Talking to Friends about Work than for Actually Doing Work”. Learning, Media and Technology, 34(2), p.141-155. doi:10.1080/17439880902923606