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Alumni Relations in the Age of Online Education

As all of us are aware, we live in an age of rapidly changing communications systems, and this is causing an unending series of changes to our society – not merely our practices, but how we relate to one another.  Written letters have given way to e-mails, and e-mails are yielding to texting.  Shared land lines are disappearing in favor of cell phones, and smart phones now mean that many people no longer even answer a mobile call unless its necessity has first been justified in a text message. The social consequences of this include such things as a reduction in the depth and thoughtfulness of interpersonal communications in exchange for vastly increased frequency and breadth of contact.  The trend is most obvious among the Millennials, but it is not uncommon to see people of any age busily thumbing away throughout dinner in very nice restaurants, oblivious to their table partners.

In higher education, these trends manifest themselves in the same ways.  In the campus cafeteria one might expect to see groups of undergraduates gathering for study sessions or relaxation between classes.  Increasingly, however, students grab their lunch and head off to a private corner to jump online, this being the preferred way to communicate with friends and colleagues, regardless of their physical proximity.

Now we are formally sanctioning this tendency by looking for ways to offer classes online.  Almost all institutions of higher education are pursuing this kind of enrollment as a distinct form of marketing.  Given the immense and growing attraction of the for-profit and not-for-profit MOOCs (massive open online courses) and the degree-granting institutions like PhoenixUniversity, many schools have to do this as an investment in survival.  The costs of on-site education are growing too rapidly for most buyers to keep up with, and providing enough financial aid for those who need it is increasingly difficult for private and state institutions alike.

The purpose of this piece is not to take a position on the pedagogical advisability of distance learning, or even its likelihood of catching on.  That is inevitable.  Rather, the question before those of us in the world of institutional advancement is this: How will we establish and maintain an alumni relationship with our graduates as they spend less and less time on campus and develop fewer and fewer relationships with their classmates from good old Alma Mater?

Some preliminary thoughts in my next blog…

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