The release of the annual U.S. News and World Report college rankings always make a splash. Current and prospective students, alumni, school administrators, faculty and the media study the rankings with intense interest. Who doesn’t want their school to be among the top-rated?
One of the measures used in the rankings is “alumni giving”. It’s calculated as the percentage of alumni on record who make a gift and is seen as an indicator of how pleased a past student was with the performance of the school.
It can also be seen as a measure of how aggressively an institution of higher learning builds a strong alumni network. An alumnus is not simply a former student; he or she is a potential mentor for new graduates, a link in a job network, a champion for the institution and, not insignificantly, a source of funds.
So it’s not surprising that colleges and universities go to great lengths to entice former students into joining alumni associations, offering benefits ranging from social events to lifelong email addresses to discounts on pet health insurance.
Can MOOCs be far behind?
There is real potential in the idea of using MOOCs to attract former students into an alumni network and to nurture existing alumni relationships. We see several possible pathways by which integrating MOOCs into traditional higher education could be used accomplish both:
Once upon a time, a mere hundred years ago before the rate of change attained lightspeed, a person could earn a degree in a subject and rest assured that the resulting knowledge base was solid enough to sustain a lifetime career. Perusing journals and attending professional association meetings was more than sufficient to stay on top of the game.
This is no longer the case. Now, in many fields, a professional knowledge base is more fluid than solid as researchers make wave after wave of breakthroughs. It’s no longer feasible to stay current by spending a few hours a month with a journal or by attending a yearly conference.
This presents an opportunity for enterprising institutions or academic departments. They could offer MOOCs designed with the objective of continually updating their graduates’ knowledge base or skills — and perhaps offer CE credit, where applicable. We suspect that alumni would prefer to take a MOOC offered by their alma mater over one offered by an unfamiliar institution.
Even the introductory courses more typical of MOOCs could attract alumni. What is currently being taught in Psychology 101 or Biology 100 is quite different than the content of ten or twenty years ago.
Not only has the leading edge advanced, but the very foundations of some fields are shifting. Besides being a refresher, retaking lower level courses can help bring a working professional up to speed on the latest thinking in his or her field.
A key component of higher ed MOOCs is the emphasis on collaborative learning. Lessons generally feature forum discussion assignments that require learner participation online. When some of the participants are alumni, three things can happen.
Alumni can interact among themselves, expanding and reinforcing the institution’s existing alumni network.
MOOCs can give alumni a chance to reconnect with former professors, strengthening a department’s relationship with former students.
Alumni participating in MOOCs can become a recruiting tool for future alumni. MOOC discussions provide a means by which undergrads can interact with alums in a relatively casual setting — an excellent opportunity to find a mentor or a job lead. Students who have positive experiences in reaching out to alumni might be more likely to become active in alumni associations themselves after graduation.
Colleges and universities are always looking for ways to build loyalty by bringing alums back to campus. One way is to sponsor events designed to lure alumni into once again setting foot on the hallowed ground of the alma mater — think Homecoming weekend.
MOOCs offer a new platform around which ongoing events can be produced, especially MOOCs built around special contemporary topics.
In addition to online activities, departments can invite participants within travelling range to related lectures, discussions and demonstrations that can bring them together face-to-face. Featuring professors with whom grads may have studied earlier provides yet another opportunity for faculty-alumni reconnection.
It’s really a perfect mesh of hybrid learning and continuing education.
Having participants show up for an event in person adds another dimension to the alumni network — the face-to-face interactions upon which the strongest relationships are built. Such gatherings would transform at least part of the digital alumni network into a live community that includes alums and undergrads alike.
A live community. What a concept in this digital age!
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