Digital technology helps online master’s students build a sense of community

Stephanie Koons
June 02, 2020

The online education revolution has transformed the way many people pursue college degrees — particularly older and nontraditional students who are juggling career, family and obligations all at the same time.

Allie Goldstein, assistant professor of education in the College of Education’s Department of Education Policy Studies (EPS), utilizes digital technology to help her online master’s students further their careers as well as build a sense of community.

“The students are really excited to be members of Penn State and to be part of this community even though they’re not physically on campus,” she said. “It’s just really exciting to create that connection for students if that is what they want.”

Goldstein teaches HIED 808 Pro-Seminar, and HIED 843 Foundations of Student Affairs in the Master of Education in Higher Education program offered through Penn State World Campus.

According to the program’s website, the online master’s in higher education is a 30-credit professional degree program designed to prepare students and professionals for the field of postsecondary education.

The program, which started in fall 2014, is offered through the Center for the Study of Higher Education and the Department of Education Policy Studies.

For Goldstein, teaching the World Campus courses has allowed her to work at her alma mater — she received her doctorate in higher education from the College of Education in 2017 with her dissertation focused on online education.

Goldstein, who has a student affairs background, said teaching online classes marries her interests in the academic side of higher education and building student morale.

“I kind of realized online (education) is the best of both worlds,” she said.

Goldstein said the master’s in higher education prepares students for careers in various areas of higher education administration, including student affairs, fundraising and athletic training.

There currently are about 150 students in the program from states across the U.S. including Alaska, Florida and Texas, as well as from countries including Qatar and China. The student body includes senior administrators, student affairs professionals and a few career changers.

“Most commonly, students in the program are in the field of education – either already working in higher education, or in K-12 or other education-related areas, looking to transition into higher education,” Goldstein said.

There also are quite a few students who work at Penn State commonwealth campuses, as the program is a natural fit for current employees who would like to advance in the Penn State system.

“It’s just so amazing that they study with us, build this connection to Penn State and we get to see how this network expands and all the incredible things our students are doing,” she said.

While there may be a natural tendency to stack online and traditional education up against each other, Goldstein emphasized that they are not comparable. People choose to study online for a variety of reasons, she said, and it is her job as an instructor to tailor the experience to their needs.

The average online student is a bit older than traditional students and has other obligations such as work and family.

Since the online students are separated geographically, she said she looks for innovative ways to build a connection while taking advantage of user-friendly tools such as communications software provided by Zoom, a company that combines video conferencing and online meetings.

To build rapport among her online students, she sends weekly announcements and shares key takeaways from assignments in lieu of traditional group discussion.

Additionally, she incorporates icebreakers into her classes by asking questions such as “What is your least favorite food” and “What is your favorite leadership quote?”

“It’s just so amazing that they study with us, build this connection to Penn State and we get to see how this network expands and all the incredible things our students are doing.”

-- Allie Goldstein, assistant professor of education at Penn State 

One of the biggest challenges of teaching online, Goldstein said, is not being certain how her feedback will be interpreted by her students since they can’t hear her tone or read her facial expressions. Her solution is to be extra mindful of how she presents her ideas.

“I take a lot of time to think about the message I’m creating,” she said.

In her classes, Goldstein tries to take advantage of the varied perspectives that her students bring from their respective positions.

For example, she may put four academic advisers from four different institutions together on a project so they could each benefit from the viewpoints of other institutions.

Alternatively, she might group together different types of higher education professionals, such as a budget officer, student affairs specialist, athletic director and university president, and see how they bounce ideas off each other.

“It’s just like a real mini-community that you’re building,” she said. “It’s really rewarding and fun to be part of.”

In 2019, Goldstein was able to arrange for some of her students to participate virtually in two conferences: the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Conference in Los Angeles in March and the Penn State Division of Undergraduate Studies Conference at Penn State in September.

“Technology really allows us to do some exciting things and it’s cool to see how much people value those opportunities and experiences,” she said.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 02, 2020