Researching Online Engagement

Beth Hoffman said she is a “wonder why sort of thinker.”

She said that’s what helped her turn an independent study course into conducting research about the MSU Strategic Communication Online M.A. 

Hoffman, an MSU StratCom graduate, recently completed a semester-long research project centered around student engagement in the program. The details and direction of the independent study project were collaborated on with MSU StratCom Director Jason Archer, Student Success Advisor Daune Rensing and Outreach Coordinator Jennifer Trenkamp.

But the idea to look into the different experiences of MSU StratCom students was something Hoffman had been thinking about for a while.

“…There were several thoughts rattling around in my head about why people interact, the importance of those interactions and what, if anything, had changed with the growth of the program,” Hoffman said. “I wanted to learn more, and my curiosity fit well with the program's interest in evaluating how things were going.”

After questions were decided on and the timeline was determined, Hoffman created a survey that was sent to current students. The survey was titled, “The Importance of Interpersonal Engagement in an Online Master’s Degree Program.”

In total, 60 people responded. 

With a mix of an online survey and some follow-up phone interviews, Hoffman gathered data that confirmed what she thought to be true – but there were some surprises thrown in, too.

The major takeaway from the survey is that respondents believe engagement, in all of its forms, in an online program is important – regardless of whether they utilize the engagement tools offered (Teams, Facebook, an intranet and online meetups, among other things).

“I expected the responses to be positive, but I was surprised by the passion students have for the program and the StratCom family,” Hoffman said. “And that even the students not actively engaged feel it is important to have opportunities to engage.   

“One thing I found surprising from the phone interviews was how often I heard some form of ‘I'm different than the other students.’ It highlighted for me how the program is creating a sense of connection to a wide variety of personal situations.”

Based on the results of the survey, Hoffman suggested a focus on intentionality when it comes to engagement in an online setting. 

“If an online program only focuses on the coursework, a student can feel they are on their own. Connecting with peers, instructors, and program staff (or at a minimum knowing opportunities to connect are available if needed) removes the sense of having to do things on your own, reduces stress, and gives the student the space to focus on coursework.”

For Archer, conducting the study was an important checkpoint for MSU StratCom, which is now in its fifth year. 

“We started this program with the desire to be a program with heart,” he said. “This means we work hard to connect with students beyond the classroom through communities, tools and service. As we have grown, I grew concerned that we may lose this distinctive in our DNA. 

“I’m so thankful for Beth’s leadership along with Jen Trenkamp and Daune Rensing helping as resources for Beth’s work. The data she collected has already been put to use to empower us moving forward.”

Hoffman, Archer, Rensing and Trenkamp presented the study’s findings at MSU’s 2021 Spring Conference on Teaching, Learning, and Student Success.

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