Of course, distance learning colleges do not define themselves in terms of deficiencies, but rather in terms of the unique benefits this form of education offers. Oxbridge Academy, a private distance learning college
with over 16,000 current students, holds that it is the essential differences between them and campus-based colleges that actually draws students to enrol in the first place. "It is often adults who are already working," says Oxbridge Academy Vice-Principal Danette Heyns, "that choose to continue their training and education through distance learning because of the flexibility it offers."
Not everyone has the time or money to dedicate themselves to full-time campus learning. Besides, older students are often more concerned with getting their qualifications as quickly as possible, than they are with experiencing 'campus life' amidst a rowdy crowd of fresh Matriculants. Despite this, however, even older students might yearn for the interaction with peers that campus colleges offer. It is in this regard that social media has taken on an important role in changing the sometimes isolated experience of distance learning into something highly social. The newfound importance of social media
Oxbridge Academy has an extremely active social media presence, with the focus falling primarily on Facebook and Twitter, but also covering LinkedIn, Tumblr, YouTube, and Google+. With over 9,000 current followers, Oxbridge Academy's Facebook page
has become a virtual student centre of sorts. Here Oxbridge alumni, current students, prospective students, and anyone curious about studying at Oxbridge Academy, can interact with the college as well as with their far-removed classmates.
Scrolling through Oxbridge Academy's posts and comments, you find that students connect as much with each other as they do with the college itself. Students seem to want to help and motivate each other, sharing a mutual bond of studying on their own from home. One student posts on the wall asking whether anyone is studying OHS
and would like to partner up. "Contact me," comes a reply from another OHS student, "and we can study together". Students motivate, and want to be motivated by, each other. For the distance learning student, Facebook seems to become a source of mutual social support. They might encouragingly brag about getting a managerial job after completing their course, make an announcement like: "1 assessment left to get my OHS diploma", or simply chime in with "Good luck guys".
"A big part of Oxbridge Academy's social media strategy," says Hanel Haumann, who manages the college's social media, "is to give students exciting, helpful and entertaining information on a daily basis. "The aim of this strategy, according to Hanel, is to keep students engaged with their studies, keep them motivated, and make them feel part of anactive, actual, student body. Posts range from helpful study tips, career advice, and fun facts, to updates on things happening at Oxbridge Academy, inspirational quotes, or simple motivational messages. A congratulatory list of graduating students is also occasionally posted, or even a photo of a student excitedly holding their newly acquired certificate.
Although this all started as part of the college's marketing efforts at first, Oxbridge's social media presence has become integral to the Oxbridge Academy student experience. Giving students a voice
One of the most significant and widespread effects of social media is that it breaks down the hierarchy between clients and service providers - whether you are a cellphone network, or a private college. "I go onto our Facebook page a number of times each day, replying to comments and queries on a rolling basis," says Hanel Haumann. A large part of this, as far as Hanel's duties go, consists of directly responding to prospective students enquiring about courses, course fees, or even the college's 'location'.
Delivering real-time responses is an integral part of maintaining an active, and consequently effective, social media profile. The quick response to and resolution of problems and complaints consequently becomes very important as well. Facebook allows students to air their grievances, whether they want a reply on a fax or assignment submission, or whether they are complaining about late study material. But this channel of communication goes both ways: during the recent postal strike, for example, Hanel could directly appease disgruntled students by informing them that the delayed delivery of study material was due to the raging national crisis at hand (students check their Facebook pages daily, whereas email notifications often don't even get opened).
But if the college relies on communicating with students via Facebook, would this not then exclude older people, who form the bulk of distance learning students? It is a great misperception that only young people have embraced social media as an integral part of their lives. After conducting research on current students, Oxbridge Academy's marketing department found that it is also the older students who place significant importance on social media. Over 9,000 of the college's current students are active Facebook users! Why are distance learning and social media a perfect fit?
Correspondence, and e-learning, colleges have long since tried to circumnavigate the detachedness that students experience when studying on their own from home. Chat forums, group discussions, webinars, and student portals have done as much as they can in this regard. But rather than try and simulate a classroom environment like some of these tools do, social media plays to the unique strengths of distance learning.
The effective usage of social media by an educational institute allows the student experience to become imperceptibly intertwined with the student's online social life. This plays directly into distance learning's biggest advantage over traditional learning: with distance learning, the act of studying fits around the student's life, schedule, and daily habits. Rather than rigidly dictating the terms of education, like traditional educational institutes often do, distance learning allows the student to control his or her studies with optimal customisability.
To Oxbridge Academy, distance learning means:
- Students start and finish their courses whenever they want, without being tied to academic semesters.
- Students have access to a wide range of courses from anywhere in South Africa, giving even rural South Africans access to the course of their choice.
- Students are not held back, or hurried up, by the pace of the rest of a class.
- Students are effectively private learners, receiving individual attention from highly-qualified tutors and college support staff whenever they need it.
"The reason distance learning will always be a progressive form of learning," says Vice-Principal Danette Heyns, "is because it allows the student to control his or her studies, placing the individual student at the centre of his or her college experience. "Likewise, social media is about individualisation. It's about having quick access, from anywhere, to your network of connections. The natural fit between distance learning and social media usage consequently has the potential to radically change the way we learn. It has already started to transform distance learning into a much more intimate - albeit increasingly virtual - student experience. To find out more about studying at Oxbridge Academy, visit www.oxbridgeacademy.edu.za, or call us on 021 1100 200.