Theory to practice: Real to virtual, the new environment.
The introduction of the World Wide Web introduced a new environment to college
and university campuses. The Student Affairs Web Specialist (SAWS) at Oregon
State University (OSU) is a new graduate assistantship position which strives
to ensure that students have a quality experience with online services at OSU.
One of the challenges facing the SAWS is the incorporation of student development
theory into practice. The main theories presented are from Maslow, Sanford,
Schlossberg, Chickering, and Astin. The attempt is made to showcase examples
of web site initiatives which use student development theory directly or indirectly.
Role of student development
The OSU Student Affairs Web Specialist (SAWS) graduate assistantship is a new graduate
student position. Part of OSU Enrollment Management, it was created to increase
the overall quality of the OSU Student Affairs web presence. Additionally,
the SAWS position is in charge of implementing increased web functionality,
usability, and accessibility. There is little interpersonal contact with students
but recent web statistics show that virtual contact is taking place on a daily
basis. However, the SAWS position sees students as virtual visitors who provide
statistical percentages and technical informatics instead of one-on-one personal
interactions. The perceived benefit of increased web services is that students
will have improved access to information. Web services assessment is incredibly
challenging as the results of information access are difficult to track. How
do you create a model for growth and learning based on web services statistics?
According to Evans, “Student development theory provides the basis for the practice
of student development” (Evans et al, 1998, p. 5). The difficulty therein
then, is the relationship of student development theories with new technologies.
How can theories which predate the web be used to access virtual interaction? It
would seem that the main developmental component to the SAWS position is information
access. The primary objective of the SAWS position is seemingly to increase
student online satisfaction. However, this objective does not seem to be based
on any assessment data.
Student development theory translated into practice
As stated earlier, the position of the SAWS does not easily adopt student
development theory. Even the Person-Environment theories exist in the real,
brick and mortar student affairs world. The difficulty then resides in the
flexibility of the selected theories in relation to how they make the leap
from real to virtual. Thematically, the theories are in order from basic needs
to the more concrete concept of involvement.
The basic needs which Maslow speaks of in his theory of human motivation can be loosely
translated from the real to the virtual (1954). The first level in Maslow’s
hierarchy are the physiological needs. These needs typically focus on the needs
of the body. The virtual body has needs which cannot be overlooked. A fast
internet connection or the proper hardware can be as impactful to the web user
as a water would be to a marathon runner.
Safety needs are the next set of needs and are typically characterized by the need
to feel safe and to be stable. A web site and its pages can be orderly or chaotic.
A user may drift away from a web site due to a lack of consistent navigation,
poor accessibility, or because of an anxious experience. An additional issue
arises with the need for universal design. Wording, style, and navigation can
affect the user experiences of your audience. Designing for nontraditional
students can be quite challenging and it may be necessary to test a web site
with a wide range of users.
The next level focuses on the need for belonging and love. Love may be a difficult concept
to relate to the web and the SAWS position but the need for belonging can be
thought of in terms of the intended relationship between a user and a web site.
For example, perspective international students are seeking a new learning
community when they search for a college or university. A web site can make
them feel welcome. The writing style, cultural appropriateness, and truly universal
design can all contribute to a heightened sense of belonging.
After the need for belonging has been addressed, Maslow focuses on the esteem needs
(1954). Maslow states that individuals have a need for “mastery and competence” (1954,
p. 45). Web sites are complicated. It can take months to create and design
a fully functional web site. It only takes a minute for a user to feel incompetent
when they are using a web site.
The final need according to Maslow is the need for self-actualization (1954). It is improbable
that this need will be nourished by a web site. It is more agreeable to say
that the earlier needs will all be assisted through quality web sites and services
which in turn could enable a conscious or unconscious move towards self-actualization.
By being intentional and aware of users’ needs the SAWS can create web sites which
facilitate information exchange and contribute to a stimulating learning environment.
It could be said that the web is an environment which affects student success. Sanford ’s
writings regarding challenge and support, supports the concept that one’s
environment can be both challenging and supportive (as cited in Evans et al,
1998, p. 5). Web sites can challenge users with inconsistent navigation, inaccessible
pages, and outdated content. The ideal web site would support users in all
facets of their experience. It is unclear if challenge can be a positive element
to a web site. Usability is defined as “the effectiveness, efficiency,
and satisfaction with which users can achieve tasks in a particular environment
of a product. High usability means a system is: easy to learn and remember;
efficient, visually pleasing and fun to use; and quick to recover from errors” (Dictionary.com).
It would seem that challenge would nullify support thus making Sanford ’s
theory difficult to translate to the web. An example which could support Sanford
might be the interaction of a blind student with a web site. The initial challenge
is the fact that the information is on the web. The student has to be able
to get online, use a screen reader, and accomplish the task of information
retrieval. Support could be in the form of accessible, screen reader “readable” text
or the inclusion of an alternative means to access the information.
It can be assumed that a lack of online services can lead to marginalization. Schlossberg
states that, student persistence can be enhanced through movement from a sense
of marginality to mattering (1989). Perhaps the web can be used to make students
feel that they matter in the same way that a good experience with a real person
can. Schlossberg ponders whether or not a community can be formed on campus “that
allows all students to find a place of involvement and importance” (1989,
p. 6). Perhaps a community can be created on the web which would allow for
everyone to be involved? The SAWS is currently working on the beginnings of
a university web portal. By default, all students would use this portal. This
could provide numerous virtual rituals which would “provide a sense of
mattering” (Schlossberg, 1989, p. 6).
According to Astin, “student involvement refers to the amount of physical and psychological
energy that the student devotes to the academic experience” (1984, p.
297). Fortunately for the SAWS, students can be involved with the web at any
time and on any day if they possess the necessary skills and equipment. One
of the primary challenges for the SAWS is getting student affairs personnel
to realize the idea that the web is always “on.” Students can invest
massive amounts of time in a web site. Involvement on the web is less controlled
and does not follow the same patterns of traditional office engagement. Student
affairs personnel have a tradition of tracking office visits and tailoring
services based on visits and feedback. Astin writes gives the example of a
university building a new library and then failing to assess its usage (1984).
This occurs frequently with web sites. The SAWS has implemented a web statistics
program which should lead to web site changes based on user traffic. Online
surveys can also be utilized to assess student engagement.
Theory to practice in action
The previous sections give some relevance to the application of student development theory
in relation to the SAWS. To further illustrate this application, I will give
two examples of theory and its practical use.
The SAWS has been given the task of researching the implementation of a university web
portal. Web portals are becoming increasingly popular as a primary means of
providing online support to students. In essence, a web portal creates a new
campus environment. According to Evans et al, “Chickering argued that
educational environments exert powerful influences on student development” (1998,
p. 40). A web portal can minimize the enormity of a campus environment and
provide opportunities for all students to access consistent services. Esteem
needs can be strengthened through the intentional creation of a user friendly
and accessible portal. The portal would provide students an online space where
they could access student records, e-mail, registration tools, Blackboard,
library records, and a multitude of customizable user oriented functions. The
portal would also provide a common place for all students to share a daily
announcement or bulletin. Campus wide rituals could be taking place in a new
virtual space. The goal would be that the new web portal would be a component
in a university wide retention program. Unfortunately, student development
theory is currently not in the conversations which have taken place regarding
the web portal. Perhaps it is there in the actions rather than the words which
have been said?
PERSPECTIVE INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS WEB SITE
The SAWS was put in charge of the development of a new web site for perspective international
students. To better understand the perspectives of a perspective international
student, university marketing conducted a focus group, with first year international
students, which generated several themes. The main themes were: sense of community,
design consistency, images of campus, resident/non-resident student interaction,
and clarity of content. As I mentioned before, Maslow believed that all people
have the need to be safe or have a lack of chaos and to belong (1954). The
focus group students were expressing their needs and it is unknown if they
are aware of Maslow’s work. The need to belong was clearly expressed
and the safety needs could be related to the images of campus or the request
for design consistency. Images of campus that are visually appealing that showcase
student interactions could create a heightened sense that the university community
is welcoming and safe. A web site design that offers consistent and clear navigation
would lessen anxiety for the student user. Utilizing Sanford ’s challenge
and support theory, the challenge for the perspective international student
is the distance traveled, the cost of attendance, and the differences in culture.
The SAWS has the responsibility of ensuring a supportive web site which offers
the first experience with the university.
Challenges and opportunities with theory to practice
As stated previously, “computer affairs” make the transformation of theory
into practice a challenging task. It is very challenging to think about using
student development theories in the day-to-day operations of a workplace. It
has been my experience thus far that most of the theoretical texts provide
little if any practical usage examples. When the web was created, a new campus
environment was created. I do not think that there has been sufficient work
in web theory application or development because of the newness of the environment.
It will take highly technical knowledge combined with student affairs experience
to create new web centered student development theories. The current theoretical
texts are narrowly focused on the typical undergraduate experience. How can
theory to practice on the web truly be achieved?
Astin, A. (1984). Student involvement: a developmental theory for higher
Journal of College Student Personnel , 25(4), 297-308.
Dictionary.com, (n.d.). retrieved Nov. 18, 2004, from http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=usability.
Evans, N., Forney, D., & Guide-DiBrito, F. (1998). Student development
in college: theory, research, and practice . 1st ed. San Francisco
Maslow, A. H. (1954) A theory of human motivation. In Motivation and personality
(pp. 35-58). New York . Harper and Row.
Schlossberg, N. K. (1989). Marginality and mattering: key issues in building
community. New Directions for Student Services , 48, 5-15.
Student Affairs Web Specialist Overview:
The Student Affairs Web Specialist will assist OSU Student Affairs departments
in developing a web presence and services that facilitate access for all students,
including students with disabilities. The purpose of the position will
be to increase student awareness of Student affairs programs and increase students’
self-service opportunities via the web. While this position will serve
all Student Affairs departments, it will be housed in the Student Orientation
and Retention (SOAR) office, providing a professional home and affiliation
1. Meet with Student Affairs departments todetermine web needs,
in order of priority as determined by the Student Affairs Technology Committee.
2. Build appropriate web presence and services for departments, in accordance
with University design standards.
3. Advise Student Affairs departments on web design and service delivery.
4. Maintain close contact with University Publications to ensure alignment
with OSU guidelines for Web design.
Evaluation of Duties and Supervision:
The Student Affairs Web Specialist will be supervised by Bob Bontrager, Assistant
Provost for Enrollment Management and Jim Day, Enrollment Management Information
Technology Manager. In addition, a significant direction will be provided
by the Student Affairs Technology Committee.
Terms of Appointment:
This position is a 12-month, .49 FTE appointment. Admission to the College
Student Services Administration (CSSA) graduate program at Oregon State University
is required. Renewal of the assistantship for a second year is contingent
upon satisfactory performance and favorable evaluation