Distance education is increasingly ubiquitous. In a 2002 report, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) reported that 1,979 institutions of higher education offered some form of distance learning courses or programs. This represents 35% of all regionally and/or nationally accredited institutions in the U.S. Many more courses and programs are offered through nonaccredited institutions. Distance learning is changing the educational landscape and opportunities as well as changing how learning happens. Indeed, the technology that makes modern-day distance learning possible is also changing so-called "traditional" classroom instruction. The latter now routinely incorporates elements of distance learning such as electronic communication (email, websites) and virtual classrooms (chat rooms, bulletin boards).
Research supporting the importance and quality of distance education is likely helping support the educational changes that are sweeping the nation. In 1999, Russell published an annotated bibliography of 355 research reports. In essence, the research reports showed that the quality of students' experience is similar in distance and traditional classroom settings. Recently, Wyatt (2005) surveyed college students who had experienced both online and classroom instructions. They rated online instruction as good or excellent (77%). An even greater percentage of students (87%) reported being somewhat or very satisfied with their online experience. Students overwhelmingly reported that online instruction was as demanding (36%) or more demanding (57%) than tradition classroom instruction.
Research supporting the viability of quality instruction through distance methods is critical in supporting the argument that distance education is important in order to reach people who may not otherwise pursue higher education (American Psychological Association, 2002). This argument was indeed supported by Wyatt (2005) who found the three most common reasons students enrolled in distance education courses were family responsibilities (46%, no gender differences), distance from the educational institution (43%), and scheduling difficulties (23%).
Distance Education and Psi Chi
Psychology as a discipline has to keep in step with technological changes and the ever-increasing presence of distance education in our discipline. While national numbers are not available at this time, local trends may support the importance of considering Psi Chi outreach to distance education students. At our institution, Utah State University (USU), the distance education program is well developed with over 11,000 students enrolled per year at over 30 extension centers throughout the state (USU, 2005). Within the department of psychology, we have approximately 700 majors or premajors and fully one-third to one-half are completing some or all of their coursework for the major via distance education (i.e., satellite or online courses).
Broadly, Psi Chi seeks to encourage growth within the field of psychology for individual members. There are a number of advantages that are theoretically facilitated by Psi Chi membership: national recognition, a sense of community with others in psychology, opportunities for building relationships with faculty, and interaction with other students at the local level (Psi Chi, 2005). How these benefits of membership are attained likely varies by chapter. It also likely varies by educational setting. If our chapter is like other chapters, distance education students are not garnering the full advantages of Psi Chi membership. Our local chapter's recruiting efforts towards distance education students have been minimal in the past. For those few students who sought membership in Psi Chi of their own initiative, membership benefits were limited to a line item on the curriculum vita because it was difficult for off-campus students to find out about on-campus events. Even if notified, transportation to the main campus could be difficult if not outright impossible.
Distance education students can receive and make invaluable contributions to local Psi Chi chapters. For example, a current National Council initiative for Psi Chi chapters is to foster professional relationships with other organizations (Mathie, 2005). Distance education students can play an important role in developing and maintaining these relationships by serving as liaisons between their communities and their Psi Chi chapter. In this regard, Psi Chi chapters who actively involve their distance education students may have access to a greater depth and breadth of resources to employ in seeking meaningful activities for their members. Examples include faculty research projects that are being conducted at extension locations and service activities that occur far from campus.
Distance Education Students and the USU Chapter
The USU chapter of Psi Chi has recently worked to be more inclusive of distance education students. What we have done so far can only be accurately described as "baby steps." Initially, when the faculty advisor began her position in the fall of 2002, the USU chapter was not using any technology with the exception of email. The email established was a hotmail account and was used to receive emails from members. The first step in using technology to advance the chapter goals was to set up a university-based email account (firstname.lastname@example.org) and a chapter website (www.usu.edu/~psichi/). Once these tasks were completed, we set out to create an email distribution list so that all of our members could be notified of campus activities and chapter business. Until that point, the chapter activities were announced by putting up posters in the building in which the department of psychology is housed. In addition to being easily ignored on campus, this strategy is not effective in reaching off-campus students.
At the time the faculty advisor began, students who were inducted into Psi Chi did so at their request. There was not an active recruitment process, although archival documents show that active recruitment did take place in our chapter in the past. In order to recruit students broadly, the membership vice-president worked with the psychology department advising office to identify those students who qualified for membership into Psi Chi. Letters were sent out to all students regardless of on- or off-campus status thus reaching distance education students. These letters served as invitations to membership, but were also an introduction to Psi Chi for those students who, by virtue of being removed from campus, were not constantly being exposed to Psi Chi posters and class announcements.
The greater utilization of technology led to easier communication from the members to the leadership of Psi Chi. Soon after establishing reliable access to electronic communication, the faculty advisor began receiving emails from distance students voicing their discontent and reporting that Psi Chi membership thus far had not been very meaningful. Addressing this problem was complex because there was no existing model for incorporating distance education students into the organization beyond basic recruitment. After much investigation, in the spring of 2005 a WebCT course was enabled through Utah State. WebCT allows integrated electronic learning environments (WebCT, 2003). Through WebCT, we generated a discussion board and a chat room. Before the end of the semester, we tested the chat room environment twice with discussions about Pinker's "Blank Slate" and getting into graduate school. The faculty advisor and chapter president moderated these discussions.
In order to institutionalize our efforts for inclusion, later in the spring of 2005 and before chapter officers for the next year were selected, the chapter's executive council chose to create a new council position: distance education representative. The distance education representative is now responsible for generating topics and scheduling monthly online chat discussions. The representative will also monitor the bulletin board to ensure that distance students' questions and recommendations are being discussed in the council meetings on campus and are addressed on the board. In order to promote cohesion, the scheduled monthly meetings will coordinate whenever possible with activities being held on campus. Finally, the distance education representative will be in charge of creating a monthly newsletter for all students. The newsletter will be emailed to all members as well as posted on the WebCT bulletin board. Through this newsletter, off-campus students can stay abreast of important activities and developments on campus. Conversely, distance students can share activities that they are organizing as a part of Psi Chi. This document will help to improve communication between all members and will help to promote the sense of community that is a goal of Psi Chi membership. The steps taken to include distance education students will also (and already have) benefit on-campus students who have busy schedules and are unable to participate in campus activities that occur during day time hours.
It is impossible to know at this time how these efforts will change our chapter. In accordance with our mission to promote research, we will collect data in the next few years to examine the changes in our chapter and continue strengthening our chapter. Already we have noted a few important items to consider.
- Create a listserv so that students and alumni can remain connected to the chapter. The listserv may allow students who stop-out of college to remain tied to Psi Chi during times of nonenrollment.
- Determine if there is a need for a distance education executive council exclusively devoted to strengthening Psi Chi participation at distance sites.
- Expand the use of technology (e.g., use satellite transmissions to promote attendance at Psi Chi activities by students at remote sites).
Psi Chi membership is valuable. Research has shown that Psi Chi members are more likely to go into graduate school (Carmody, 1998; Ferrari & Appleby, 2005); report being more satisfied with advising, courses, and research opportunities within their schools (Millard, 1998); and report valuing their education in psychology years after graduation (Tarsi & Jalbert, 1998) to a greater degree than nonmembers. The benefits of membership have been empirically substantiated. As such, making an effort to extend these benefits to distance education students who are Psi Chi members seems responsible, if not outright necessary.
American Psychological Association. (2002). Principles of good practice in distance education and their application to professional education and training in psychology. Retrieved May 3, 2005, from http://www.apa.org/ed/graduate/distance_ed.pdf
Carmody, D. P. (1998, Spring) Student views on the value of undergraduate presentations. Eye on Psi Chi, 2(3), 11-14.
Council for Higher Education Accreditation. (2002). Accreditation and assuring quality in distance learning. CHEA Monograph Series 2002. Number 1. Retrieved May 3, 2005, from http://www.chea.org/pdf/mono_1_accred_distance_02.pdf?pubID=246
Ferrari, J.R., & Appleby, D.C. (2005, Winter). Alumni of Psi Chi: Does "membership have its advantage" on future education/employment? Eye on Psi Chi, 9(2), 34-37.
Mathie, V.A. (2005, Winter). Psi Chi partnerships: Keys to future success. Eye on Psi Chi, 9(2), 6-17.
Millard, M.O. (1998). Psi Chi membership and factors related to excellence in scholarship. Retrieved May 9, 2005, from http://www.psichi.org/awards/winners/hunt_reports/millard.asp
Psi Chi (2005). Benefits of membership. Retrieved April 29, 2005, from http://www.psichi.org/about/benefits.asp
Russell, T. (1999). The no significant difference phenomenon. Retrieved May 3, 2005, from http://www.nosignificantdifference.org/
Tarsi, M., & Jalbert, N. (1998). An examination of the career paths of a matched sample of Psi Chi and non-Psi Chi psychology majors. Retrieved May 9, 2005, from http://www.psichi.org/awards/winners/hunt_reports/jalbert.asp
Utah State University (2005). Continuing education. Retrieved April 29, 2005, from Utah State University website: http://extension.usu.edu/continuinged/
WebCT (2003). Getting started guide: WebCT campus edition 4.1. United States: Author.
Wyatt, G. (2005). Satisfaction, academic rigor, and interaction: Perceptions of online instruction. Education, 125, 460-469.
A Distance Education Perspective
I live in central Utah, 75 miles from the nearest Wal-Mart, and 40 miles from the nearest traffic light. At age 52, upon discovering that Utah State University offers a distance education program, and that the credits I had earned in my two years of college during the early '70's were still valid, I decided to complete my degree. I graduated summa cum laude this spring with a major in psychology and minor in management.
I found that many of the people in my classes were similar to me--older students, many of them women returning to school after raising their families, or people working in full-time jobs.
Distance education offered me an opportunity that would otherwise not have been available. However, I often felt isolated. Such things as a quick trip to the library, a chat with an instructor, or comparing notes with fellow students were more difficult.
In applying for graduate school, I am required to obtain three letters of reference, two of which must be from my instructors. This presented a challenge, since I have not met most of my instructors. On the other hand, technology offers us a vast array of methods of communication. Some teachers made full use of these methods, including discussion boards, chat rooms, contact links, student presentations, PowerPoint® presentations, student web pages, library articles, assignment postings, grade postings, course calendar, and syllabus. For example, the discussion boards for my Cognitive Psychology class included Main Topics, Ask the Instructor, Ask Another Student, and the discussion groups for lab. We were able to get acquainted with our fellow students through student web pages.
I was excited and honored to receive an invitation to join Psi Chi. After my first year as a member, I asked if it would be possible to create a discussion board, so that I could get in touch with other members throughout the central Utah area. My thought was that it might be possible to find service projects and activities that we could work on locally. During my first year in the organization, I was not aware of many of the activities that took place on campus. Once the discussion board and chat room were initiated, I was able to make contact with some of the other students in Psi Chi. I felt more included. One of the students posted notes on a lecture that was given on campus, and I was able to take part in chat room discussions on topics of interest.
As a distance education student, I have welcomed the opportunity to develop contacts with others who are studying psychology. I have most enjoyed the classes that have made use of communication technology, and so have allowed me to develop relationships with my instructors and fellow students. Discussion boards can allow students to communicate about classes, activities, and projects. Web pages are a great way to develop a personal connection. Chat rooms can offer a live, real-time conversation. These technologies will be of great use in the Psi Chi organization, by utilizing the potential of distance education students, and by allowing distance education students an opportunity to become part of the Psi Chi community.