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  • Michelle Sheldrake

Getting to know your university when you study online

A university is a rich community of people and it is a community you become a part of when you enrol as an online student. The culture and ethos of the university shapes and is shaped by that community and influences the delivery of research and education. It is worth knowing what you are a part of.



With greater numbers of students than ever before enrolling in university courses via online study only, these students are at greater risk for experiencing a sense of isolation from, and lack of engagement with, their fellow students, their lecturers and tutors, the department and faculty they are enrolled in, not to mention the university as a whole. With a little effort and guidance, online students can get to know more about their university than what is presented in their lectures and course notes.


As someone who works a lot with students opting for online study, I’ve observed that the choice to study online and the subsequent choice of course or degree and therefore institution is most commonly driven by factors such as convenience, availability, course fees, admission requirements, timing of delivery, part-time and full-time options. These are all important practical aspects to be considered in making a decision about a course of study, but little emphasis is given to the broader context in which a course is situated – the school, department, faculty and the university.


On-campus students have the opportunity to learn, intentionally or not, about their school/ department, faculty and institution simply by walking around, interacting with other students and staff, attending faculty or department presentations and generally observing and sensing the physical environment.


In walking around a university campus, we tend to notice little things like how the grounds are taken care or, the state of the buildings and facilities, the services and activities available on campus, all of which give clues to the culture and ethos of the university and the faculties within it.


Being on campus presents multiple opportunities to interact with lecturers, tutors and the administrative staff. Most school and faculties hold regular presentations or workshops which support networking, where you can meet other staff and students from the faculty, often higher degree research students, senior academics and those in senior management such as the Head of School.


As an online student, your course and its online lectures (which you may attend live or via recording) may seem isolated from the rest of the university, but in truth they are not.


Nothing happens in isolation – everything is connected.


Your course, your assignment, your exam is part of a chain of decisions and actions carried out by a community of people from the executive leadership down to the IT officer.


Behind every course, often behind every subject in a course, are a team of people, both academics and professional staff, working to ensure the delivery of your educational experience.


That team of people are part of a school or department, e.g., School of Psychology, Department of Engineering, which will be part of a larger Faculty, e.g., Faculty of Health Sciences, Faculty of Arts. Each school/department and Faculty has a Head or Dean and a senior management team who ensure alignment with faculty and university strategic plans. In turn, Faculty Deans are part of the executive leadership of the university working alongside the Vice-Chancellor (who is the equivalent of the CEO).


Each university has a distinctive feel, its culture and ethos shaped by the executive leadership which filters down through each faculty and school/department and ultimately to your lecturers and tutors thereby impacting your course and your study experience. Let your fingers do the walking and get to know what you are connected to.


A few simple suggestions I offer my clients either before they make their final choice of course/institution or once they have started their course include:

  • Find the home page of the School/Department and Faculty which your course or the course you’re interested in is part of and read about their research, any latest news and take any virtual tours if they are offered.

  • Look at the profiles of the Head of School/Department and Faculty Deans, read the biographies and learn about their research interests.

  • Look at the profiles of your lecturers and tutors if they are available - most university websites have the option to search the staff directory.

  • Look at the profiles of the administrative and support staff – you may need to call them, and it is great to be able to put a face to a name.

  • Search for ‘University Executive’ and find out who is leading the university and whether there have been any recent changes.

  • Have a look around the university website (you can tell a lot about an organization from just the quality of their website) and find the ‘About [this university]’ page or similar where you can find the Strategic Plan, along with the vision, mission and values of the university.

  • Find out what services are available to you, e.g., the library. Once enrolled, get to know the librarians – they are a great resource when you are studying online.

  • Find out if the university is or has been in the news. For example, last year several universities were under investigation for underpayment of casual staff. What does this say about the culture and ethos?

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