Three ways to make the virtual classroom personal

Going digital doesn’t have to mean being impersonal

The online education world is becoming accepted by more institutions than ever, and for good reason. It has the attributes desired to grow an organization’s influence and positive impact without the historical linear rise in costs.

This business model is reserved not just for the for-profit, office park-type campus operations, but also for long-standing renowned educational institutions. I will champion this movement as director of the San Diego State University’s L. Robert Payne School of Hospitality and Tourism Management School’s Master’s Program.

Going digital doesn’t have to mean creating an impersonal academic experience. Far from it. The challenge in creating a virtual classroom setting is how to do so while making it as focused on the student’s experience.

This is important for advanced degrees that cater to individuals who are active in their careers. These students desire to learn as much from their peers as they do their professors.

I believe there’s no better platform to engage a global student body so long as the environment is set up correctly. Following are three ways to accomplish this.

Limit the number of students

One big issue with most online education programs is that they allow a seemingly unlimited amount of students. That’s no better than a 100-level course at a large university with 300-plus students sitting in a big lecture hall.

Professors will talk at, not with, their students. The information presented is no better than reading the textbook and the experience is marginal at best.

The same is true for the online environment. If the community is smaller, students will be more apt to have a more interactive engagement with each other and their professors.

At SDSU, we cap the number of individuals in each of our primarily online HTM Master’s Program class at 24. Doing so provides an intimate virtual setting that fosters greater interactivity.

Offer offline engagements

In addition to the online curriculum, it’s beneficial to facilitate in-person engagements for students, faculty and staff. Most of the time, these activities need not be structured, but instead more social. Putting faces to names in a live environment will elevate the interactive online setting to more engaging levels throughout the education program.

With our program, we mandate that our Masters candidates spend the first and final weeks on campus with each other, primarily to establish strong bonds during their 13-month-long curriculum and, as important, after graduation when the applications of their studies goes into full effect.

Establish mentorship-level connections with students

It’s easy to treat students as just a number in the online educational world, but doing so provides a less than optimal learning experience and does the institution a disservice. We should not be simply degree delivery providers. We are far more than that.

As educators, we help advance and accelerate an individual’s personal and professional aspirations. In the process, students are treated more like family.

Faculty and staff will create a more caring environment that recognizes the unique and talented individuals they serve. Any less inhibits the student’s and the school’s potential for excellence.

The online educational setting is a great platform for interactivity, but not by using it as a cheap way to serve the masses at little expense and great profit. It should be a way to create a global community of leaders who are passionate about enhancing lives and bettering people.

This belief is at the core of my own teaching mantra and that of my colleagues at SDSU, and I would strongly argue that it should be embraced by all educators—particularly ones who use the web as their classroom.

J. Jeffrey Campbell is the director of the San Diego State University’s L. Robert Payne School of Hospitality and Tourism Management School’s Master’s Program. He can be reached at

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