• abigailgamble0

Ball Caps, Dr. Pepper and Online Learners

Updated: Jul 23, 2019

Do you have a favorite ball cap? You know the one: it fits your head just right, is worn in just enough, the bill isn’t awkward but curves ever so slightly, and it probably has a story – or at the least, sentimental value. Well this is a story about my favorite ball cap. If you don’t have a favorite ball cap (gasp), surely you have a favorite t-shirt with similar characteristics of comfort and meaning. Think of that shirt, if you must, while the rest of us go grab our caps from a hook or shelf somewhere.

sporting my Purdue ball cap on commencement

I ordered my favorite cap from Purdue when I completed my master’s degree from their Learning Technology & Design program online. I had been planning for months to attend graduation in person and was so excited to see the campus and meet my faculty in person. Then ‘life’ happened and my plans where thwarted. I was crushed but decided to order a Purdue ball cap that I could sport while watching the commencement via live streaming. It doesn’t hurt that it when it arrived, it was the perfect wash, fits just right and let’s me display my pride to be a Boilermaker!

I know what you’re thinking - I thought this group was all about online education. Why in the heck am I reading a blog post about your ball cap? Stay with me…. I am almost there….

The only downside about wearing this cap is running into a fellow Boilermaker – weird, right? Running into fellow fans and folks with similar interests or backgrounds as yours is supposed to be the fun part! But not for me. When I run into Boilermakers, they want to chew the fat about Purdue: favorite hangouts on and off campus, infamous stories or characters only the Purdue community would appreciate. Their excitement flattens faster than Dr. Pepper on a hot summer day when I tell them I’ve never been to campus before and have no clue about those people or places. My personal experience in these moments is the opposite of connection to a community; rather I am isolated as an ‘online’ student which persists the stigmatism that online is somehow inferior to in-person learning.

A grocery store or restaurant encounter is far from a life-changing event, but replace my ball cap with my resume and the passer-by with a prospective employer in an interview; and suddenly my inability to share in the knowledge and passion of our alma mater’s campus, traditions, and nuances could be the difference between landing a position or not. Conveying culture and bringing online learners into the fold matters. It is not icing or fluff.

Speaking of Dr. Pepper… at Baylor University, where I work, there is an interesting (and unexpected) connection to Dr. Pepper. Now if you were an online student at Baylor, you could do some internet research and find out that the university hosts Dr. Pepper hour each week of the fall and spring semesters and has done so for decades. But the nuance comes in knowing fun facts like: Dr. Pepper floats at Baylor are not made like a normal float but instead ice cream is stirred with soda until it becomes a smooth slush-like consistency (this is the source of contention for many float purists), or that you simply can’t purchase any non-Dr. Pepper products on campus period (the struggle is real for Coke die-hards).

Baylor mascot drinking bottled Dr. Pepper

The Dr. Pepper stories are sprinkled through campus history. Starting in the mid 1930's, Baylor mascots (American Black Bears) were fed Dr. Pepper at home football games; a tradition that lasting decades until it was stopped for health reasons (I'm no zoologist, but these are probably the same reasons Dr. Pepper isn't healthy for humans to drink!). These are just a few small examples, but any could easily be the talking point a fellow Baylor Bear brings up in an interview, hoping for a chance to look back upon nostalgically.

While there is basic information about any college campus on their website; pictures of statues and landmark buildings do not suffice if we aim to connect online students to our culture and community. This must happen through sharing of traditions, stories, people and places of interest to our online student body vs. just campus visitors; presumably through a robust online virtual ‘tour’ encompassing a blend of virtual media that will result in the best end-user experience.

I am coining this the ‘Ball Cap Test’: the measure of how effective we are at imparting our campus culture and creating a student experience for our online learners. I can’t help but wonder what benefits would be realized if institutions with fully online programs were to consider this an important priority and invest resources into addressing it as such. I can envision gains in engagement and retention, not to mention employability through strengthening of networks and laying the foundation for a more philanthropic online alumni base (any development officers out there?).

Would your campus pass the Ball Cap Test? Do you think your online learners from across the country feel truly connected to your institution and student body in ways that would allow them to have meaningful conversations with alumni?

I would love to hear from you if you, your team or institution have developed resources for your online student population to ‘bring them in the fold’! Find me on LinkedIn or Twitter to connect on this topic (Abigail_Gamble_contact_links).


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