Leveraging distance educators to solve global community challenges

Experts from Excelsior College discuss the endless opportunities for faculty and students to come together to address global issues thanks to distance learning.

Leadership at institutions of higher education have historically embraced some level of commitment to the well-being of the communities where they are physically situated. This commitment is typically reflected in the institution’s mission and culture. Having campus-based programs naturally lends itself to this type of stewardship because students, faculty, and administrators live and work together in a relatively defined geographic area. For distance institutions of higher education that embrace community stewardship as part of their mission, the commitment is experienced differently, but with no less vigor.

The national dialog about best approaches to strengthen communities will no doubt heighten and become increasingly passionate as we get closer to electing the next United States president. Clearly, faculty, students and administrators engaging in these types of discussions often wonder about how to become more engaged with the communities they serve not only at individual and professional levels, but also at an institutional level.

Think Creatively about Opportunities

Many schools of public health at campus-based institutions lead institutional efforts to serve their communities by helping to address complex issues. For example, Drexel University’s School of Public Health is working with local community leaders to address the incidence and prevalence of traumatic injuries. George Washington’s Milken Institute School of Public Health launched a program focusing on cancer prevention and treatment. These types of initiatives inspire distance educators, like Excelsior College, to think creatively about opportunities to partner across regions and disciplines to address shared societal issues impacting the communities it serves.

(Next page: Excelsior’s distance model; other ways to leverage long-reach for global community challenges)

Vision of Collaboration and Partnership

Excelsior College’s vision of being a model higher education institute of the 21st century includes being an important academic collaborator and a valuable partner in addressing societal and workforce needs. It meets students where they are—academically and geographically, offering instruction and the assessment of learning to over 38,000 currently enrolled students. Likewise, it only makes sense that it also extends its long reach to engage in community stewardship by leveraging technology and engaging with its community partners and over 163,500 graduates.

While students, faculty, and administrators are dispersed geographically, there are endless opportunities to come together to address complex societal and community challenges. One example of a recent community outreach initiative involved convening a panel to discuss— Strengthening Communities by Bridging Health and Economic Development. This event brought together policy-makers, economists, public health professionals, urban planners and researchers to discuss local and national strategies that integrate health and economic development to address public health issues and revitalize communities.

This face-to-face event was recorded to engage a broader audience so that communities across the country can engage in dialog about optimizing their built environments to enhance the health of their local communities. Other ways distance educators can leverage their long-reach to address community challenges includes:

  • making community stewardship a very clear and focused part of their mission and strategic vision;
  • encouraging the scholarship of community engagement among students and faculty;
  • engaging in collaborative and reciprocal partnerships with other organizations and institutions;
  • hosting webinars for students, faculty and decision makers based on topics trending regionally, nationally and internationally;
  • incorporating course projects that require students to engage and partner with community stakeholders to address local community issues;
  • creating virtual internship opportunities for students to work with organizations with a community-centric and humanitarian mission; and
  • sustaining a culture of engagement.

Many believe that institutions of higher education have a moral obligation to use resources in the form of human capital, research, evaluation and prestige to take part in developing and implementing strategies that uplift communities. Distance educators are not exempt and are considered key stakeholders with a vested interest in embracing a stewardship role in local and global communities.  Our long-reach maximizes our impact across geographic boarders, that at times limit traditional institutions with the best of intentions.

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