Strategic Onboarding of Online MSIM Students: The Orientation Matters

August 08, 2012

By Michael Goul, chairman, Department of Information Systems

Considerable business research discusses how organizations should design and conduct formal onboarding or orientation programs for their new hires. Some research focuses on socialization, some on employee training, and there is frequent mention of why it is important to combine formal and informal activities. Similarly, the education literature addresses new student orientation as particularly important to retention - especially in online programs.

In the education literature, one oft-cited doctoral dissertation about online learning investigates how important a formal orientation is to alleviating one’s fears that while they do their coursework online, they could be perceived by their classmates as not as engaging, thoughtful, intellectual and dynamic as they really are in person.

Another perceived complexity is the worry that faculty expectations of student computing skills and knowledge may not match reality – particularly when it comes to navigating the newest and most exciting collaborative technology products and services.

Interestingly, another important finding in the education research is that online program orientations need to establish program time requirements and convey effective time management best practices.

For the W. P. Carey School’s Master of Science in Information Management (MSIM) program, business and educational research provides insight, but our considerable experience with the on-site platform has provided additional key best practices on how to design the best orientation for students opting for the flexibility of the online MSIM.

This past weekend, the MSIM class of December 2013 converged at Tempe’s Mission Palms Hotel & Conference Center for their formal orientation. Many didn’t expect the intense experience we had planned for them. Orientation leaders included Robert St. Louis, MSIM faculty coordinator, Angela Walline, IS department assistant director of graduate programs and Elizabeth Sortais, online graduate program coordinator.

The new MSIM online students received a jam-packed notebook with presentation notes, a case to be analyzed during the orientation, a directory listing of all students in the class with their pictures, job descriptions and a brief personal statement expressing what each hopes to gain from the program. Right from the start, the new students were as excited about the program as they were about seeing first-hand the top-notch caliber of their classmates.

Students in the Class of 2013 are employed by some of the most prestigious companies and governmental entities across the globe and average more than 8 years of work experience. They traveled to Tempe from all over the world for the orientation. These demographics served to establish high expectations and solid work ethic norms for the entire class.

The opening hours of the orientation were designed to ensure all could match a face to an email address. On the first evening, several icebreaking exercises ended leaving enough time for students to do their first homework assignment – reading a complex case that they were to analyze from both business and IT angles.

Students had already been thoughtfully assigned to work groups prior to the orientation; these will be the group of classmates they will work with for most, but not all of the group work they do while in the program. In making group assignments, the department’s academic professionals pored over each detail in admitted students’ portfolios, they contemplate issues like time zone differences, diversity in work experience/international exposure/career progression/etc.

But what these professionals count on most in making group assignments is based on our eight years of experience with managing effective MSIM groups in our on-site program. We’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work for on-site team compositions – and that knowledge has transferred directly to the online platform. Like the online platform, the on-site version requires significant technology-supported collaboration. In fact, I would advise any student considering an online graduate program to make sure that the program has first been successful in all of its on-site curriculum – including how it expects students to work together.

Throughout the orientation, case analysis and discussion (using the actual online tools) were interspersed with presentations, individual meetings and demonstrations by the W. P. Carey School’s Online Academic Services Team. The school hosts an online learning management system that has been especially tailored to support collaborative masters degree-level work. Students used the computers they will use throughout the Program to establish that all operations/interfaces work as intended. Staff from the school’s business information technology team were on hand to address any glitches and system peculiarities.

Everyone knew by the end of the orientation how to use the tool suites and who to call if something goes wrong, and they got a solid taste of case analysis and online collaboration to generate a case analysis document. From this experience, the groups formed an initial ‘charter’ of how they plan to engage, resolve conflict, etc.

Three MSIM online students nearing graduation served on a panel for the group describing what they felt were the most important factors for success. It boiled down to time management, collaboration, hard work and persistence. The panel passed along many of their tried-and-true best practices in each of these areas. Those best practices sounded exactly like the advice that should be conveyed in any business-related orientation, especially now that both virtual and face-to-face work is the norm.

In the end, our strategic onboarding placed these new MSIM online students on the path to program success. They’d been completely immersed into their new world of advanced graduate study, and they took to it like the professionals they are.

Photo -- Incoming Online MSIM students work together at orientation. Clockwise from lower left: Josh Saari, Jason Deskin, Sean La Rue, Jill Myers and Eugene Cullen.