The spatial dimension of taking online courses provides a surprising finding in a new survey:
While studying online theoretically gives students who are place bound for work or family reasons more geographic flexibility than does in-person study, the Online College Students research shows that ever larger numbers of fully online students are staying close to home.
As seen in the graphic below, 67 percent of respondents said they lived within 50 miles of a campus or service center of the college where they are studying, up from 42 percent just five years ago. Meanwhile, the proportion who said they are studying at least 100 miles from where they live has dropped by more than half, to 15 percent in 2019 from 37 percent in 2014.
The report’s authors offered this analysis: “The growing number of schools offering online programs provides students with more options closer to their home. Local schools have greater visibility among employers and others in the community, which is valuable to students.”
The explanation offered makes some sense: nearby colleges are known in the community. A degree from a local school may mean more than a school from elsewhere.
But, this could lead to some interesting connections:
1. Does this suggest that students have a hard time differentiating from all of the online course options out there? One way to filter all of those options would be to stick to recognizable nearby names.
2. I wonder how the marketing of local institutions matters. Media outlets in the Chicago area are full of advertisements from universities and colleges pushing online programs. Of course, there are national voices advertising in there as well but some of these can be unknown institutions (I’m thinking of Southern New Hampshire University).
3. Could this be linked to decreased geographic mobility among Americans? If Americans like to be rooted in a place, choosing a place to take college classes – whether online or not – may matter.
4. I’m reminded of findings that suggest social media users often make online connections with people they already know offline. In other words, social media users are not always seeking out random connections or unknown people to interact with. Could the same principle apply to colleges?
In the long run, what if the online world ends up leaning local in terms of the connections people make and maintain?
An article on the difficulty of making good friends after age 30 highlights the conditions sociologists say lead to friendship:
As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.
It is interesting to consider how well this compares with online friendship. Let’s look at Facebook:
1. Proximity. This is virtual proximity where your friends are easy to access and Facebook helpfully tells you what they are up to. It is interesting to note that most friends of Facebook users are people they know from the offline world – there is a lot of overlap between these two realms.
2. Repeated, unplanned interactions. This could happen through wall posts, messages, tagging, and chatting. However, users of Facebook can choose when and how they do this as opposed to consistently running into someone in the offline world. This choice of interaction allows users to participate when and with whom they want in a way that wasn’t possible before.
3. Setting that allows people to let down their guard. Maybe the privacy settings in Facebook allow this but not in the same way as proximity and face-to-face interactions. Facebook is full of impression management where users create the image they want to project to others (this is also true of face-to-face interactions).
All together, Facebook capitalizes on the some of the advantages and difficulties of the early 21st century but it doesn’t replicate the experience of developing friendships in-person.
Three researchers have developed a “friend prediction program” that accounts for the locations someone visits:
Through an extension of the “long-standing sociological theory” people who tend to frequent the same places may be similarly-minded individuals, Salvatore Scellato, Anastasios Noulas, and Cecilia Mascolo, have developed a friend prediction program based on the places people visit.
Sites such as Facbook and LinkedIn often suggest friends based on a ‘friend of a friend’ approach but now it could be based on where users ‘check in’.
The system would also use different weightings for places like gyms – where people frequent – as opposed to airports, where people visit only occasionally…
They discovered about 30 per cent of social links developed because of people visiting the same places.
It sounds like location is not everything when it comes to forming friendships but it does play an important role.
I don’t know if many people think about why they are friends with the people they are friends with but I suspect one argument might emerge: we choose to be friends with our friends. Such a story would fit with tales we tell about finding romantic partners. It gives agency to each participant and suggests each person found the other to be likeable. But perhaps another story might emerge as well: we just sort of started hanging out together. This story would be tied to proximity: people who are placed or place themselves in particular places or situations are more likely to become friends. Some classic examples include being in a series of high school classes together, being assigned to certain roommates early on in college, starting work at a particular company. In each of these situations, people still have some room to choose their friends but their pool of possible friends is more limited by structural forces. Theoretically, you could be friends with anyone but realistically, you will come in contact with a more limited number of people in life.
Perhaps some still think that the Internet can reduce the impact of proximity by connecting people who never or rarely are in the same location. However, research suggests that most SNS (Facebook, Myspace, etc.) relationships are based on existing off-line relationships. The power of proximity will last for some time, even if most people don’t think about it.
A study of the passing of swine flu among a set of schoolchildren found that the disease was primarily spread through one’s social network:
A new study of a 2009 epidemic at a school in Pennsylvania has found that children most likely did not catch it by sitting near an infected classmate, and that adults who got sick were probably not infected by their own children.
Closing the school after the epidemic was under way did little to slow the rate of transmission, the study found, and the most common way the disease spread was a through child’s network of friends…
The scientists collected data on 370 students from 295 households. Almost 35 percent of the students and more than 15 percent of their household contacts came down with flu. The most detailed information was gathered from fourth graders, the group most affected by the outbreak.
The class and grade structure had a significant effect on transmission rates. Transmission was 25 times as intensive among classmates as between children in different grades. And yet sitting next to a student who was infected did not increase the chances of catching flu.
Social networks were apparently a more significant means of transmission than seating arrangements. Students were four times as likely to play with children of the same sex as with those of the opposite sex, and following this pattern, boys were more likely to catch the flu from other boys, and girls from other girls.
This sounds like a very interesting dataset as it was collected in real-time as the disease spread. Hopefully, we will get more data like this in the future so that we aren’t left with the problem of trying to trace a disease’s spread after the fact. But getting this kind of data would require more intense observation (or records) of a specific group of people.
If closing the school is not the answer, how then should authorities respond in order to slow down the spread of disease?
Sounds like another advantage for Social Networking Sites where you can interact with your friends with only the threat of a computer virus…