If you want to meet up with classmates, you can go to the Student Union, right? Not if the program is solely online. So how can a community be found in this virtual world?
Imagine interacting only with your computer, sending emails and articles into the void. Watching videos or reading online content is passive. The inability to walk down the hall and grab a fellow classmate for an impromptu study session is a downside to learning online. If classes take place through a computer screen, what can you do to keep your eyes from going blurry and your motivation from flagging?
Just because you’re not attending a program in a bricks-and-mortar building doesn’t mean you need to miss out on one of the best elements of an educational environment. In fact, being part of a community will help motivate you and ultimately make you a better student.
The key is getting to know your classmates. Think about the tools you already have at your disposal. Social media, for example – you’re probably already active on Facebook or Twitter. Take advantage of those accounts and use them to network. Create groups for your classmates. Share photos and information, just like you would with friends you meet with in person.
Dr. Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D., suggested having online icebreakers. Sometimes all it takes is sharing your greatest tech frustrations or most embarrassing high school moment to help smooth the way when you’re dealing with faceless classmates. People can post photo essays about themselves, interview one another, or create VoiceThread introductions.
Live Google Hangouts are also useful. Yoyo Chinese, an online Mandarin program, has used this strategy successfully and has attracted as many as 1,000 students, said Trish McDermott, the company’s public relations consultant. Some of the hangouts have structured themes, while others are more spontaneous, McDermott explained. Sometimes they have a conversation Q&A. In the live video conversation, students can ask questions, which are addressed by the host and instructor.
This year, Yoyo Chinese is looking at Meetups as another opportunity to create off-line, local communities for its online students.
Making sure a support system is in place can also boost a feel of community. Seminole State College of Florida is one school which recognizes that going to school online doesn’t preclude needing help. Advising services is provided by a team of student success specialists known as eServices. Students can meet with an advisor by Skype or phone, or ask specialists for an online chat.
Dr. Christine Broeker, executive director of eLearning, also incorporates WebEx tools for online conferencing, increases access to online tutoring through SmartThinking, and uses embedded librarians within certain courses to help students with research.
The problem is that students need to be proactive and take advantage of community building opportunities in order for them to work. “You can provide 100 opportunities, but they only build community if students actually participate,” said Stacey Carroll, a nursing professor who teaches online.
Ideally, you’d choose a program with opportunities for community building. Most quality programs do try to encourage this, said Carroll. If there’s no formal opportunity, Carroll recommended asking the professor to set up a “student café” discussion area in the course where you can chat about any issues. “Or in the introduction thread, students can share contact information (including Facebook profiles) with other students if they wish,” Carroll said.
Online education should not be synonymous with boredom. Human interaction may not happen naturally, but that’s all the more reason to fight for it.