Student Community and Mattering

We’ve been talking a lot about community lately…because, well, it’s important for learners.

A sense of community has been proven time and again to provide community members with a host of benefits. In fact, researchers have found that there is a positive relationship between one’s sense of community and the individual’s ability to function competently within it.[i]

If you ask me, being able to function competently is pretty darn in important.

But when it comes to education, there are more specific benefits to a strong sense of community:

  • Better learning. There is a significant relationship between students’ perceptions about their sense of community and their cognitive learning.[ii]
  • Improved retention. When students develop a sense of community and feel connected to the school, they are more likely to re-enroll the following year.[iii]
  • Lower levels of student stress and isolation. Lack of peer connections leads students to feel more isolated and stressed.[iv]

When it comes down to it, all students benefit from solid relationships and a strong sense of community. But there are a few specific student populations where community is particularly important for academic success.

We recently discussed why and how to build community for Latino students. This post covers the importance of building online communities for distance learners.

Online and Distance Learners: Unique Challenges

College has historically been a residential, in-person experience. But the cost of attending a traditional university has been rising above the rate of inflation for some time, making many students rethink attendance. In addition, the traditional on-campus experience presents difficulties to returning adult students, full-time workers, students with children, etc.

On the flip side, offering courses online can allow colleges to combat declining enrollment by opening up the school to a wider geographic base while simultaneously reducing the need for additional faculty in popular courses.

Combine these things with ubiquitous use of technology, and online alternatives to residential university have been proliferating. It’s anticipated that by 2019, roughly half of all college classes will be based online.

While online learning offers more students the opportunity to attend college—and often at a lower price point—it also brings with it some unique challenges.

1. Isolation

The beauty of online learning is that a student can come home from work, have dinner with her kids, tuck them into bed, read them a story, put the dishes in the dishwasher, put on fuzzy slippers and make a cup of tea at 10 pm before logging in and putting on her student hat.

But this can also be very isolating.

Distance learning, by definition, creates a physical chasm between students, their fellow students, and their campus community at large. Without a community that provides encouraging, supportive relationships, online learners are more likely to succumb to difficulties and less likely to persist in their education.

2. Confidence and Perseverance

Many online learners are adults and have been removed from school for some years. They may or may not have much experience at the college level. They may or may not have failures in their background (which could have been the reason they didn’t continue with education in the first place). These students often suffer from a lack of confidence. Grit. Perseverance. If that first paper comes back and the grade isn’t very good, it’s very easy to slip into, See, I know I shouldn’t have done this. See, I knew I wasn’t college material.

3 Ways to Overcome the Challenges of Online and Distance Learning

The good news is that community is a great antidote for challenges like isolation and lack of confidence. Paul LeBlanc, Ph.D., President of Southern New Hampshire University, explains, “Community is that place where these students can get a lot of support and reassurance and be bolstered.”

Your school should therefore consider the following tactics to encourage community for online students.

1. Enable robust online communities with the right tools.

LeBlanc explains, “When you’re logging in to your school, if you’re connecting to a community of peer learners, if you are connecting in very human ways with your instructor, with your peers, with your advisor—that’s all very, very powerful.”

However, there are very few community-building tools designed specifically for higher ed. While the LMS, SIS, student portal, etc. all provide important functionality to the academic experience, they all fall a step short in encouraging interactions and relationship building—and providing meaningful data about these interactions. Make sure to make community-building functionality a key component of your educational technology environment.

2. Choose technology that provides a true 360-degree view of the student.

Having a holistic view of the student’s engagement, along with the actionable data that comes with it, can provide early warnings that students may need some extra support and attention. Faculty, coaches, mentors, etc. can then reach out to the student in a timely manner, providing whatever support is necessary to get students back on track.

For example, College for America—the first accredited online college offering a bachelor’s degree—realized that many of its students stopped engaging after receiving negative feedback on their first assignment. They were able to retain these students more effectively by triggering phone calls between counselors and students before the students received the feedback. Counselors provided encouragement and guidance for how the student could improve and move forward. This critical retention insight wouldn’t have been possible without comprehensive, meaningful engagement data—and this data isn’t available from siloed technology environments.

3. Facilitate easy, convenient communication between students and instructors, counselors and other faculty.

Interacting with faculty outside of class plays a key role in both GPA and persistence—schools need to encourage these interactions. Institutions should specifically encourage interaction and relationship building with convenient, intuitive online tools that blend seamlessly into students’ current schedules and technology habits. Look for community building tools that facilitate easy communication outside of the typical classroom/course structure—relationships should continue beyond a single semester.

How to Build Community, Help Students Matter

Like online students, there are other student groups that can have trouble finding their niche in school and developing the relationships necessary for academic success. To hear more about the specific challenges of Latino students and first-gen students, in addition to online learners, check out our latest eBook, Community in Higher Ed: Helping Students to Feel that they Matter. It also includes actionable tips for encouraging community in these student populations to help them find that critical sense of belonging.

Grab your copy of the eBook and you’ll also hear from sociologist and expert on the concept of mattering: Gregory Elliott, Ph.D., Professor at Brown University. In addition, LeBlanc will share about his experience as a first-generation student.

[i] Glynn, 1981
[ii] Harrison & West, 2014
[iii] VanValkenburg, 2013
[iv] Moore, 2014

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