It’s no secret that the traditional college experience is more than just classes–there’s clubs, study groups, and a sense of community that is rarely matched in the world after graduation. For students studying online (and the schools providing those classes), this can present a problem: how to recreate that experience when students live across the globe from each other? Logistics, combined with an unfair view by the public that online college can’t be as good as traditional schooling, presents an insurmountable set of problems for many online schools. However, there are some programs that are doing a great job of creating a community experience at the college and K-12 levels using the technology at their disposal.
This blog post, from a Library Science instructor at San Jose University named Meredith Farkas, outlines how she improved student interaction in class by making a simple switch to Drupal as a course management platform. As a result, students saw each other’s discussions in a blog post format instead of as a discussion board. This seemingly minor change was remarked on by multiple students–it’s more “natural” feeling, and so it make students feel as if they’re interacting with people, rather than nameless entities across the screen.
A second seemingly minor addition–adding avatar images to people’s posts–made a huge difference in building community for the online class. Identifying names without faces is difficult and unnatural, but pairing pictures with posts much more closely mirrors in-person interaction. For Farkas’ students, it meant that they felt very strongly that they were interacting with classmates–something that just doesn’t happen in a picture-less online forum. Online colleges need to do as much as they can to make it clear to students that on the other end of the line there are real live people–this is the only way to combat the feeling that an online student may have that they are not part of a community of students.
Farkas also points out that to some degree, online schools benefit from avoiding the attempt to exactly recreate an in-person classroom experience which the online classroom isn’t designed to do. Instead, the author encourages online professors to take advantage of things they can’t do in a traditional classroom but can online. She compares it to eBooks:
The eBook market has been so focused on putting print books online and creating a good reading experience. When I first saw interactive books on the iPad I thought, this is what it’s all about. It’s just not about recreating the reading experience online, but about taking advantage of what’s possible in the online medium (interactivity, social reading and commenting, etc.) and transforming the reading experience. Reading an eBook is not going to be the same as reading a physical book, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a great experience.”
Students can discuss issues going on in the blogosphere and blog authors can respond to them in person–making students feel like their work is actually relevant (something sometimes missing from the traditional college experience). Thomas Friedman is probably not going to drop by your undergraduate economics class, but the Oregon Economics blogger just might. What matters is getting students engaged with people who are involved in the field first-hand.
As helpful as building in-class community with pictures and blogs can be, online students are still looking for a social community–HBCUs Online hopes to provide that for students in online programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. In addition to connecting interested students with HBCUs offering online degree programs, the site is trying to build an online community by including features like The Yard, a section of the site intended to be an online gathering place for students enrolled in these programs. One of the cleverest parts of the feature is in inclusion of football schedules for participating schools. Online students often feel left out of things like sporting events, so having a place where they can look up the schedule to cheer for their team (even if they’re watching on TV) can make the difference between feeling like an online student at a university and feeling like a member of the university’s community.
HBCUs Online also does a good job of replicating the support structure that many traditional college students take for granted. It’s Student Support Plus feature connects all of its student members with trained support staff that students can reach by phone or email to answer questions about school. Since online students may not have a guidance counselor or a faculty advisor in the traditional sense, having someone (especially someone reachable by phone) to walk them through the process or simply provide a supportive word can be hugely beneficial in helping students stay on track and feel like someone is looking out for them.
However much online university degree programs may be improving, many of them are still far behind online K-12 programs in replicating the social experience of school clubs. Connections Academy, an online public school, makes a point of encouraging interaction between its students through school clubs. What’s interesting is the selection of clubs available–though most are clubs found at traditional schools, Connections has made a point of choosing clubs that are easily replicated online: chess club, for instance. It also arranges for in-person field trips for students living near each other; social outings allow for the high school students to make friends through their school as they would in a traditional setting. Colleges either are not doing as well in replicating this part of the educational experience, or they are not publicizing it online. Either way, they need to step it up–advertising a well-thought-out social component of an online degree program would no doubt be a huge draw for online learners.
Online education is a constantly changing field, and it’s being pushed forward by those who aren’t constrained by their institutions–individual entrepreneurs, tech-savvy professors, and community college faculty. The in-person college experience can never be fully replicated online, and it’s foolish to try. However, a social experience can and should be a part of online learning–whether through online study groups or football games or chess club–and schools should be working towards making this a part of their online curricula. School isn’t just about class, and the best programs realize that and use it to their advantage.