Community is the cure: Combatting online learning’s loneliness epidemic

Human beings are intensely social creatures. Our brains are wired for connection, and social interaction is crucial for maintaining our well-being.
Errin Heyman
Errin Heyman
Dr. Errin Heyman is the associate vice president of learner experience at National University. Over her 25 years in higher education, she led the Initiative for Advancing Leadership for and Visibility in Student Learning Outcomes Assessment at the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC).

Last year, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness an epidemic in the United States. Citing research about the significant health consequences of isolation, Murthy urged the country to “prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity and substance use disorders.”

Higher education has been grappling with this challenge for some time, even before the COVID-19 pandemic brought increased attention. Research from the telehealth platform Uwill shows that isolation and loneliness rank among the most common mental health issues students say they struggle with. One recent survey found that more than half of college students now report feeling lonely. In response, colleges and universities have worked to create a stronger sense of belonging among their learners. But while building community on a physical campus is difficult enough, it has proven especially tricky for online programs, in which students are often spread across large distances and interact with one another solely through a computer screen.

Higher education’s nearly overnight shift to online learning during the pandemic scattered learners across the country, sending them into relative isolation for months. Despite this, online learning has remained in higher demand, especially at community colleges and among busy adult learners. In 2018, just 35% of students took online courses. Now, more than half do and for good reason: Online learning provides greater accessibility, affordability and flexibility than traditional, in-person learning. The many benefits of online learning ultimately mean very little, however, if institutions fail to also cultivate a strong sense of community among online students.

Human beings are intensely social creatures. Our brains are wired for connection, and social interaction is crucial for maintaining our well-being. Loneliness is associated with depression, anxiety and even physical health issues like heart disease and stroke. For college students, loneliness is also linked to lower academic performance. Research shows that a sense of belonging, or lack thereof, is predictive of student engagement and persistence. In its current, most prominent forms, online learning has struggled to replicate the rich social interactions more easily found in traditional educational settings. Students are left feeling disconnected not only from their peers and instructors but also from the learning material itself.

More from UB: Colleges have a responsibility to support students with intellectual disabilities

The challenge lies not in the medium but in how higher education has structured digital learning environments. Institutions can do more to foster the essential communal aspects of traditional learning to combat the loneliness of remote learning.

Last year, National University, where I serve as the associate vice president of learning experience, launched steps to build a truly immersive and community-oriented digital campus. Most of its bachelor’s degree programs can be completed entirely online, so fostering community among our learners is a priority. Using virtual and augmented reality, students in select programs can now step onto a virtual campus designed to mimic the experience of a physical campus, allowing students to explore, attend classes and interact with peers and instructors in a 3D-modeled environment. The goal is to provide learners with a stronger sense of place—to transform their online learning experience into something less abstract and more tangible.

Of course, not all online programs have the resources to imitate a physical campus or clinical environment. A number of more affordable strategies can be employed to build community among online learners. For example, last year researchers at the University of Iowa published a study analyzing the results of a simple, low-cost intervention delivered to 26,000 incoming students at 22 colleges and universities. Learners were provided with survey results and curated stories focused on the concerns older students had about belonging and, importantly, how they overcame them. Students were then asked to reflect on those stories and their own worries. The project increased the number of students who completed their first year, which is a key indicator of persistence and graduation.

More recently, National University launched a pilot project with an interactive video conferencing platform called InSpace, which allows students to engage with one another and their instructors in a human-centric and more natural way. Features like proximity-based audio, for instance, emulate how interactions sound in a physical space. The platform also enables students to connect with academic support and co-curricular activities while integrating directly within the university’s LMS system.

Ironically, having a college degree has been shown to reduce loneliness among adults. One recent study found that graduates are more socially connected, more civically engaged and more active in their communities than those who did not attend college. They also have more extensive systems of social support and larger numbers of close friends. The challenge, then, is to ensure students feel socially connected enough during their time in college to go on to graduate and enjoy those benefits. With more and more students enrolling in online programs, reducing the isolation too often inherent in remote learning is crucial to solving that challenge.

By creating online learning environments that prioritize interaction, collaboration and community, online programs can be part of the solution to our country’s loneliness epidemic, not one of its many causes.


Most Popular