Keeping remote college students connected

Virtual student unions provide communities for online learners
By: | Issue: October, 2015
September 23, 2015

For all the advantages of online learning—flexibility, personalization and affordability among them—there can be downsides for some students.

Traditional, on-campus students can take advantage of a wide variety of social and extracurricular opportunities, but online students may feel isolated and disconnected from their peers and from their college or university—and risk losing the engagement so crucial to student success.

Following are stories from three higher ed institutions in various stages of addressing these issues via a virtual student union.

Troy University: A vibrant online cafe

At Troy University in Alabama, improving the engagement of the 8,000 to 12,000 students enrolled in the online education program, eTroy, had become a priority by 2014. Troy administrators examined the work of Vincent Tinto—author of the landmark book Leaving College (University of Chicago Press, 1994)—and other research on student success, engagement and retention, for strategies to approach the issue.

Building a virtual student union: 10 features and offerings to consider

  1. Career center
  2. Contests and giveaways
  3. Demographic-themed forums, such as for students who are parents
  4. Discussion groups for specific majors or courses
  5. Events calendar
  6. Faculty-written articles
  7. Forums organized by major
  8. Articles about issues such as succeeding in the online learning environment
  9. Tutoring services
  10. Profiles of online faculty, students and alumni

“All of the research about improving student engagement is focused on traditional, on-campus students, and refers to strategies such as getting students involved with the student union, extracurricular activities and other activities,” says Glynn Cavin, associate vice chancellor for distance learning and director of eTroy. “But none of those resources exist for the online student.”

So Cavin and the leadership of eTroy started thinking about ways they could better engage with online students and reduce what researchers refer to as the “transactional distance” they experience. The idea is to give them “a better sense emotionally and psychologically that they are part of the university,” says Cavin. “That led us to create a virtual student union for our online students.”

Troy’s virtual student union, called the Trojan Cafe and launched in August 2014, is intended to be a gathering place for online and distance learning students. Contained within the university’s LMS, it can be accessed only by registered students. In student-led discussion forums, they can offer each other advice for succeeding in an online environment, or discuss their courses, says Cavin.

“It also offers resources such as career services, articles on various topics by our faculty, online tutoring, and profiles of online students with inspirational stories and faculty doing great work. We offer fun activities like contests and giveaways, too.”

In the past year, the Trojan Cafe has had over 19,000 registered users from all 50 states, with some 1,300 student posts in discussion forums. The university has also conducted 285 online tutoring sessions through the Cafe. “It’s been successful far beyond our hopes,” says Cavin.

Northern Virginia Community College: Established and growing

A virtual union started in 2011 connects the 9,000 students in Northern Virginia Community College’s Extended Learning Institute online program, or ELI.

“We wanted to provide a way for our online students to access college resources and connect with each other, and to be more engaged with the college,” says Amanda Morley, student life specialist for the ELI. “The virtual union includes a calendar of events, a resource library, online tutoring services, a career center, and student-led discussion forums based on major or other topics.”

The site’s features are driven by the current needs of students, Morley explains. “For example, we got requests that we create a forum themed around students who are parents.” That forum allows this group to discuss similar issues they’re facing being in school while raising children.

While colleges and universities commonly use social media platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn to connect with students, the outlook at both Troy and Northern Virginia Community College was that a closed-off, controlled environment of a virtual student union created more exclusivity and identity.

“We felt that our other social media efforts were more public-facing and promotional, but the virtual student union is more private, being just for students,” says Morley.

So far Northern Virginia’s virtual union has about 500 users, and Morley says the plan is to expand. “We want to move to a new platform to make it more interactive and easier to use, based on the feedback we’ve received. Online students are definitely looking for a way to connect through a resource like this.”

University of Wisconsin: A different outlook

Some institutions have found a virtual student union is unnecessary or even contrary to their values, however. At the University of Wisconsin, administrators launched a beta version of a virtual student union as an experiment in 2010.

After that initial pilot, officials decided not to continue it, says David Schejbal, dean of continuing education, outreach and e-learning at University of Wisconsin-Extension, the university’s online and distance education program.

“We realized that we would be reinventing what social media already provides, and there wasn’t enough interest to warrant the expense. There are plenty of avenues for online students to pursue social interaction with one another.”

While Troy and Northern Virginia cite the controlled, moderated environment as a primary advantage that virtual student unions have over other social media,

Schejbal says Wisconsin has a different philosophy.

“Our physical student union is an open gathering place for the city of Madison, where students, faculty, families and the community can mingle and interact,” he says. “That’s what we believe a student union should be. We felt that a walled-off, private virtual student union would be the opposite and not reflect our values for that reason.”

But Wisconsin doesn’t discourage interactions for online students. A variety of social media groups themed by program or major give these students a chance to connect with one another, Schejbal says, but there hasn’t been a push from university’s 2,000 online students for a virtual student union.

“It’s important to understand who our online students are. They are mainly adult and nontraditional learners, their typical age is 37, most are married and have families, and they have careers and existing social circles. They don’t need us to create a social network for them.”

For Troy and Northern Virginia, however, participation in their virtual unions has exceeded expectations, and each plans to expand.

“When we started, we weren’t sure how it would be received, but the student response has been exceptional and we are really excited about it,” says Cavin. “We’re going to continue to build on what we have now, by listening to the needs of our students. This is a totally student- driven program.”

Kurt Eisele-Dyrli is custom media editor.