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Creating a Sense of Connection: Online Education in the Modern Era

The EvoLLLution | Creating a Sense of Connection: Online Education in the Modern Era
Creating significant connections between students, faculty and staff helps to forge a connection between learners and their online institution, supporting retention and completion.

Anyone going back to college will have myriad options, and one of the first choices a new student has to make is between an online program and a classroom experience.

Many people naturally assume it will be more enjoyable to learn where students gather in a traditional classroom setting, but this choice comes with structures that are limiting. The requirement to attend a class at a certain time every week becomes unworkable once you add the demands of a job, children or a spouse.

The limits of the traditional approach are leading more students than ever to choose online learning that fits their busy lives. Online learning also has its own drawbacks, such as the potential to feel isolated as a student. One university has found ways to create community among students from all walks of life by connecting them with faculty, fellow students and alumni.

Western Governors University created an online learning model that places student success at the center of all decisions. This includes efforts to ensure students are supported and connected to the university. Because WGU focuses on serving working adults, its students tend to be older, more focused on their career, and they often have families of their own. This means they typically have a built-in support system, but it also means they can be distracted from their studies by other obligations unless their commitment to their degree is supported.

An important pillar of the WGU model is the mentor support provided to students, which I highlighted in a recent article in The EvoLLLution (focusing on the mentoring model of faculty support). Weekly phone communication ensures that faculty mentors are up-to-date on important developments in their students’ lives. But the model doesn’t stop there. The faculty members who lead learning for specific courses are charged with guiding students through the coursework and creating an online forum for students to connect with other learners currently in the same course.

The personalized WGU learning model allows students to start and finish courses on their own time. That means students can enter and complete a course on any date. The online forum has a social media format, and learners can engage with fellow students as much or as little as they choose. Students connect with other WGU students across the nation, tackle the subject matter most challenging to them and support one another in the learning environment. Because our students are adults, they appreciate receiving help from other adult students.

Students under age 35 have grown up with Web-based tools, and are as comfortable with online interaction as with in-person gatherings. There is an expectation that a student can engage on their own terms, at their own time, and WGU’s online tools and forums take advantage of this expectation. Learning resources include videos and texts, but also online learning communities, simulations, discussion thread and Web conferences. Many WGU students also create informal communities through Facebook pages and offline study groups.

By creating a personalized learning environment that students can jump into with both feet, WGU has won 97 percent student satisfaction and one-year retention rates of 79 percent in 2013. In addition, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) in 2013 polled 350,000 students from 613 institutions. Senior-level students rated WGU 9 percent higher than other institutions in the area of quality interaction with faculty and 19 percent higher than other institutions on the entire educational experience.

There are other ways that WGU creates a sense of community among its students, beyond their engagement with coursework. In a growing number of states, WGU has created state-based affiliates that serve students even more closely. The first state affiliate was created four years ago at the request of the Governor of Indiana, with the goal of creating a presence within the state to connect students and alumni and grow awareness of the WGU opportunity. Since then, WGU Washington, WGU Texas, WGU Tennessee and WGU Missouri have been established.

Each state affiliate has a state office and a chancellor championing the university’s efforts. Here in Missouri, the creation of the state university has not only increased enrollment but has also created a sense of WGU pride at the state level. Chancellors and state-level staff spend time hosting events and visiting students in their workplaces, embodying the concept that WGU is everywhere.

One example is the mixers that are hosted in cities and towns across the affiliate states. These meetings take many forms, from happy hours to breakfasts. All are designed to bring students, alumni, and state-based staff together to network and have fun. WGU students can connect with graduates and receive advice on their studies as well as their careers. Chancellors share news about developments within the university and points of pride that alumni should include when discussing their education.

The distribution of branded promotional material like shirts and pens is intentional. These are visual and physical reminders of the university’s presence in the state. Another way WGU shares its merchandise is with surprise visits to students and alumni at their workplace, celebrating their accomplishments with food and swag.

Chancellors of the state affiliates encourage students to show their WGU pride. Western Governors University has been called the “best university you’ve never heard of.” When students and alumni are engaged in distinguishing their university not just from local colleges but from other online institutions, their sense of affiliation is boosted. Enthusiastic students and alumni are vital to help ensure employers learn about WGU and its competency-based model. In that way, the entire community comes to recognize that the university produces high-quality graduates ready for the workforce.

These connections help WGU online students and graduates realize that they are not alone in their online university but rather, that WGU is everywhere. In surveys, 98 percent of WGU students say they would recommend WGU while 85 percent said they already have. This data provides a compelling argument that WGU has created a breakthrough model for higher education: a quality, student-centered online format that is highly personal and conducive to success.

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