Industry Spotlight

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The Power of Virtual Peers: How to Foster Connectedness Among Online Learners

Online learning provides a convenient way for students to achieve their academic goals from a distance. At the same time, it presents a unique set of challenges that can impact student belonging, connectedness, and ultimately, retention. 

Post-pandemic, hybrid course design has become the standard for many universities and colleges. 30% of degree-seekers study exclusively online.1 In response to this growing demand for online learning, two-thirds of colleges & universities are adding more online programs. Yet only 9% have fully developed online community building services to foster sense of belonging and drive retention.2

For the University of Arizona Online, their Wildcat From Anywhere initiative has been instrumental to increasing belonging, connectedness, and retention. In a recent webinar with Mentor Collective, the Arizona Online team shared key findings that are leading to improved retention and best practices to create a culture of engagement in online learning.

 

Connection is Tied to Both Student & Institutional Outcomes

Arizona Online has seen steady two-digit enrollment growth year over year since 2018, with 13 percent growth between 2022 and 2023. Executive Director Dr. Caleb Simmons attributes this to a focus on retaining current students while investing in recruiting prospective students. Noting that national averages in attrition for online institutions near the 55 percent mark, Simmons feels passionately about strategies that help students persist to both fulfill the promise of higher education and recoup the investments made in attracting online learners.

“As we’re thinking about how we grow and how we maintain, an investment into the student success team is vital to achieving our overall growth goals. That means ensuring students are part of a community, they’re achieving their goals, and that they feel like they belong at the University of Arizona.” 

– Dr. Caleb Simmons, Executive Director, Arizona Online

 

Identify the Isolation 

For people who are learning from digital devices and not in-person, it’s easy to feel separated from peers. The asynchronous and virtual nature of the learning experience can drive a sense of disconnection. Students can’t turn to the person next to them to ask a question, and lecturers can’t see how the students are responding to the material, both of which can have a real impact on academic progress and performance, which can hamper retention and persistence. 

This isolation isn’t just limited to the classroom. On-campus peer-to-peer events are a core part of what makes students feel a sense of belonging. Online students can easily feel excluded and disappointed when events that get promoted aren’t available to them. 

As a result, the appetite for connection is high among online students. They crave a community that makes them feel a part of the school’s community. At The University of Arizona Online, 848 students (20 percent of the learner population) matched with a mentor, further showing how much demand there is for peer relationships and the sense of connection. 

 

Reimagine the Online Experience 

The secret sauce for Arizona Online was taking cornerstones of the in-person, on-campus experience and reimagining them for a virtual learning world. Take what works in-person and think of how to translate and re-envision it in a way that will resonate with and be relevant to the student population you serve. This could be as simple as providing virtual options for events and programs so online students can attend. 

According to Senior Director of Online Student Success Carmin Chan Ph.D., “what we’ve done with this program is not try to make it a third rail or a separate entity, but instead, try to work within and find ways to innovate.” Making online students feel present and included goes a long way in building a strong sense of belonging, which ultimately boosts retention. 

 

A Timely Response Makes Students Feel Valued 

Due to the isolation that many online students feel, speed of response and feedback is a critical piece of the connectedness puzzle. Students can easily feel like they are on an island, especially when they are struggling, and a difficulty in accessing resources quickly exacerbates this feeling. It’s not just about making them aware of the resources; institutions have to get those resources into students’ hands as quickly as possible, and mentorship can play a key role in that. 

When a student’s having a hard time, a timely response from a peer mentor can be the thing that keeps them going. Arizona Online found that a student who had three conversations with a mentor is much more likely to persist. Having someone to help them get them plugged into the right resources at the right time goes a long way to make a student feel heard and cared about. Sometimes all they need is someone to reassure them that they are doing the right things, and a mentor is the perfect person to do that. 

 

Invest in Identity-Based Connection 

When students are able to have honest, authentic conversations with someone they have things in common with, they will feel a stronger sense of community. According to Arizona Online’s Senior Student Success Coach Heidi Creel, “our mentees are learning that there are other people like them, they’re not alone, and there are resources to help them out.” 

University of Arizona Online’s dedication to student success is evident from the moment students first request information through their first year and beyond. This holistic strategy that includes peer mentorship, student success coaches, and yearly student surveys has contributed to a 22 percent increase in retention.

By intentionally and proactively building systems to encourage community and connectedness, schools can foster a stronger sense of belonging, which directly impacts retention. 

 

About Mentor Collective

Want to learn more about how Mentor Collective has supported over 200,000 students at 180+ colleges and universities through mentorship? Get in touch today to speak with one of our team.

 


Sources:

  1. Online Education Trends Report (2023) Best Colleges. 
  2. CHLOE 8 Student Demand Moves Higher Ed Toward a Multi-Modal Future. Quality Matters. (2023)

 

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