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Creating a Sense of Belonging in Online Programs

Research suggests that establishing a sense of belonging is one of the most important things an educator can do to increase their students’ likelihood of success, especially in online programs.Here’s how you can do it.

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When Northern Arizona University launched an online competency-based program 10 years ago, we started with a student dashboard alongside the learning management system that was intended to serve as a point of connection for the learner. The dashboard showed students who their adviser and their faculty point of contact were at a glance. It also included a chat feature where students, faculty and staff could communicate openly with the learning community. In theory, being able to chat instantly with a learning community was a great idea—a true learning innovation and a way we could help foster a sense of community in an asynchronous online space. Students could reach out to other learners simply by typing a question into the chat box sitting sentinel on their dashboard.

As one of the original faculty members for the online program, I remember the first student question that was posted on the chat: “Hey everyone, anyone from Minnesota on here?”

The question blinked on the dashboards of the 15 or so faculty and staff members who were part of the program’s development and launch team. It also showed up for the 15 other students who were part of that first cohort of students. But the question went unanswered for some time. In those early days, and with a trial taking place at a southwestern university, it seemed there weren’t others from Minnesota who were part of the burgeoning online program. Eventually, one of the employees of the online program replied to the post, sharing their distant connection to Minnesota and welcoming the student to the community. But that simple question that was posted sincerely by the student showed she was trying to find her people and her community. And it reverberated through the digital halls of our degree program like it had been asked by someone speaking into soup cans attached by strings—unfortunately, no one was holding the other can.

How Adoption Can Complicate an Online Community Experiment

In theory, the dashboard chat feature was a true learning innovation; in practice, the chat became too effective in its ability to broadcast the thoughts and ideas of the learning community with the click of the return button. We quickly learned how fast the seeds of negativity could be sowed. All it took was one person having a bad day to instantly infiltrate the workspaces of an entire learning community. After this happened a few too many times, the chat tool was shut down. As we moved to sunset it, we had to think critically about what we were going to do to create a sense of community—or a sense of belonging—in an asynchronous online learning space.

Research suggests that establishing a sense of belonging is one of the most important things an educator can do to increase their students’ likelihood of success, especially in online programs. As cited in “Promoting Sense of Belonging in Online Learning Communities of Inquiry in Accredited Courses,” a 2019 paper by Susi Peacock and John Cowan, “ … for tertiary learners, the importance of having a strong sense of belonging to their institutions, courses, teachers, and peer groups has been rated as a ‘key to academic success and persistence’ (Vaccaro et al., 2015, p. 670).” Connecting learners to the place and their community has positive impacts on their success. So how do you do that when they could literally be anywhere and, in an asynchronous environment, their time could literally be any time?

Discussion Boards: Not Always the Most Genuine Community Solution

Discussion boards have long been held up by many teachers as a good way to create community—or that sense of belonging—in an online space, but I ask this of those educators: Have you ever actually submitted a discussion board response as a student? I would argue submitting discussion board responses—and the mandatory number of peer responses that go with them—is one of the loneliest academic activities I have ever done as a student. There is something so contrived about the forced dialogue. Admittedly, there are times when genuine academic conversation emerges among peers in a discussion thread, but there are far more instances where it seems clear the students are just going through the motions.

Building Online Community One Outreach at a Time

While I have been connecting the ideas of building community and sense of belonging, one of the most effective techniques I have found to ignite a sense of belonging for students runs a bit contrary to creating community: I have found that focusing on the students as individuals has helped me encourage a strong sense of belonging for the learners—starting first by helping them feel a sense of belonging with me as one of their guides in the learning journey. I have also found that reaching out to each student individually by email, text or phone has been a very effective way to increase students’ sense of belonging. During the outreach, I ask the students to share their “why” for education—why this class, why this degree, why now? It helps the students articulate what they are hoping to take away from the experience. In any good partnership, clear communication is the key to success, so when you as the educator have a clear understanding of what your students are hoping to accomplish personally or professionally, then you are better able to help them get there. And, when you know all your students’ whys, you are better poised to connect them with other learners who are seeking the same things or experiencing the same challenges.

I encourage you to make one-on-one contact with your students a nonnegotiable. It is that important to creating a sense of belonging and community for the learners in your learning environment.

So pick up the soup can, tap it twice to see whether that thing is “on” and then help the students find their peeps, wherever they might be.

Written by:

Corrine McCawley Gordon headshot
Corrine McCawley Gordon

Corrine Gordon is the assistant vice provost for Northern Arizona University Online. She has taught students in kindergarten through graduate school, specializing in digital storytelling, competency-based education and innovative educational technologies.

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Table of Contents
  1. How Adoption Can Complicate an Online Community Experiment
  2. Discussion Boards: Not Always the Most Genuine Community Solution
  3. Building Online Community One Outreach at a Time

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