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April 25, 2022

Creating a rich social and cultural experience for online degree learners

Much of the discussion around the recent global shift from campus-based to remote-learning models has centred on the quality of online programmes of study – more particularly on how universities can effectively motivate, support, and assess individuals as part of a dispersed student population.

 

But there’s also a conversation to be had about how online students can enjoy being part of a social, as well as an educational, community; how they can access not just academic services but also enjoy the wider variety of clubs and cultural amenities that traditionally enrich the university experience.

 

These extracurricular activities (ECAs) positively impact students’ wellbeing, offering increased opportunities to connect with their peers and the chance to enhance their personal development in less formal, more intuitive ways – all of which can be significant contributory factors in graduates’ future success.

 

Promoting inclusion

Interestingly, the rapid transition to online learning has served to enhance, rather than diminish, the potential for greater cultural inclusion in university study programmes. With campus-based barriers to learning dismantled, participation has now become possible from a broader, more distributed demographic.

 

The availability of newly flexible study options, including a mix of synchronous and asynchronous components, has enabled many more to access higher education provision. And, as online students have shown up in increasing numbers, we’ve been reminded that cross-cultural connections are not only viable but also desirable – reaching out across physical boundaries benefits all students by giving them the opportunity to expand and deepen their awareness and understanding of others.

 

Some institutions have already embraced this diversification of delivery and are exploring ways of extending their remit to provide a more fully-realised remote learning experience in which students can access the same kind of three-dimensional educational, social and cultural support they’d enjoy on campus.

 

But, while most would broadly agree with the aim of providing comparable student services both on and off campus, its implementation is a highly complex proposition, especially for those activities are usually predicated on physical attendance.

 

What services are needed to support online learners?

The first consideration for higher education institutions investing in online provision is how to optimise the services already in place. What differences can students expect to find between campus and online services? How can campus services be replicated for remote students? How can online students cultivate a sense of belonging and of shared experience?

 

An honest review of campus provision will swiftly highlight those areas that are solidly served, as well as those that require more thought.

 

And, while it’s logical for institutions to focus on ensuring that courses are delivered to online students with the same commitment as they are in the classroom, there are convincing arguments for also creating enhanced access to those extra-curricular activities that promote broader personal development.

 

A study published just last year showed a positive association between students’ involvement with ECAs and their belief in their own ability to act with agency in other areas of life. The study recorded heightened levels of so-called ‘self-efficacy’ – a factor that could have an impact on key HE outcomes, such as employability.

 

It’s already acknowledged that barriers to ECA engagement persist for many students – including those with other responsibilities or who simply don’t want to be distracted from their studies. If students are physically disconnected from their universities, they’re even less likely to participate in activities that fall outside the curriculum. At the same time, these same students – those previously facing a lengthy and costly commute, for instance – may find they have more time and resources to explore and fund these activities.

 

Most higher education institutions (HEI) appreciate the value that ECAs add to the student experience and are putting some thought into how to better facilitate engagement.

 

ECAs promote physical and mental wellbeing

Sport

While not all students are sporty with a capital ‘S’, sports and exercise groups traditionally play an important part in students’ social experiences. For remote students, staying active is especially important for good physical and mental wellbeing, in addition to promoting a sense of belonging that goes beyond the confines of the campus.

 

Sports tracking apps encourage users to log their exercise and share their stats with friends. The University of Bristol’s Strava community has more than 1,500 members who support each other and who have the option of taking part in organised events, too. Other universities have initiated lockdown challenges and created virtual exercise programmes, even making trainers available for personalised support.

 

Students’ unions

Students’ unions are at heart of university life – a facility dramatically curtailed during the pandemic. SUs have been fighting back, though, setting up online communities and organising virtual events like club nights and party games. Leeds University has broken fresh ground by creating a Virtual Union that’s still going strong even though campus events have now resumed.

 

Other universities pioneered volunteering opportunities during the pandemic that were designed to help reduce the sense of isolation for students, encouraging them to be a force for good in their own communities.

 

Wellness

Students’ mental health is a top priority for HEIs – even more so with learning and attendance patterns disrupted. All students benefit from strong and supportive wellbeing services, none more than those who don’t have easy access to campus resources. Most universities are keen to support online students by making virtual resources more comprehensive and more easily accessible – like these from the University of Exeter.

 

Support isn’t limited to clinical interventions, though, and many HEIs have been experimenting with offering other wellbeing-focused community resources, such as book clubs (like this one for students at the University of York) and community cookery clubs, even when local activities resume.

 

Making space for online services

Once the need for services has been determined, the next step is deciding how to handle provision – should it reside in-house or be supplied by a sector specialist?

 

Although the overriding aim will be to deliver an online service that parallels campus-based provision, its implementation will necessarily be different. Some virtual engagement will be passive – Facebook groups or Strava challenges, for example. Others, like tutoring or tech support, will require arranging, facilitating, and moderating, which means scheduling and organising staff to cover the extended hours that usually accompany more flexible learning patterns.

 

Investment in technology is essential. The rapid rise of EdTech in the last couple of years – a sector recently predicted by market intel expert HolonIQ to surpass the $400bn mark by 2025 – is enabling HEIs to access a wealth of third-party virtual provision that blends automated systems with personal intervention and can be a useful conduit to next-level online learning.

 

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to serving students either on campus or online. For most HEIs, following best practice is a good rule of thumb, while being open to modifying learning and support programmes in response to imperatives. Scope, review, invest, adapt, rinse and repeat. If the online population grows in size or shape, it makes sense to mirror provision accordingly.

 

Supporting students in those ways that most benefit their learning and that help them skilfully and successfully navigate the HE system should be the goal, whether their experience is rooted on campus or delivered online.

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