For years, we’ve heard that students who learn online cannot possibly develop the same affinity for the institutions they attend as their peers who study on campus. But from where I sit, nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, I see that attachment every year at commencement time when our online graduates travel from miles away to join their on-campus counterparts in celebrating their accomplishments and enthusiastically donning their alumni pins. And I can attest to the excitement they feel when meeting their favorite professors and fellow classmates for the very first time in person.
So while there’s no magic formula for promoting this institutional pride, there are strategies that have proven successful for engendering a positive online student experience—which is, after all, the hallmark of affinity at any institution.
With the interactive learning technologies now at our disposal, online faculty are well equipped to cultivate that experience in the classroom by creating vibrant communities of learners. For example, videoconferencing affords the added benefit of real-time communication in an otherwise asynchronous learning environment. Even simple applications like Skype and FaceTime offer professors a far more personal option for clarifying assignments or providing one-to-one feedback on student work.
What’s more, everyday social media tools furnish an anytime, anywhere meeting place for students and faculty to connect and communicate, both in and out of the classroom. By the same token, university-sponsored Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter sites dedicated to online students are a great place to post affinity-building content, such as campus news and academic success tips. Likewise, they serve as community networking platforms for students to share their own stories, comments and professional information.
Seasoned distance educators know that their students feel even more attached to the campus when they have 24/7 online access to quality support services and library resources. At Drexel University Online, we are strengthening those ties, by developing a one-stop, high-touch and mobile-ready cyber portal that will enable students to quickly access customized support and relevant information. Using a student-centered design that incorporates the look and feel of our university brand, this portal will include digital tools and content that are interactive, inclusive, and individualized, with an emphasis on promoting community within identified affinity groups.
We can also tighten the institutional bond by hosting virtual clubs and honor societies; providing opportunities to interact with alumni; and video-streaming special campus events. Equally important, like their on-campus peers, online students are happy to show their school pride with branded t-shirts and bumper stickers, and are just as interested in campus traditions, sports teams and mascots. At Drexel Online, we send all of our incoming Digital Dragons a new student welcome packet that includes “fun facts” about the university, as well as tangible mementoes, which we have found to be effective in fostering campus identity from the moment they officially enroll.
Campus residencies and work-travel opportunities that bring online students together in person from time to time offer yet another option for promoting that identity. For instance, our online nursing students at Drexel have a chance to travel to Paraguay over the summer, where they put their community healthcare skills to work in rural villages throughout the country—a trip that, according to all who have taken it, creates a lasting bond.
Of course, the personal touch goes a long way in building the connection between students and campus—regardless of how the education is delivered. Indeed, caring and responsive faculty and staff, trained in the tenets of positive communication and service excellence, are truly the foundation of any good student experience and the secret ingredient for promoting lifelong institutional allegiance and affinity.
Susan Aldridge, PhD, is president of Drexel University Online and senior vice president of online learning at Drexel University. This article first appeared on The Evolllution blog and was re-posted to the Drexel University Online news website.