Those unfamiliar with online learning probably imagine the process to be a solitary one, where students work away in the cold glow of their computer monitor, never interacting with anyone or anything other than their trusty laptop. One of the main reasons online education is viewed this way is because of what people perceive as the replacing of interaction with “predetermined questions,” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. But this perception is based not on fact, but on stereotype.
When you consider just how interactive the Internet is, it’s easy to understand the connection involved in online learning. While online coursework may present unique challenges when it comes to forming networks and meaningful peer relationships, it is possible for learners to not only connect with their fellow students and professors on the Internet, but also to feel as though they are part of a community.
Meeting and Greeting Classmates Across State Lines
It’s accurate to say that unlike traditional students, purely online learners will not have the opportunity to sit in a lecture hall with their classmates and watch their professor lecture live in front of them. However, the notion that the online learning experience is an isolated and lonely one is simply not true. In many cases, students find ways to reach out and connect with one another. For example, during the first day of a new class, students typically introduce themselves to their instructor and to each other, according to Dr. Diane Hamilton, an online instructor for several online schools, including Ashford University and the University of Phoenix.
“Students are expected to introduce themselves by giving a short bio and interact with other students by commenting on their bios,” Hamilton said. Within those short blurbs about themselves, many students will post their email addresses or other contact information so that others may reach out to them for class collaboration or just a friendly chat.
Some schools go an extra step and provide students with video connections to their classmates through the school’s online platform, such as at American InterContinental University, said Patricia Roston, a student at AIU. But even those enrolled in schools where video links are not automatically provided can create their own virtual classrooms by using Skype or another popular video chat program.
But meeting fellow students does not have to be limited to strictly digital interactions. Students can use social media outlets like Facebook and LinkedIn to find others who attend or graduated from the same online institutions, and even narrow it down further to find students living in the same area. In fact, Ashford University student Shaunelle Taylor said that Facebook is one of the best ways to connect to other students.
Many online schools also have alumni associations that students can join upon completion of a degree program, and big schools like DeVry University and Kaplan University typically have local chapters where students may join to meet others in their area. For example, the University of Phoenix has an official Houston Facebook page that lists all of the events Houston-area Phoenix students and graduates can physically go to and participate in, such as volunteer opportunities and concerts.
In addition, many online colleges host student clubs, organizations, and honor societies. Though not as widespread as traditional organizations, these can still be great ways for online students to form communities and get to know their peers. In fact, distance learners across the country can even join in on Greek life by pledging to Theta Omega Gamma, an online fraternity for students of the Florida Institute of Technology.
Collaborating from a Distance
Though each student may be on the computer completing their work alone at home, class interaction is a requirement for online learning. “Ashford encourages student collaboration, and our class interacts frequently, even though we’ve very rarely met personally,” Steven Pratt, an Ashford University student, said.
Most online courses encourage discussion with class participation requirements. For example, schools typically have message boards where learners must respond to one another’s comments on a class topic – or start their own discussions – several times a week. These responses should be thought-out and well-supported with research in order to receive a good grade, encouraging students to carefully consider the ideas of others and make meaningful contributions to the overall conversation. In this way, the discussion board assignments that online students have are incredibly similar to the interactive verbal discussions that traditional setting use for participation grading.
Students could also be expected to complete group projects and assignments, though how often these types of assignments are given depends on the school and degree program. “I had to do several group projects. Mine generally involved accounting-related information, like Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), and tax code,” said Herbert Sexton, Jr., a Strayer University student. “We broke the topics into sections and each group member took a section and researched it. We then compiled all the information into a paper,” he said.
As a general rule, business programs like Sexton’s tend to demand more collaboration, whereas other fields such as liberal arts may be more independent and autonomous. This is because fields like business are often highly interactive by nature, with employees working on teams and attending meetings to discuss work projects. Therefore, online business programs will encourage student collaboration through group assignments to prepare them for a career where they will regularly work with others. Liberal arts programs, on the other hand, reflect the more self-directed nature of the liberal arts field and so commonly do not require as much team-oriented work.
Receiving Guidance Through Mentoring
While some schools have formal mentoring programs, such as AIU’s alumni volunteer mentoring program, in which successful graduates from the school provide guidance to current enrolled students, other schools may not have anything official in place. This means that students are responsible for finding a mentor and establishing a mentor-mentee relationship.
Mentors are typically alumni or professors who partner with students to provide them with advice and guidance on meeting educational, personal, and career goals. Students can reach out to their instructors if they need a mentor, or even if they just some more help in grasping classroom concepts. In fact, this is common practice for most online teachers.
“Students will come to me with advanced problems in statistics that are beyond the scope of the classroom,” said Daniel McCrobie, an online and on-campus instructor at the University of Phoenix. “I have written letters of recommendation for students, have [students] in my LinkedIn contacts, and have answered questions from students years later, after they have finished the program. I treat both the ground and online classes the same in this regard.”
When compared with brick-and-mortar schools, mentoring opportunities are “just as available online as they are in traditional schools,” Colin Murcray, a member of the associate faculty at Ashford University, said. However, online students may have to work harder to get the most out of an online mentoring relationship. This is because “online interactions tend to feel less personal,” Murcray said. But as long as students desire it, he has no doubt that online instructors will be willing to work hard in return to provide students with meaningful mentor relationships.
Networking and Connecting in an Online Environment
Make no mistake: Networking in an online learning environment is certainly not the same as networking in a campus environment. However, the simple truth is that online students are typically non-traditional. This means that the majority of online learners are not recent high graduates who would undoubtedly benefit from intensive networking, but rather working adults who already have established careers and therefore may not have as much of a need for networking opportunities.
However, this is not to say that no networking opportunities exist for those in an online school. The University of Phoenix publishes student magazines and regularly hosts city-based gatherings for students in the form of career fairs and volunteer opportunities. In addition, students can make their own efforts to network with others through social media. “Ashford University has its own page in both Facebook and LinkedIn,” Ashford University student Pratt said. “I can network and build connections [through these platforms]. I’ve already done so,” he said.
Networking opportunities are made available for alumni of online schools as well. For example, Kaplan University offers graduates voluntary membership in Kaplan Connections, the official alumni community of the school. Here, alumni can take advantage of alumni-exclusive webinars, events, and social networks on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
Strayer University also offers its past students a way to find one another and stay connected through its official alumni program, which provides members with access to an alumni directory and valuable career services. The majority of online schools provide similar alumni communities, ensuring that graduates can remain connected even after their educational experience is over.
All in all, for students learning online, the amount of networking opportunities they come across and the level of interactivity they experience while learning is largely up to them. You can choose whether or not you want to actively participate in class forum discussions, message and meet other classmates, attend school functions occurring locally, or reach out through social media.
“Networking will always be important, but you also need to keep it in perspective,” Rishona Campbell, a student at Florida Gulf Coast University, said. “Today, it is very easy to find and reach out network on your own. A self-built network will be more diverse and more resourceful than just an alumni-based one. But it does take effort.”
Online schools provide you with the tools necessary to make the online learning experience as connected as a campus-based education. However, it is ultimately up to you on whether or not you want to use those tools and create that connection.