Creating Community in the Virtual Space Between Online Classes; A Program Coordinator’s Perspective

Concurrent Session 8

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

As online classes become ever more common, a great deal of research has focused on increasing engagement in online classrooms, but how can an online program’s administrative and advising staff foster community in the program as a whole and in the spaces between classes in order to improve retention and success?


Suzanne Withem received both her undergraduate degree in theatre, with a focus in acting and directing, and her master’s degree in English, with a concentration in rhetoric and composition, from the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). She has spent the last decade working in education and the arts in and around Omaha. Most recently, she served as the Artistic Director for RESPECT, a professional touring theatre program for youth that teaches about healthy relationships and ways to combat bullying. Suzanne also worked in the UNO Writing Center for five years as a graduate consultant and program coordinator, where she helped to launch their online consultation services. During the summer, she is the Company Manager for Nebraska Shakespeare’s Shakespeare on the Green. She serves as co-chair of the Omaha Theatre Arts Guild’s Scholarship Committee and as Vice-President of Nebraska Shakespeare’s Shakespeare Collective.

Extended Abstract

In Leaving College, Tinto (1994) continued his earlier work in laying a theory about the themes that affect college students’ departure, paying special attention to the theme of isolation. Chambliss and Takacs’s (2014), book, How College Works (2014), the result of their decade-long sociological study of a northeastern liberal arts college, considers the reasons students persist with a program focusing on the importance of a sense of “belonging” as a strong motivating factor in a student’s decision to stick with a program and commit both socially and academically to the group. Isolation and a lack of belonging are particularly significant factors affecting online students, graduate students, and non-traditional students and their ability to succeed. In the new, 100% online Master of Arts in Critical and Creative Thinking program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, a significant proportion of admitted students fit these demographics and are therefore especially susceptible to experiencing isolation as they work independently in a primarily asynchronous classroom environment. From her perspective as a member of the administrative staff of this program, the speaker draws on research related to the development of both face to face and online communities to answer the question, “How can an online program’s administrative and advising staff help foster community in order to improve retention and success among students?” Because of her unique position as a staff member in a newly created role in a newly developed program, the speaker has had flexibility and room for creativity in developing a community of learners during her first year as Program Coordinator.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2012, nearly 30% of students enrolled in institutions of higher learning in the United States were enrolled in one or more online classes. According to the Online Learning Consortium's annual report on the state of online learning in U.S. higher education and that percentage has been steadily increasing for over a decade. Despite this positive news for online learning, attrition rates for online classes have been reported to be up to 10-20% higher than classes taught in face-to-face (Carr, 2000). Tinto (1994) suggests that much of this can be accounted for by the students’ and institutions’ weak or superficial connections to one another. In response to high attrition rates, researchers have put a great deal of time and energy into analyzing the effectiveness of their courses, devising strategies for engaging students, and developing the pedagogy of positive online learning (Palloff and Pratt, 2007; Ko, 2010; Lin, 2012; etc.). In particular, they focus on finding ways to create an online community within a course to promote learning through increased commitment and investment. However, very little has been done to develop or assess strategies for creating community among members of online programs in the spaces between online courses and outside of individual virtual classrooms.

Program administrators and academic advisors who work with students throughout the entirety of their academic program, from application to graduation may be in the best position to develop a cohesive community that includes all of the students enrolled in a program. Though strong bonds are created in online classes as students collaborate on group projects, carry on lively conversations on discussion boards, and connect with faculty through the increased one-on-one interaction required of online learning, at the end of a semester, the digital connections built during a course are largely dismantled or abandoned in anticipation of the next semester’s classes.  It is the administrators who can serve as the link between semesters, creating community by connecting individually and collectively with students, helping them to remain connected and committed to their own success as well as the success of the program as a whole.

Employing frequent contact, consistency, and an intentional tone of familiarity to break down digital barriers, the presenter makes what could be a very clinical and mechanical connection personal, increasing students’ sense of belonging and strengthening their commitment to the program as well as their intention to complete their course of study. In this session, the presenter will share her own strategies for developing and maintaining a strong community of learners through the development of personal relationships and ask participants to consider ways in which faculty and staff in their own programs can work to increase the sense of community outside the virtual classrooms in an online program.