Fostering Community in an Online Program: Lessons from Faculty, Students, Staff and Alumni of a Master's Psychology Program

Concurrent Session 4
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Brief Abstract

Faculty and online master’s students conducted a study to examine the hallmarks of an ideal online learning community, determine the strength of their online program’s community, and recommend improvements. This presentation will describe the methodology and findings regarding key elements of community and facilitate a discussion of successful community-building strategies.


Dr. Meredith Wells Lepley is Associate Professor of the Practice of Psychology in USC's online Master of Science in Applied Psychology Program. Dr. Lepley teaches Research Methods in Applied Psychology, a course in which students learn how to conduct research to solve organizational challenges. Dr. Lepley's own research has focused on workplace issues including pets in the workplace, workspace personalization, flexibility, the aging workforce, and worksite health promotion. Her work has been published in academic journals including The Journal of Environmental Psychology, Environment and Behavior, and The Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. Moreover, her work has been noticed by popular media outlets including The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, Psychology Today, and National Public Radio. In addition to teaching, Dr. Lepley is president of Workplace Surveys & Solutions, LLC and works with organizations to assess employee engagement and organizational practices using quantitative and qualitative research, diagnose organizational problems, train organizations and employees on workplace topics, and change organizations for the better. Dr. Lepley holds a Ph.D. in Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine, and a B.A. in liberal arts and psychology from Randolph-Macon Woman's College.

Extended Abstract

A faculty task force was assembled in USC’s Masters of Applied Psychology Program to assess the sense of community in the online program and to determine how that community could be strengthened. In an effort to strengthen community between faculty and students, the task force recruited four online master’s students to lead the study. The students’ research questions were: 1) what are the hallmarks of an ideal online learning community, 2) how strong is our online community, and 3) what can we do to strengthen it? The students and their faculty mentor designed and conducted an online survey of students, an online survey of faculty and staff, and qualitative interviews with alumni and faculty—all of which included approximately 61 participants.

The students then presented their results and insights to the faculty task force. One of the issues that emerged loud and clear from this research was that the student-faculty relationship was the most important component in this community to both faculty and students—more important than relationships among faculty and the relationships among students. Along with that critical relationship, faculty, students, staff and alumni agreed that other elements of a strong online learning community are support and a great deal of real-time interaction as in group work, live sessions together, and one-on-one communication outside the virtual classroom setting. Strength of community was assessed with multiple questions pertaining to feeling a sense of belonging in the program, pride in being a USC Trojan, experiencing a sense of inclusion in the program, and feeling that they make an important contribution to the program. These scores were quite positive yet significantly higher among faculty/staff than students (e.g., 100% of faculty/staff felt they belonged in the program vs. 84% of students).

Recommendations for improvement fell into four categories. Since the student-faculty relationship was found to be paramount, the first category involved 1) strategies for faculty to further engage students, such as sending personalized emails to welcome each student at the beginning of the term, posting oneself and requiring students to post “getting to know you” videos early in the semester, arriving to live sessions early and/or staying late to chat and answer questions, and hosting mid-semester one-on-one check-ins with students. Additional recommendations pertained to 2) increasing interaction among community members outside the classroom (e.g., building social media spaces specifically designated for faculty, students, and both); 2) adding student “community ambassadors” to welcome students to the community and keep them involved; and 3) incorporating more career guidance (e.g., more professionals invited to guest lecture in classes and creating more opportunities for students to network with alumni). 

The faculty task force has since taken the findings of this study and begun to incorporate changes. All faculty have attended meetings on the results and have worked together to develop a list of community-building strategies they can incorporate into their courses. Many are also monitoring their courses for changes in behavior indicating greater community and reviewing their course evaluations for improvement. Moreover, the program is implementing changes to build community between faculty and staff earlier in an academic year, such as including more faculty in the orientation process. It is also developing more opportunities for students to network with alumni in person at events to be held in different areas of the country to appeal to students who are located far from the campus.  For example, a group of 22 faculty, staff, students, and alumni recently met up at a professional conference in Chicago. Finally, task force members also created a video sharing the study results with students and expressing commitment to this important issue, and this video will be shown in the presentation.

In this presentation, the authors will present their research for the first 25 minutes and then facilitate a 20-minute discussion in which audience members share strategies for building community that they’ve found to be successful or believe to be most successful. Depending on the size of the audience, audience members may be asked to work in small groups before reporting out.  

The outcomes of this presentation are a methodology to assess sense of community in an online program, an understanding of the key components of an ideal online learning community, and strategies for building and enhancing community in an online program.