Redefining Campus Community in Online Education for Traditional Four-year Institutions

Concurrent Session 8

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Brief Abstract

Online education for a traditional bricks and mortar institutional often entails creating a new lens in the way institutions view their own services and programs. Ultimately, faculty, staff, administrators, and even students will have to reexamine the way they define their campus community.


Jean E. Starobin is the Associate Director of Student Success & Engagement for UF Online, University of Florida. Before joining UF Online as their Associate Director, she was the Director of Enrollment Management and Online Programs for the Heavener School of Business at the University of Florida. Jean completed her doctorate in higher education administration and policy in 2014.
Glenn has been working at the Academic Advising Center (AAC) in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) at the University of Florida since 1995 and began working with the UF Online Office in Spring of 2015. His contributions include chairing the college Petitions Committee, creating and chairing the college Appeals Committee, and coordinating the European Studies portion of the UF in Salzburg Overseas Study program (2004 – present). More recently, Glenn helped create the UF Online academic advising model and supervises the on-line advisors in CLAS. Glenn has taught the distance learning section of SLS 1501 (College Success) since 2004 and has presented at over 20 national and regional conferences on various topics related to academic advising. He has delivered Keynote addresses at advising events, and served numerous leadership roles in the National Academic Advising Association, including member of the Board of Directors and Vice President.

Extended Abstract

The intent of this session is to demonstrate how one institution addressed the needs of online students by re-examining their procedures, processes, policies and ultimately resources to best meet the needs of their online students. This four year, public institution achieved this nimbleness by both bringing the campus to the online students as well as bringing online students to campus. Community and a sense of belonging at higher education institutions are significant factors that promote student success and improve persistence of traditional undergraduate students. Within the online arena, community and a sense of belonging have been more difficult things to create and foster. This session will address an institution’s flexibility and commitment to the academic success of all their online undergraduate population.

The enrollment of students in exclusively online courses continues to grow. In the 2015 Online Report Card (Allen et al., 2016), the numbers continue to climb to over 2.8 million students in Fall 2014. While 53% of these students take courses at an institution located in the same state they reside in, an even larger number of public universities classify 84% of their student body as “in-state”. Online learning has served to increase the educational access of adult learners; making education a possibility for those who otherwise could not devote their full-time attention to their studies due to employment and/or family responsibilities. It has also served to expand an institution’s traditional classroom capacity and increase their overall enrollment numbers.

While the number of students engaged in distance education courses have increased, the drop-out rate remains high. The attrition rate of students in online courses is significantly higher compared to their on-campus counterparts; from 25% - 40% compared to 10%-20% for on-campus students (Carr, 2000; Xenos, 2004). There have been many reasons researchers have cited that contribute to students’ dropout of distant education courses and programs; these include but are not limited to inadequate support from family and employers, external obligations, dissatisfaction with courses, a sense of isolation, length of time since previous formal education, unfamiliarity with technology, and a lack of sense of community and engagement. Both community and a sense of belonging has been demonstrated to be related to persistence in residential students Tinto, 1999, 1998, 2005). The use of virtual communities as a tool for engaging online students is a relatively new phenomenon on the institutional level; however, it is often being used for individual programs. Researchers documented the positive benefits from the virtual communities in relation to learning and a sense of emotional connectedness (Giddens, Fogg, Carlson-Sabelli,2011; Giddens, Carlson-Sabelli, 2010, Rovai, 2001).

This session will detail the unique situation of having to serve the needs and motivations of two different online populations. First, the ‘traditional’ online student who learns from a distance, is typically an adult learner with additional outside responsibilities, and will interact with the institution virtually. For public institutions, the majority (83%) of their exclusively online students reside in-state.  For this institution’s undergraduate online programs, 90% are in-state students and 35% are first time to college students. While many of the first time to college students move close to campus, and are strongly motivated to transition from the online venue to residential classes, the institution has had to reanalyze traditional policies to create a supportive network and community. The institution met the needs and motivations of both groups (‘traditional’ online students and ‘online students who are geographically close to campus’) by creating community and a sense of belonging with the institution. For the traditional online student, the institution created a virtual community. The presenters will discuss this project (from inception to its current state), walk through the critical events and processes needed to facilitate its launch, discuss how they engaged the campus stakeholders and students for input and buy-in, and review plans for the community’s future.

For the second group of online students who reside close to campus, the institution re-examined their services to better serve this population. An optional student fee package was designed to allow these students to have the same access and services as a campus student. The presenters will detail what institutional policies and procedures were addressed and modified to allow online students to engage in these traditional campus experience and services. This was an intentional decision for both budgetary and programmatic reasons, but also to promote a sense of belonging amongst students whose intentions were to transition to campus from their online program. Participants will have the opportunity to engage in discussions concerning their own campus culture and how online students interact with it.

            The outcomes of this session are for participants to hear about the solutions we implemented and the challenges and obstacles encountered along the way. The goals of this presentation are the following: (1) to reflect on past research on virtual communities as they pertain to online students, (2) to demonstrate a method or a blueprint in which an institution can address varying needs of online students, (3) to discuss lessons learned for standing up a virtual community, and (4) to engage participants in a discussion concerning how their institutional cultures can also be ‘nimble’ and brainstorm solutions that can be brought back to their own campuses.




Allen, E.I., Seaman, J. Poulin, R., & Straut, T. T. (2016). 2015 Online Repord Card – Tracking Online Education in the United States. Retrieved from on August 11, 2016

Carr, S. (2000). As Distance Education Comes of Age, the Challenge is Keeping the Students.  Chronicle of Higher Education, A39 – A41.

Carlson-Sabelli, L.L., Giddens, J. Fogg, L., & Fiedler, R. A. (2011). Challenges and Benefits of Using a Virtual Community to Explore Nursing Concepts Among Baccalaureate Nursing Students. International Journal of Nursing Education Scholarship, 8(1), 1-14.

Giddens, J. Fogg, L., & Carlson-Sabelli, L.L. (2010) Learning and Engagement with a Virtual Community by Undergraduate Nursing Students, Nursing Outlook, 58(5), 261-267.

Rovai, A. P. (2001). Building classroom community at a distance: a case study. Educational Technology Research and Development Journal, 49(4), 35e50.