Unpacking Sense of Belonging: Can we really build authentic relationships for students learning online?

Concurrent Session 5

Brief Abstract

Sense of belonging is critical to student success, but for students learning online, belonging can be an elusive goal. Join us for a panel discussion as we unpack the mystery of belonging - why it matters, where and when to foster it, and how it can really be measured.


Dr. Fotuhi is a social psychologist with a research focus on motivation and optimal performance. He is also a nationally recognized speaker, with over 15 years of experience in training students, athletes, and leaders to optimize their performance. Dr. Fotuhi earned his PhD in psychology from the University of Waterloo and completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship at Stanford University. He currently holds an affiliation with the University of Pittsburgh. With a deep understanding of psychological theory and research methodology, Dr. Fotuhi has devoted his career to translating key insights from research on performance optimization into actionable strategies that help to improve critical outcomes in the domains of academics, athletics, leadership, and personal growth.
Dr. Tawnya Means is the Assistant Dean for Educational Innovation and Chief Learning Officer in the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Prior to this role, Tawnya served as the Assistant Dean and Director of the Teaching and Learning Center for the College of Business at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the Director of the Teaching and Learning Center at the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida, leading teaching and learning support and providing faculty development programs and resources for instructional innovation and adoption of pedagogical best practices. With 20 years of experience in higher education, course design, and educational consulting, Tawnya has also taught courses in entrepreneurship, strategy, technology, and leadership in remote teams. Dr. Means received her B.S. in Education, M.S. in Educational Technology, and Ph.D. in Information Science and Learning Technologies with an emphasis on learning systems design, all from the University of Missouri. She completed the AACSB Post-doctoral bridge program in Management and Entrepreneurship at the University of Florida. Her research interests are in online and blended learning, active learning, learning space design, technology for teaching, access to digital learning resources, and faculty preparation to teach. She has long been a leader in campus initiatives and committees and actively presents at conferences and other institutions and organizations on technology-enhanced learning.
Roxanne has dedicated her career to provide access to higher education having served as an administrator and faculty in the U.S., England, and Germany with a focus on post-traditional populations. She is the provost and vice-president of academic affairs at New Mexico Highlands University, a Hispanic Serving Institution. Previously she was the executive dean of Venango College at Clarion University. She has served in leadership roles that include, academic dean of the College for Professional Studies at Regis University, dean of distance learning as well as a tenured associate professor of Adult Education at Park University, assistant professor of Adult Education at Colorado State University, director of education and training at Hanscom AFB, MA, and assistant education services officer/guidance counselor at Bitburg AB, Germany, and other administrative positions serving first generation, high need students with the TRIO program Educational Talent Search.
Dr. Andrew Feldstein is assistant provost for Teaching Innovation and Learning Technologies at Fort Hays State University. He leads a team of instructional designers, technologists, and professional development specialists; who collaborate with instructors to create meaningful, engaging and impactful learning experiences. He holds multidimensional responsibilities related to professional development programs for faculty; supporting best practices in teaching, research, and service; innovative instructional design and course development; and the delivery, management, and support of technology focused learning tools and platforms. In the area of professional development he has expanded the use of asynchronous workshops and micro-lessons through the delivery of targeted, and engaging professional development opportunities for busy faculty members. He has also developed new technology enhanced learning tools, offering faculty a choice of strategies for a more interactive and increasing meaningful connection with students.
Katy is an impact-driven CEO who has spent 20 years creating solutions that extend access to high-quality education for every student. She is the co-founder and CEO of InScribe, an innovative collaboration platform that helps improve student engagement and build community with a focus on supporting non-traditional and underserved student populations. Leveraging her experience and strategic abilities, Katy specializes in ed-tech innovations, student success, and communities of belonging.

Extended Abstract

People have a fundamental need to belong. This sense of belonging tells us we have a secure and valued place within our group. It is a core condition required for an individual to feel safe, confident, and able to contribute. It’s not surprising that a strong sense of belonging is a key factor in a student’s ability to succeed in school. When students feel valued, accepted, and respected by their classmates and educators, they become free to engage authentically with the materials and individuals around them.

Many of the interactions that foster belonging come from the spontaneous, organic interactions students have with peers, faculty, and staff each day. Casual conversations at the library, in the hallway, or after class reinforce authentic connections for students. However, when students are learning online, they frequently miss out on these opportunities. Virtual learning creates a sense of isolation that can push students in the opposite direction - reinforcing feelings of inadequacy, apathy and uncertainty.

But all is not lost!  There are many simple actions institutions and faculty can take that are proven to help online students build connections and increase their sense of belonging and peer connectedness. 

Join us to hear for a conversation with four leading experts and practitioners in the field of student belonging and student success as we discuss the research behind belonging, why it really matters, how students are expressing their need for connection, practical solutions to increase belonging among online learners, and how small changes can lead to significant improvements in students success and persistence.

Audience members will reflect on their personal experiences with belonging and engagement, and will be encouraged to respond to the same questions posed to panelists throughout the session.

Key takeaways for attendees at this session include:

  • Understanding of the science behind belonging and why it matters for student success
  • Actionable steps that can be taken to foster belonging among online and non-traditional learners
  • A blueprint for researching and measuring belonging at your institution