Online, but Not Alone: Using Virtual Learning Communities to Promote Peer Engagement, Improve Outcomes, and Save Time

Concurrent Session 2

Brief Abstract

How do we ensure that online students can learn independently, while never learning alone? Join us for a conversation with leaders in online instruction as we discuss how virtual learning communities deliver just-in-time support to reduce faculty workload, increase peer engagement, and improve outcomes for students learning at a distance.


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

Today, almost 6 million students in the United States are completing their degree, fully online.  Many of these learners are also juggling other commitments, such as family and work, pushing study times to evenings and weekends. And while the flexibility of online learning has numerous benefits, it also brings specific challenges for both learners and the faculty who support them.  Online students frequently report feelings of isolation from both faculty and peers. Learning during nights and weekends means that when students get stuck, there isn’t a way to reach out for timely help. Additionally, many online students don’t have access to peer networks that play a key role in building confidence and helping them stay motivated when times get tough. In order to fully support our students - academically, emotionally, and socially – a new approach is needed.

In this session, we will explore how two leading online institutions, Arizona State University (ASU) and Western Governors University (WGU) are tackling this challenge through the creation of virtual learning communities that offer highly scalable, on-demand spaces where students can connect with peers and faculty to ask questions, find solutions, and build authentic relationships. These communities integrate directly into the schools’ online curriculum, allowing for just-in-time support and peer collaboration any time a student needs help.  The community based approach is improving student outcomes, decreasing “time to answer '' student questions, reducing stop outs, and dramatically decreasing the number of individual student emails faculty are required to juggle each week.

Our audience will have the opportunity to participate in an activity that demonstrates the power of a community-based support approach versus the one-to-many model that most classrooms adopt. They will also be asked to share their personal experiences as students, faculty, and staff about seeking help and which modalities of support are most effective from their perspective.

In this session, audience members can expect to learn:

  • What are learning communities and how do they lead to better outcomes for online students?
  • What are some practical actions to take to create a learning community and help it thrive?
  • Which activities and outcomes should you track to understand the impact of a community support approach for students?