College campuses are more dispersed than ever before. And online learning has caused a reconceptualization of the college campus. New high-flex learning environments provide empowering options for students, but they also come with the challenge of connecting online students in meaningful ways.

So, how can higher education leaders ensure a cohesive campus community where students from across the nation are able to engage in qualitatively rich interactions?

As part of our ongoing EdTech research within the College Innovation Network (CIN), we’ve been focusing on implementing tools that help students connect and engage with one another. Many lessons have been learned through these projects, and we’re collaborating with college leaders across CIN to share what they learned about EdTech implementation.

Our published report, Building Belonging with InScribe at Rio Salado College, shares results of a six-week study with students showing that engagement in a virtual community was associated with increased belonging for online students. By implementing products like InScribe that can be customized to address the unique needs of students at an institution, higher education leaders can create opportunities for genuine connection that can lead to greater sense of belonging.

Our research with Rio Salado College and InScribe suggests that EdTech can help students to build a sense of belonging and connection to their peers.  We spoke with Janelle Elias, Vice President of Strategy and Advancement at Rio Salado College, and Sasha Flores, Project Manager for Strategic Initiatives at Rio Salado College about what advice they had for other administrators who want to build virtual communities for their students.

Here are five actionable strategies higher education leaders can adopt to create impactful virtual communities for their students.

  1. Involve student leaders
  2. Get the word out
  3. Add value to students’ experience
  4. Iterate to continuously improve
  5. Dedicated staff and strategic alignment

1 – Involve Student Leaders

Because the goal of building virtual communities for students is to create a space for students, it is crucial to get students involved early to ensure it’s optimized for them. Rio Salado College leveraged peer-to-peer influence by recruiting student leaders at the college to help design and promote the RioConnect community.

Communities are built from authentic engagement from their users – in this case, students – rather than from top-down administrator direction. By having these students lead within the community by starting conversations and sharing resources, they set a positive example of engagement for other students, in addition to encouraging participation from other students.

2 – Get the Word Out

Building authentic communities can take time, but students can’t participate if they don’t know that the community exists. Promoting spaces dedicated for students takes consistent effort by administration. Rio Salado College used two primary strategies to get the word out. First, they created dedicated email campaigns to advertise the RioConnect community directly to students, and second, students were auto-enrolled into the community to reduce access barriers to joining.

The project team also focused on consistent branding of the virtual community, ensuring that the community was advertised as a dedicated space for students with little involvement of staff and faculty. Just like a traditional on campus student union that is a place for students to connect and engage with one another, the RioConnect community was designed to be similar – and communicating that vision with students is crucial.

3 – Add Value to Students’ Experience

Creating new spaces that students want to use requires adding genuine value to their student experience – what is new about this opportunity that students don’t currently have access to?

Because of the high-flex, dispersed learning environment of Rio Salado College, students had limited means to connect with their peers across programs. The RioConnect virtual community directly solved this problem by easily connecting all students at the college.

The virtual community was also easily accessible 24/7. Put differently, RioConnect conformed to students’ schedule so they could get help, ask questions, and share their story when it was convenient for them – something that available options didn’t afford.

4 – Iterate to Continuously Improve

Students’ needs are constantly evolving. The institutions that support them must, too. When building the RioConnect community, college leaders turned to students to help design and build their community.

Virtual communities are not static, they rely on participants’ continued involvement and administrators’ continued iteration. Interview students about their experience and needs, gather their feedback regularly, and make adjustments as needed. Build in multiple touch points with students across the year to ensure that the community continues to serve them. And, build in evaluation plans to assess the impact of the community on the student experience.

5 – Dedicated Staff and Strategic Alignment

As is clear from the above points, virtual communities need nurturing to thrive long-term and have the greatest impact on students. A long-term strategic plan with support of college leaders is necessary to ensure the viability and value-add of virtual communities.

Having dedicated staff, especially a project manager, to oversee and manage the implementation, building, and maintenance of the virtual community is a must. But to get dedicated staff and other resources to build and maintain the community takes buy-in from across the college. One way to do this is to align the need for virtual communities to a core strategic initiative of the college. By making clear how virtual student communities serve broader goals of the college can ensure teams have the resources they need to provide these spaces to promote belonging among their students.  

Students are speaking out: they want peer connections, a sense of community, and support across their educational journey. The challenge facing higher education now is how to create virtual communities compatible with modern learning environments that promote belonging and connectedness among peers.

Education technology can create spaces for students to build authentic connections with their peers and develop a sense of belonging within their institution. As online and hybrid learning options become more common and the college campus expands into virtual spaces, institutions must be more intentional in finding and adopting solutions that focus on fostering student belonging.  

Download the full report Building Belonging with InScribe at Rio Salado College to learn more about our research and how you can foster belonging for online students.