Creating a sense of belonging, particularly in online settings, is a continued area of interest for us at WGU Labs, and throughout the wider higher education community. While much is known about the in-person student experience, and despite an abundance of data around online student behavior, there are many unexplored aspects of what creates — or disrupts — a student’s sense of belonging in an online context.

In our upcoming session at OLC Accelerate, we’ll explore our research on NavigateU, an AI-based platform that offers customized support service recommendations to students, which we developed in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh. Our work revealed that during specific and urgent points of need, students can often feel overwhelmed, defeated, and stigmatized when searching their institutions’ websites for resources (think: mental health services or financial aid assistance). And this can lead them to feel like college isn’t for them or that they otherwise don’t belong because they were the “only ones” who needed specific support services. 

What does this mean for your students?

Here are the top four takeaways you need to know about resources and online belonging based on our NavigateU research:

  1. Timing is more important than quantity. Offering too many resources can overwhelm students. Instead, resources should be put in front of students when they are most needed. Traditionally, colleges provide access to student resources early on in the semester, but we found that students don’t necessarily retainall the information available at that moment. They look for specific resources when they need something in particular. In interviews where students were asked to locate a particular resource, all of them resorted to a search engine to locate said resource. The tricky part is knowing the best time to reach out for support (depending on the type of help needed) and whether that particular support is available. 
  2. Simple is best. In stressful times, no one wants to read a lot of information or dig through a website. If students have to sift through a lot of content to get to an actionable resource, they tend to give up. In our interviews, students mentioned that some resources were hard to find or that they had difficulty understanding what types of support were available to them. Students want resources that are clear, accessible, and easy to take action on
  3. Human interaction still matters. Most students mentioned that advisors and peers are the first people they consult about any particular need that arises. Advisors also mentioned that they spend a lot of time helping students access support available to them. While it’s clear the user experience for digital support services could be streamlined, colleges shouldn’t forget the importance of human connection.
  4. More innovative touchpoints with students are needed. Traditional communication channels such as email are backed up and often result in no action. In our pilot, only a small number of students engaged with NavigateU. We can’t expect students to proactively log in to another website or read another email when they’re already inundated with other digital content. Our research underscored the need to get more creative with how we provide students the information they need, when they need it.

Students who struggle to access support services when they need them most often feel like they don’t belong in school. By destigmatizing these services and making them easier to find and use, colleges can boost students’ sense of belonging, in turn improving their academic performance and persistence. 

While we continue working toward a solution, we are eager to learn and partner with schools to understand how to better leverage technology to create a sense of belonging and bridge the gap between school resources and students in need of support. 

Interested in working with us? Get in touch.