Innovative Approaches to Online Student Engagement Outside the Virtual Classroom
By Sharon F. Goldstein, Campus Operating Officer, Online Campus, Berkeley College
There are millions of people learning online today in some form or fashion and technology and pedagogy continue to evolve to improve the students’ experience. There continues to be a multitude of options for students to interact with faculty and peers and to learn in an environment that is as good as or possibly better than the onsite classroom. Collaboration and engagement are key to keeping students engaged in online classes.
“For several decades now, evidence collected by higher education scholars indicates that student involvement in purposeful out-of-class or ‘co-curricular’ activities has positive effects on students’ academic success, retention, and persistence to graduation.” White, Caroline. (2018, January). Tracking Co-Curricular Contributions to Student Success at MSU. https://hub.msu.edu/tracking-co-curricular-contributions-to-student-success-at-msu.
“Traditional, on-campus students can take advantage of a wide variety of social and extracurricular opportunities, but online students may feel isolated and disconnected from their peers and from their college or university – and risk losing the engagement so crucial to student success.” Eisele-Dyrli, K. (2015, October). Keeping remote college students connected. https://universitybusiness.com/keeping-remote-college-students-connected/.
Berkeley College Online is committed to creating a vibrant student community for our students onsite and online; one that leads to continued persistence and retention.
In an effort to create an online community of engaged students, we created a virtual hub – a central location where students could go to get involved in all programs/events/activities.
Each of the programs has a separate tab/page and it becomes a very easy way for students to get the information they need to participate in a variety of events! A monthly programming calendar is developed and offers activities and/or engagement opportunities for most days! Our online population is quite diverse, so it is important that we provide a wide array of programs and activities!
We invite our students (and their families and friends!) to follow us on social media. Berkeley College has multiple social media platforms; in addition, we have created both a Berkeley College Online Facebook and Berkeley College Online Instagram presence for our online student community! In addition to fun content, contests and giveaways, we include reminders for important dates, spotlight our support services departments, and invite students to share their points of view!
The Berkeley College Online Book Club, a collaborative effort of our online library and Student Development and Campus Life, was established over 10 years ago and is very popular with both onsite and online students. Each semester, a book is selected for its relevance to our students. Examples of book themes have included autobiographies, leadership titles, fiction, time-management, and mental health. We utilize the Good Reads platform for our online discussions, which are moderated by a Berkeley College associate. In addition, students are invited to participate in a live author event, which is held at one of our campus locations and livestreamed to our other campuses and an online audience. This livestream includes a moderated chat so that the virtual audience has the opportunity for Q & A!
Community service is a very important part of Berkeley College life and that carries into our online populations! One of the service programs offered (onsite students also participate) is through “Charity Miles.” This is an app, which allows participants to donate to a selected charity of their choice from over 20 charities, when they walk, bike ride, run, etc. You simply open the app, select your mode of exercise, select the charity, and go! For each mile walked, Charity Miles donates money to your designated charity! We aligned this program with our 20th Anniversary of Online Learning and Berkeley celebration last year; our goal was 20 million steps (10,000 miles)! Our online students felt engaged and proud to be participating with their college community. We also invited students at our onsite campuses to participate and would illustrate progress with posters.
Another example of community service at a distance is our Adopt a Platoon program, where we sent care packages for the holidays to our deployed troops. We used the Amazon wish list platform, entered a variety of items in varying price ranges, and students (staff, and associates) could select an item or items and have the package shipped directly to our campus office. Once all packages are collected, we shipped the merchandise to the troops.
We often hear that online students feel alone and wish they had opportunities to meet and interact with other online students. Within our secure network, we created a “Yammer” group for students, much like a Facebook platform, however, it is private and can be accessed with student login information. Within the platform, separate groups were created by major as well as special interest groups. While this is still an option, we wanted to create a more personal environment for interacting and the Virtual Common Hour (VCH) was created! Designed for “conversation and company,” the VCH meets on the Zoom platform and students can see and speak with one another. A Berkeley associate encourages everyone to introduce themselves and tosses out a “how is it going this week” type of question and typically it is off and running from there! Students are supportive of one another, listen to concerns, offer advice, share stories, discuss anything on their minds! VCH lasts approximately an hour and we experiment with days and times that will best suit our students’ busy schedules. There have been as many as 35 students participating at one time and the overall feedback is very positive!
Our Online Student Advisory Board was created to provide students a leadership experience where their feedback and their “voice” matters! Students can submit an application to be a part of the advisory board and there are typically 20-30 students involved per semester. Throughout the semester they are invited to share opinions and ideas to improve the Berkeley College experience for all students. Near the end of the semester, a summary report is provided to the group as to what steps have been or will be taken as a result of the feedback.
Our libguide platform is used to house this event, and each tab represents a particular area of exhibition including drawings, photography, paintings, multimedia, fashion, poetry, sculptures, stained glass, food art, wedding art, and coloring. Included as well is a tab for artist biographies! It is a wonderful opportunity to display talent among our community!
Berkeley College Online hosts an Essay Contest each year, open to online and onsite students. Our contest this year will provide two quotes and students can choose one and write about what it means to them. Students are also provided with the rubric used by the panel of judges, comprised of staff and faculty. We offer the distinction of first, second, and third place as well as offering a number of runners-up acknowledgements. In addition to posting winning essays on our libguide platform, news releases will go out in each of the students’ hometown newspapers.
It is critical to engage students on their educational experience; as online students who can feel alone and disconnected this becomes an even greater imperative. Experiences such as honor society inductions, commencement, and orientation have all been adapted to provide our online students their own unique experience apart from a “livestream” event. Holiday celebrations, networking events, leadership and community service opportunities continue to be adapted for online delivery! Our student support areas, including Academic Advisement, Career Services, Library, Center for Academic Success, Student Development and Campus Life, and Personal Counseling all provide opportunities for students to learn, grow, engage, and achieve success.
In order to offer a purposeful array of programming, which meets the needs of our various populations, we begin with a very intentional approach to planning.
We have developed a “program plan” which guides the development of our programs and supports our continuous improvement process. This begins with our “pre-event planning” and begins by establishing an overview and purpose for the program. This is a key aspect of keeping all stakeholders focused on a mission as well as being able to assess the effectiveness of the program. The second is to determine the dates of the program – does the program align with any other themed activity happening on the campus? Does it relate to a holiday or a special time of year? These factors can be considered when marketing the programs.
Next, you want to define your intended audience and by doing so you can better assess the program’s relevance. Knowing the demographics of your population and isolating the exact population the program is intended to service, can also help to determine whether you are reaching enough of your audience to make the endeavor worth the time. If in fact, you identify that the target audience is too small, you may rethink allocating resources to the program and rather focus on targeting a larger group. Why spend hours on a program that will ultimately reach very few people?
Another key aspect of the pre-event planning is the anticipated budget. Will you need to provide honorariums, travel expenses, prizes? How much is available for this program and how will you allocate your budget?
It is also important to identify other stakeholders who might be involved to enhance the program. Does it align with the curriculum for faculty to integrate into an assignment? Are there other areas of the college that could be involved and lend support? The Berkeley College Online Book Club is an example of one of our programs where we involve faculty, who subsequently promote to their students – sometimes even offering extra credit for participation!
Also, keep in mind what other support might be needed for the program execution such as information systems, administrative, and legal/compliance.
Then you need to identify your intended outcomes. What is the benefit to the students that this program will provide? What will be accomplished by students participating in this program? This aspect of the program plan is a key component in determining its success. It is here where we can determine the next piece of the program plan and that is to define your measurement of success. What will determine whether your program was successful? For example, if you are hosting a career fair and the purpose of the fair is to have students receive job offers, the intended outcome will be that offers will be made to students. But what is the measure of success? Is it one offer, three offers, 10 offers? It’s important to identify this prior to the start of the program. Back to the example, the purpose of the career fair is to have students receive job offers. The intended outcome will be that students receive job offers. In order to measure the success of the program, you will need to have identified how many offers constitutes a successful program. Having spent significant dollars, time, and energy on a career fair, with an intended outcome of job offers for two students, is likely not what you would plan for. Be bold and go for it! Did you hope for 20 student hires? State that in your program plan as your measure of success. You can then assess whether or not you were successful in your stated purpose and outcomes. This will ultimately guide you in planning for (or not planning for) future career fairs.
Finally, you need to determine which marketing strategies you will use. Often it is best to use multiple strategies. When promoting programming or events in a virtual world, the message should focus on “Why” rather than “What.” Why would you want to participate? For example, instead of promoting “Career Fair” (what), you might use “Need a Job – 30 Employers in One Room” (why).
Once your event has occurred, post-event analysis is much easier to determine; was the program successful? Were the success criteria you defined met? Will the program be repeated? What are your future recommendations?
In conclusion, the collaborative work of the online campus faculty, staff, continues to nurture a community in which our online students can engage. Our most recent retention outcomes (Fall 2019) have shown an increase over last year as a result of many of the programs outlined in this article as well as continued and meaningful outreach with our students. The benefits of learning online are many, and the ability to close the “isolation” gap felt by some online students will pave the way for an even greater number of students to reap the benefits of online learning without sacrificing the sense of community.
SHARON GOLDSTEIN was appointed Campus Operating Officer for Berkeley College Online in January 2007. Ms. Goldstein oversees day-to-day operations, finances, student and staff retention, space management, creative programming, community outreach and expansion. She joined Berkeley College in 2003 as the Director of Career Services. Prior to joining Berkeley College, Ms. Goldstein spent 15 years working as a recruiter in the staffing industry and holds the CPC (Certified Personnel Consultant) designation. Sharon serves as an Advisory Board Member of Stevens Institute of Technology, Web Campus. Ms. Goldstein has also served as a Board Member for United States Distance Learning Association, and the Tri-County Chamber of Commerce. Ms. Goldstein was named a Fellow and inducted into the 2018 Lead NJ class. She has also been serving as a mentor in the Leadership Berkeley program since 2008. Ms. Goldstein has served as a group facilitator for Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a grassroots, nationally recognized job search support and networking organization targeted to adults who are actively looking for work, interested in reinvigorating their careers and undertaking a job search campaign, and continues to support such efforts. She is a passionate advocate on the subject of work/life balance and delivers keynotes and workshops based upon her “Feeling of Balance” concept. Ms. Goldstein holds a B.A. from Dickinson College and an M.S. in Management from the College of Saint Elizabeth. She is a graduate of both Leadership Berkeley and Leadership Paterson.
Contact Information: Sharon Goldstein // Campus Operating Officer, Online Campus // Berkeley College // 973-405-2111 x6300 // firstname.lastname@example.org // berkeleycollege.edu/online // https://www.linkedin.com/in/sharonfgoldstein/ // @sharonsfg