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Leveraging Online Learning Communities to Drive Student Success

Matthew Thornton (Southern New Hampshire University & Dakota State University, USA)
Matthew Belanger (SNHU, USA)
Session Information
October 15, 2015 - 1:30pm
Student Services and Learner Support
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Practical Application
Institutional Level: 
Universities and Four Year Institutions
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Southern Hemisphere I
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 7
Virtual Session
Best in Track

An engaging tour of SNHU's online student union, SNHUconnect, an enterprise social collaboration space where course-specific learning communities help to drive student success and persistence.

Extended Abstract

Leveraging Online Learning Communities to Drive Student Success
Matthew Thornton, Associate Vice President of Undergraduate Advising
Matthew Belanger, Associate Dean of First Year Experience
Southern New Hampshire University
An engaging tour of SNHU's online student union, SNHUconnect, an enterprise social collaboration space where course-specific learning communities help to drive student success and persistence.

Southern New Hampshire University developed an "online student union" called SNHUconnect in 2013, leveraging an enterprise social media platform within its student portal to build community with an online student population. Online learners often experience a sense of isolation, as they do not have face-to-face contact with University staff, faculty, or their student peers. In order to improve student success and persistence for online learners, many institutions have turned to social media to foster sense of community within the online student body. SNHUconnect was built under the notion that much of a student's learning occurs outside of the classroom. By facilitating connections with peers, support services, and subject matter experts outside of their online classroom, students would develop a stronger sense of community with the University and have a stronger support system to turn to when challenges arise. This community has evolved from a few hundred students to several thousand students who connect around affinity interests, clubs, organizations, a student advisory council, honor societies, and much more. The online students have shaped most of this evolution, forming groups for military students and military families, LGBTQ students, outdoor activities, travel, family, pets, and the infamous "selfie" photos on Sunday night when students are all working on their homework before the midnight deadline. As the community has grown and user adoption has increased over the past few years, it became the logical place to start implementing program-specific and course-specific communities of learning to support students in need.
Within today's online courses, tech-savvy faculty leverage social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter to increase a student's sense of community and to encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing among the online students in the course. Most of the research in online learning communities is limited to a single section of a course with students in that section engaging with one another much as you would in a face-to-face study group. The learning communities in SNHUconnect are unique in that they bring together students from multiple sections of a course so that students can benefit from the combined knowledge of a much larger support group. Further, because these learning communities are developed within an enterprise social media platform, the knowledge captured there does not disappear when the course is over. SNHUconnect has a powerful question/answer feature where participants can vote on the best answers to student submitted questions. Student users who type in a question are shown "similar asked questions" that have come up in the past, allowing students to tap into knowledge from community members who may have taken the course in a prior term. The system then begins to recognize "expertise" within the community. For example, if student "Steve" has the top number of votes for his answers to questions related to "forming a thesis statement," students who seek out knowledge on this topic may receive a "friend recommendation" to connect with Steve. Students can also see a ranked list of experts within the community to connect with on certain topics.
By embedding subject matter experts such as faculty members, student advisors, career counselors, and peer leaders (students with demonstrated proficiency) into the learning communities, students can benefit from the sharing of videos, websites, journal articles, and other learning resources that promote the achievement of the learning outcomes for the course. This content can be tagged with keywords to enhance searchability and knowledge sharing throughout the space. These learning communities help SNHU to proactively support students as they approach milestone deadlines for high-stakes assignments/course deliverables, increasing student submission rates and grade performance by providing students with just-in-time resources to support them. Real-time student feedback can also help the University to fine-tune assignments that may be confusing or to identify problem areas within courses where students struggle to achieve certain learning outcomes, thus leading to stronger curriculum development and appropriate scaffolding of student learning within a course or program.
In this session, we will provide an interactive tour of SNHUconnect, showing how the tool has been incorporated into Southern New Hampshire University's student portal to create engaging online community. We will then explore some course-specific learning communities, demonstrating how students in multiple sections of a course can access this shared learning community directly from their online course, connecting them to a wide network of peers and subject matter experts. Data will be presented to demonstrate that students who engage in these learning communities have an increased likelihood of success, and qualitative student feedback shows the powerful impact of community on student learning and satisfaction.

Lead Presenter

Matt Thornton is the Associate Vice President of Undergraduate Advising for Southern New Hampshire University's College of Online and Continuing Education. He is also enrolled in the Doctor of Science (D.Sc.) Information Systems program at Dakota State University. His research interests focus on decision support systems and the use of knowledge management systems in higher education, including student information systems, learning management systems, and enterprise social media.