Building Hyper-Bonded Communities in a Virtual Environment and its Relation to Student Persistence

Collection: 
Student-Generated Content
Author Information
Author(s): 
Chelsea Barnett, M.Ed
Author(s): 
Jill Fellow, MS
Author(s): 
Cameron Cross, M.Ed
Author(s): 
Kurt Gunnell, PhD
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Western Governors University
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

The online version of a course called Leadership and Communication is offered to new and struggling students at Western Governors University to help students build hyper-bonded communities and influence personal growth within the affective domain. The course was designed to support the university’s goals to increase: first-term retention, second-term retention, course completion, and graduation rates. The guiding principle of the course is that student success starts with both social support and self-reflective awareness, and that these two experiences prepare students to weather the challenges and demands of pursuing a college degree.

Our effective practice and intentional design of the course replicates the most impactful, community-based aspects of the traditional classroom but instead of requiring a brick and mortar classroom, places instructors and students on webcam in a virtual classroom that also utilizes breakout rooms for team time, activities, and one-on-one sharing. We assert that the visual representation of the person on camera allows students to interpret body language, emotions, and other nonverbal indicators that contribute to deeper and more authentic personal connections.

The course uses a blended collaboration of synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities that effectively accomplish the course learning objectives while conserving the time and resources of our adult learners, who typically have competing demands.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

Western Governors University (WGU), a non-profit, competency-based, online university serving nearly 70,000 students, developed a course called Leadership and Communication in collaboration with the Academy for College Excellence (ACE) at Cabrillo College in order to improve graduation rates for at-risk students.

The guiding principle of the course is that student success starts with both social support and self-reflective awareness, and that these two experiences prepare students to weather the challenges and demands of pursuing an online college degree. For this reason, instead of targeting academic skills, the content of the Leadership and Communication course focuses on non-cognitive factors in the affective domain that support student academic success. In particular, the course aims to recalibrate and strengthen the academic mindsets of underprepared students by providing students with tools, confidence, and a social network that will support them through their academic journey and beyond. The innovation of the course’s design is that it accomplishes the original course goal of creating a social network – or a hyper-bonded community of learners – in an exclusively online environment.

Our Leadership and Communication course (LC) is an online adaptation of a successful curriculum designed by Diego Navarro at ACE and his curriculum partners, 5-Dynamics and Coursenet Solutions. The online version was designed and implemented in order to positively impact students which would lead to increased academic student outcomes such as first-term retention, second-term retention, course completion, and graduation rates. Under Diego’s leadership the course was offered at Cabrillo College in a traditional classroom setting with 64 student seat-time hours. Classroom time focused on experiential learning within a newly bonded learning community. The WGU online version adapts that intensive face-to-face eight day curriculum to an online-only WGU environment by reducing specific synchronous “in-class” components to only 16 hours. Other synchronous course components are replaced with appropriate asynchronous, virtual modules. Because of these adaptations, our effective practice retains the core goals, activities, and structure of the original curriculum while facilitating an online environment where hyper-bonding can thrive.

To do this, the intentional design of the course replicates the most impactful, community-based aspects of the traditional classroom and places instructors and students on webcam in a virtual classroom which incorporates video breakout rooms for team time, student-pairing activities, and one-on-one sharing. We assert that the visual representation of the person on camera allows students to interpret body language, emotions, and other nonverbal indicators that contribute to authentic personal connection. Other aspects of the synchronous sessions were then built to enhance and perpetuate the in-person simulation initiated by this webcam experience. This effective practice supports the principles of vulnerability, interpersonal interactions, and the ability to relate to others, which in turn creates an environment which is conducive for students to form personal connections and supportive relationships.

The following activities highlight some design elements within the synchronous sessions that contribute to positive peer relationships, learning, and shared experiences in an online environment.

Avatars
Instead of using only webcams or avatars to represent students online, the LC course uses both simultaneously to strengthen the peer-interactions and learning community as a whole. While on webcam, students use a picture or avatar they create to indicate where they are in the classroom or to choose a partner or group for activities. In much the same way that instructors can arrange desks or chairs in different physical classroom formations to encourage specific student interactions, so too can instructors in this virtual classroom. They are able to have students place their avatar on different class layouts and send students to breakout sessions for different activities – all while students are also on a live camera feed. This provides students with opportunities to better relate to one another during activities as well as have a visual representation of certain spatial relationships between themselves and others in the synchronous “classroom” session. For students who are potentially isolated from others during online learning (Andrew, 2015), this model expands student access to shared experiences and peer learning opportunities, irrespective of geographical location.

Reflection
Each synchronous session begins with a reflective activity. These reflections allow each student the opportunity to retrieve and review their impressions from the previous session, and apply it to the outlined question. After a short writing sprint, the instructor facilitates the sharing of student reflections, allowing students to learn from diverse perspectives and participate in peer learning in a virtual face-to-face environment.

Whip Around
Opening reflections are followed by an activity called a “Whip-Around”. For visual reference, the layout used in this activity can be found in the Appendix, Figure 1. This activity is another sharing experience in which students finish a sentence stem with a personal disclosure about themselves or what they are learning. “A relationship in my life I would like to improve is …” would be an example of a vulnerable sentence stem that relates directly to the course content. These whip around activities allow students to find common ground amongst their peers and help them to identify with others’ experiences. This activity utilizes collaborative virtual tools to show visually a spatial arrangement of student avatars. Students pick a location in a circle of other students to place their avatar. In this way, students can think of themselves as being next to or across from other students, and they can see when it will be their turn to speak. This spatial layout is not a relationship that is traditionally represented in many web-conference environments, however this setting allows students to simultaneously see and interpret the speaker while they also have a context for their own spatial positioning within the virtual classroom.

Video Breakout Rooms
Video breakout rooms allow students to leave the main classroom and enter smaller virtual rooms in which students interact in meaningful ways around the curriculum, in pairs and in teams to promote sharing and contributing. These rooms are hosted by the instructor and can be managed to allow a student’s video feed to go seamlessly into a breakout room and then just as easily be brought back into the main virtual classroom session.

Concentric Circles
The Concentric Circles layout is found in Figure 2 of the Appendix. The layout allows students to work in pairs and then change partners throughout the activity so each student is able to work one on one with every classmate inside of video breakout rooms. This again offers the student a variety of diverse perspectives and working/learning styles on a given topic and the opportunity to appreciate each other’s stories in order to strengthen the learning community. The concentric circles layout displays each students’ avatar, paired with another student, and students are able to move Avatars around to change partners as needed.

Teams
The Teams layout is found in Figure 3 of the Appendix. The layout serves dual purposes. First, it is utilized to allow the instructor to visually place students in different groups or teams. Second, some activities require students to choose among a set of options. One way to show student votes is for student avatars to be moved to one of the options; in effect, moving an avatar into one corner of the room or the other.

Working Styles with 5 Dynamics
During the course, students take a computer-generated assessment from 5 Dynamics to assess their individual, predominate working style. Students are taught the principles behind the 5 Dynamics energy intensities during both asynchronous work and synchronous activities, and then results are delivered to students during class. This unifies the learning community by giving students common language as they continue in a journey of self-discovery in the online classroom. Working styles also contributes to the development of hyper-bonding because they give students new and meaningful insight into the self and the community. After they receive their results, students use the teams document to join same-style teams for deeper reflection and connection.

Small Class Size
In order to ensure all members of the learning community can contribute and connect, class sizes in the LC course are capped at 14 students. Small class sizes help facilitate the use of avatars and video feeds so that images and videos of each student are large enough for everyone to see and relate to during sharing, reflecting, and other classroom interactions.

Hyper-Bonded Learning Communities
These examples highlight the design choices that allow the LC course to facilitate the development of a supportive, tight-knit community of peers, starting an outward, experiential journey of discovery, connection, and collaboration. Research suggests student constructs within the affective domain are highly influenced by experiential learning (Goralnik, 2012), and the LC course creates an effective space for such learning where students are taught about the very concepts of communication and reflection and then implement them immediately to build and sustain relationships within the community. The course uses a blended collaboration of synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities that effectively accomplish these and other learning objectives while conserving the time and resources of our adult learners, who typically have competing demands and who have committed to attend a university that is almost exclusively asynchronous. In order to reserve class time for interactions and building connections, new concepts in the curriculum are initially introduced to students through text and videos within asynchronous pre-work modules completed before class. Even though the material introduced in these modules is important, the real work of the curriculum rests in the interactions and shared experiences of the eight synchronous sessions. Through intentionally designed interactive curriculum, students build peer relationships that will sustain and support student achievements beyond the LC course.

Peer social support is a critical piece for changing and sustaining positive academic mindsets. Most universities provide academic support and interventions when students struggle to succeed. However, research points to the idea that the differences between students who succeed and students who fail pertain more to grit, persistence, social responsibility, and academic mindset (Sparkman, 2012). The LC course is constructed uniquely to target those non-cognitive skills for success that most universities aren’t focusing on yet; it’s an area of study still largely in its infancy. Our effective practice focuses on the facilitation of an environment conducive to building peer relationships and peer learning so that students can take an inward journey of discovery and self-awareness – a journey that will lead them through reflections about their attitudes, their educational experiences, their motivations, and their beliefs in their own abilities for success.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

Learning Effectiveness
Currently, 72% of WGU’s students are classified as underserved (defined as either first generation college attendee, low income, ethnic minority, or rural resident). Even with some previous college experience, under-served students can sometimes fall into the at-risk category because they may: (1) be unfamiliar with the demands of college, (2) have other competing responsibilities at home or at work, and/or (3) start into their studies and then find it difficult to be self-directed and motivated. For these reasons and related others, they are at higher risk for not completing their degree program. In order to improve graduation rates for at-risk students, WGU developed a course called Leadership and Communication in collaboration with the Academy for College Excellence (ACE).

Our effective practice has two main measures of learning effectiveness: first-term student success and changes in non-cognitive constructs. First-term student success at Western Governors University is a very strong predictor of subsequent successful degree completion. The first-term and other metrics used to evaluate this effective practice are:
• Percent of students retained from first term to second term
• Percent of students earning at least 12 competency units in term one (On-Time Progress- “OTP”)
• Percent of students retained from second term to third term
• Percent of students earning at least 12 competency units in term two (On-Time Progress- “OTP”)

Initial cohorts of the LC course took place in 2014 and have continued to be offered in 2015 and 2016. To date, over 200 students have completed the LC course; however enough time has passed for only 29 students who have completed the course to also have completed their first year of studies at WGU.

Table 1.0 in the Appendix compares the student outcome measures of the LC course to the population averages for students in the same programs and terms at WGU.

These results show an 8% increase in Term 1 OTP and a 10% increase in Term 2 OTP. Percent of students retained into the 7th month exhibited a 4% gain for students who completed LC, and a 3% gain at the 13 month mark. This data is promising as to the future academic success of students participating in the course. WGU has continued to offer the LC course and will have data from much larger cohorts in the near future.

The second measurement that speaks to learning effectiveness is a measure of student outcomes collected from a survey developed by MPR Associates called the College Student Self-Assessment Survey (CSSAS). CSSAS is used to measure gains within constructs of the affective domain that have shown in the literature to be precursors to academic success (RTI International, 2014). In addition to measuring student progress on various scales in the affective domain, the post course survey also asks, “Do you think you have been changed as a result of being in the Leadership and Communication course?”
The results of the CSSAS showed statistically significant gains in 3 of the 8 constructs measured. Additionally, 60% of students reported being “changed as a result of the course.” Specific changes cited included:
• “I am more cognizant of my actions and have a greater awareness of myself.”
• “I am more focused.”
• “I will always seek alignment and authenticity in my conversations with others.”

The literature shows that student engagement with instructors and peers in a classroom setting has a direct link to college success (Tinto, 2009). “Active involvement of students in learning activities in and around the classroom, especially with other students, is critical to student retention and graduation,” (Tinto, 2009) and this effective practice creates this critical opportunity for student success in a specifically online space.

Scale
As discussed in the Effective Practice Description, the LC course is an online adaptation of a traditional classroom-based curriculum. The traditional classroom-based curriculum required 64 hours of student seat time. The WGU online version scaled down the seat time significantly to 16 hours, and also transitioned the in-person requirement to a virtual seat-time design, which allows students to participate from: their homes, their places of employment, a local library or coffee shop, or any other location that aligns with the complex time and location needs of the adult learner. Other previous synchronous components of the course were replaced with asynchronous virtual modules to conserve student time and expand student access.

The course is scaled and designed intentionally to serve the underserved and support the wide-range needs of underprepared populations of learners. On this issue, Navarro stated:
"Colleges didn't create this problem of underprepared students, but they have the responsibility to address it. … They need a creative, cost effective way to help students succeed, especially as we recognize that the problem goes far beyond academic preparedness, but also includes the devastating impacts of poverty, broken families, and the struggle of many different cultural groups to adapt to and succeed in our communities" (Academy of College Excellence, 2016).

We feel this effective practice is directly in line with the mission and commitment of WGU, the purpose of the Academy of College Excellence, and the future of online learning as seen through the values of the Online Learning Consortium.

Access
“The principal mission of Western Governors University is to improve quality and expand access to postsecondary educational opportunities by providing a means for individuals to learn independent of time or place and to earn competency-based degrees and other credentials that are credible to both academic institutions and employers” (Western Governors University, 2016). Consistent with the mission of WGU, the LC course aims to prepare traditionally underserved and at-risk students for success in the online environment by targeting their non-cognitive or affective domains throughout their student lifecycle.

Currently, the LC course is being offered to all undergraduate students across four colleges at WGU as an “opt-in” basis during first term enrollment. We offer the course to current students in a variety of contexts: students who are struggling academically, show risks of withdrawing from the university, or require dispositional interventions to support teacher licensing candidates for classroom fieldwork. In all these situations, student participation in the LC course is increasing month over month, which also increases the positive academic impact on student success measures for our university students.

“Indeed the evidence of the impact of shared learning experiences on student success is so compelling that it behooves colleges to make such experiences the hallmark, not exception, of college, especially during the critical first year when learning and persistence is still so much in question” (Tinto, 2014). Given the compelling evidence we have collected to date, we feel a sense of urgency to continue to broaden the reach of this course and its positive outcomes on academic success.

Faculty Satisfaction
Documentation of faculty satisfaction is divided into two categories, 1) faculty members who teach the course and use the effective practice first hand and 2) faculty members who refer students to the course or work with students after they have completed the course.

Faculty members who teach the course report satisfaction in the opportunity to engage in professional development aside from their traditional mentoring responsibilities. These faculty members were given access to an intensive, face-to-face, faculty experiential learning institute to prepare them for teaching the skills within the affective domain.

Faculty members who refer students to the course or work one-on-one with students after they complete the course have reported positive qualitative feedback about student attitudes, valuation of peer relationships, communication practices, and academic progress. For many faculty members, the course is viewed as an intervention that supports them in their goals to help students succeed and alleviates some of the burden in supporting underprepared students.
Sample feedback from faculty members:
● “Students really seem to be enjoying this course. I am hearing positive comments about the social interaction as they find it refreshing.”
● “Having a better of understanding of my student and their working style has given me an opportunity to alter my mentoring style to better accommodate my student.”
● “My student is excited to have found classmates that share her program of study. Having a chance to stay connected will no doubt give them all a boost.”
● “My student has asked to continue our conversations through web conferencing as they find a higher level of engagement with me.”

Student Satisfaction
In addition to positive academic student outcomes, which we believe translate to student satisfaction, the following testimonials speak to the importance of peer relationships and peer learning in the context of satisfaction and retention. These testimonials were provided by students who completed the course:
● “We collaborated together on ideas to better ourselves as students and felt a sense of closeness and unity throughout the course. This was greatly appreciated for me as I was nervous and skeptical as to how this course would be beneficial is my educational journey at Western Governors University.”
● “These are practical skills that can truly make a difference in your relationships and help you succeed in any endeavor you choose. I also appreciated the diversity of the students in the class because of the differing perspectives I was able to find. I look forward to having future interactions with this group and following their progress.”
● “It was unique to have a class focus internally on improving oneself. On top of the coursework, it was great to see and interact with other students at Western Governors University. There were students of all ages in various parts of their lives and learning experiences that came together to focus on one another. This class challenged all of the students to come out of their comfort zone and truly connect. “
● “After struggling thru a third term and not getting much done, my mentor convinced me to take a new path, so I enrolled in [leadership and communication]. I struggled. Not with the course but with myself. The instructor was incredible, my classmates were amazingly supportive. Thru sharing exercises, I finally began to realize that I am the one holding me back. I walk away from this course with new skills to employ, and I have a fresh perspective. Look out WGU, I am out of excuses!”

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

Effective Learning
The literature shows that student engagement with instructors and peers in a classroom setting has a direct link to college success (Tinto, 2009).
These results show an 8% increase in Term 1 OTP and a 10% increase in Term 2 OTP. Percent of students retained into the 7th month exhibited a 4% gain for students who completed LC, and a 3% gain at the 13 month mark. This data is promising as to the future academic success of students participating in the course. WGU has continued to offer the LC course and will have data from much larger cohorts in the near future.
The results of the CSSAS showed statistically significant gains in 3 of the 8 constructs measured. Additionally, 60% of students reported being “changed as a result of the course.”

Scale
The traditional classroom-based curriculum required 64 hours of student seat time. The WGU online version scaled down the seat time significantly to 16 hours, and also transitioned the in-person requirement to a virtual seat-time design, which allows students to participate from: their homes, their places of employment, a local library or coffee shop, or any other location that aligns with the complex time and location needs of the adult learner. Other previous synchronous components of the course were replaced with asynchronous virtual modules to conserve student time and expand student access.

Access
Consistent with the mission of WGU, the LC course aims to prepare traditionally underserved and at-risk students for success in the online environment by targeting their non-cognitive or affective domains throughout their student lifecycle.

Faculty Satisfaction
Faculty members who teach the course report satisfaction in the opportunity to engage in professional development aside from their traditional mentoring responsibilities. These faculty members were given access to an intensive, face-to-face, faculty experiential learning institute to prepare them for teaching the skills within the affective domain. These instructors are also very satisfied to be part of an innovative program that systemically supports students they have been working to serve and support on a one on one basis in an adviser role.
For other faculty mentors within the university, the course is viewed as an intervention that supports them in their goals to help students succeed and alleviates some of the burden in supporting underprepared students. The course gives students communication tools and language that help them reach out for help and better utilize the services offered by university faculty members.

Student Satisfaction
During the course, students get highly valued time and experiences with faculty and peers, and students are continually reporting their satisfaction with the content material and the connections they form with other students. Students send formative and summative feedback about course, and both qualitative and quantitative data shows that students are mostly satisfied with the course. The rate of students who drop out of the course is very low, which is another indicator of satisfaction.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

Zoom technology – This video conferencing system provides Breakout Rooms, Live Chat, and Screen Sharing for Instructors and students as well as recording options.
Google Drive – Use of Google Docs and Forms

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

Zoom Room Technology -- $14.99/ per month. Free licenses are available with slightly limited functionality. Ex: synchronous sessions are limited to 1 hour at a time.
5 Dynamics -- $15-$25 per student depending on total number of students.
Faculty time – 25 faculty work hours per each session of the course. Each course has a capacity of 10 to 20 students. 200 hours of faculty or contractor hours to design the course.

References, supporting documents: 

Academy of College Excellence, 2016. www.academicforcollegeexcellence.org

Andrew, L., Maslin-Prothero, S., & Ewens, B. (2015). Enhancing the online learning experience using virtual interactive classrooms. Australian Journal Of Advanced Nursing, 32(4), 22-31 10p.

Goralnik, L. Millenbah, K., Nelson, M., & Thorp, L. (2012). An Environmental Pedagogy of Care: Emotion, Relationships, and Experience in Higher Education Ethics Learning. Journal of Experiential Education, 35(3), 412-428.

RTI International, 2014. http://static1.squarespace.com/static/50c8ca4ae4b0a1d4330d2851/t/5302d8a...

Sparkman, L. A., Maulding, W. S., & Roberts, J. G. (2012). Non-Cognitive predictors of Student Success in College. College Student Journal, 46(3), 642-652.

Tinto, V. (2014). Access Without Support is Not Opportunity. Community College Week, 26(15), 4

Tinto, V. (2009). How to Help Students Stay and Succeed. Chronicle Of Higher Education, 55(22), A33.

Western Governors University, 2016. Mission Statement. www.wgu.edu/about_WGU/overview

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Chelsea Barnett, M.Ed
Email this contact: 
chelsea.barnett@wgu.edu
Effective Practice Contact 2: 
Jill Fellow, MS
Email contact 2: 
jill.fellow@wgu.edu
Effective Practice Contact 3: 
Kurt Gunnell, PhD
Email contact 3: 
kurt.gunnell@wgu.edu