5 things the pandemic taught us about virtual communities
Community was—and is—so important, and virtual communities will remain important as students head back to campus
The pandemic dramatically impacted how students experienced higher education. Under new guidelines and restrictions, many students found themselves managing the logistics and academics of their post-secondary degrees completely online. Even those who went to campus were in a very different world than they were used to or expecting–there was limited access to buildings and resources, and drastically reduced activities and opportunities for interaction and connection.
The impact on students was clear. Survey after survey highlighted how students missed having casual, regular interactions with peers, educators, and staff, and they craved the community their campus had come to represent.
But what do we really mean by a “community” in the context of education? In truth, it represents many things for students. It’s where they can get reliable answers and access important resources. It’s where they can find each other, build relationships, and establish their sense of belonging. It’s where they can share ideas, get feedback, and learn from others. And it’s a safe space students can turn to when things get tough, where they can find support and get a boost to their motivation and confidence.
As the pandemic disrupted the traditional places for community, many institutions responded with new, digital solutions. They created virtual spaces beyond the classroom for students to connect with each other, faculty, and staff. They opened these spaces up so they were available 24/7 and encouraged students to turn there when they needed information, assistance, or just another person to connect with.
And although many students are now heading back to campus, institutions have learned that there are important–and sometimes unexpected–benefits to these digital spaces and virtual communities, indicating they are likely to persist.
1. A Centralized Place for Communications and Notifications
Providing accurate, updated information is critical, but oftentimes hard to maintain. Websites get outdated quickly, and the process to update them can be long and complicated. Schools find themselves fielding phone calls and emails to keep students in the know, but the repetition drains resources and takes time away from other activities. Digital communities provide a centralized location to post up-to-date information that is readily available and easy to find. Because students often have the same questions and are in search of similar information, the school only must answer once, and everyone benefits.
2. Timely Support
As more students learn remotely, schools are tasked with providing support outside of normal institutional hours. “Always available” digital communities can provide a source of support anytime, anywhere – even late at night or on the weekends. These spaces don’t rely solely on institutional staff for answers, but also welcome responses from peers who are more likely to be active round the clock. They also act as a living repository of knowledge that is constantly updating and always accessible. This is especially important for students who may be working or parenting while they learn, but is also a great convenience for more traditional students who often look for help outside of regular business hours.
3. A Virtual Space Where it is Easy for Students to Connect
Creating a network of peers and friends is a core component of a post-secondary experience. During COVID, virtual spaces helped replicate the casual, hallway conversations that normally take place between classes so students could still feel the motivation, connection, and engagement they were used to getting and giving. Beyond that, many institutions saw that virtual spaces actually created opportunities for more students to interact and for those interactions to create a more diverse set of connections than might take place face to face. For example, students who are shy and stay away from live events are more likely to speak up in digital spaces where they can take the time to craft their contributions and make them on their own time. Additionally, virtual spaces by design bring together groups that might not interact as much in person–across different backgrounds, programs, and disciplines. In this way, they open each student’s experience up to a broader set of peers, in turn offering a richer experience over time.
4. Easier Access to Campus Resources
Even prior to COVID, many schools expressed that key resources across campus were often underutilized by students on campus. Examples included tutoring centers, health services, and career planning. It wasn’t that the services weren’t valuable, but they were sometimes difficult to find or inconvenient to access. By providing the opportunity to connect with these resources in digital communities, institutions could immediately increase their visibility and make it easier for students to tap into them when they were needed. Overall, creating simple, flexible, on-demand access via virtual communities allowed schools to improve the level of engagement and support a larger population of students.
5. A Dedicated Place for Faculty
Another thing institutions learned last year is that students aren’t the only ones who feel the pressure. Faculty, too, have had to adapt to a changing educational experience, deal with new anxieties, and adapt quickly to new technologies. And they too have significant constraints on their time that make it difficult to connect synchronously. In response, institutions grew faculty-focused virtual communities that gave them their own space to engage, ask questions, share best practices, voice frustrations, and support each other. These digital spaces became a critical component of faculty development and communication, as they could easily supplement synchronous professional development activities with content and resources that faculty can access and collaborate over on their own time.
As many of the changes brought on by COVID begin to recede from life and from education, it’s clear that not all the adaptations we brought into our lives will go with them. Virtual communities–and the access they provide to accurate information, real-time support, critical resources, and peer connections–have shown how they can benefit students, faculty, and staff no matter the primary modality of learning. As schools rethink their long-term strategies for engagement, outreach, and scalable support, this is one solution that is likely here to stay.