The next online challenge: ‘Virtualizing’ the college experience

If you’re a college graduate today, you may have cheered at your university’s football or basketball games, The Huffington Post reports. You may have joined student clubs to go backpacking or dance the salsa. You could have worked out at the campus gym or run for student government. These experiences often count among the best memories of college, and have been found to keep alumni engaged with – and donating to – their alma maters. Yet none are obviously available to growing numbers of online undergraduates who will spend their college years not on a leafy campus, but at a laptop screen. As online higher education takes off, public discussion has rightly focused on the quality of electronic versus traditional classes. But with bricks-and-mortar universities such as my own ramping up online degrees for undergraduates, we face another question crucial to their success: Is it possible to recreate the college experience virtually? We know the non-academic aspects of college have been deeply important to residential students. Decades of research show that undergraduates who are engaged in extracurricular activities are more likely to stay in college, earn good grades and graduate.

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