A good online community is the best way to keep students motivated

communities-retention-online In a recent think-tank panel in D.C. on trends in higher-ed, one online learning expert from Arizona State University said that the next big discussion for colleges and universities would be on online communities. But why is it so important for online learning?

The simplest answer is that students like it, so they stick around. But why do students in an online environment need community, and what are some key features of a good community?

According to Cheryl Oliver, assistant dean of Online and Graduate Programs at the College of Business, Washington State University (WSU), retention rate increases with community because humans are social by nature.

“We know that people perform best in their courses when they are able to connect with other people, whether that is in writing, through verbal communication, or through a mutually shared experience,” explained Oliver. “While many of our students are capable of autodidactic behavior, they enjoy the social conformation or feedback that is intrinsic to a learning community. In many instances, our students are able to share ideas and arrive at greater conclusions collectively than if they had absorbed or interacted with information as individuals.”

Oliver isn’t wrong: Just take a look at the popularity of most social media platforms and it’s clear that social connection is important not just to younger generations, but an increasing percent of even baby boomers.

But again, why? One behavioral scientist, and his MRI scanner, may have the answers.

(Next page: The neuroscience of community)

Matthew Lieberman, a professor of biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, L.A., says that students (humans) like community because of the way our brain is wired—a hypothesis he pretty much proved during a simple MRI scan.

In the experiment, which you can read about either in brief description in this New York Times article, or in his book, Lieberman had participants hooked up to an MRI and presented with a game called Cyberball.

In the game, the participant is given a handheld device that simulates a “hand” on a screen. This hand has the ability to pass a ball to two other “players.” In the scenario, the participant passes the ball to a player, who passes it to the third player, and then the third player passes it back to the MRI participant.

So far, the participant is happy, according to the MRI. “…scientists found that when a subject’s partner cooperated, activity increased in the ventral striatum, the brain’s primary reward center—as long as the subject had cooperated, too,” reveals the NYT.

However, when the other two players isolated the MRI participant, meaning that the participant was no longer engaged in the game, something unpleasant happened.

“…when the invisible online players stop passing the e-ball to the subject, the region that lights up in the scanner is the same region that lights up with physical pain,” the article notes. “Looking at scans from two studies side by side, Lieberman says, ‘without knowing which was an analysis of physical pain and which was an analysis of social pain, you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.’”

The conclusion, and the crux of Lierberman’s book, is that humans are inherently social. If you want to engage students (who are generally young in age and tend to crave social support), providing community is one solution.

Providing community in an online setting is especially important, since students are physically separated from their peers.

(Next page: Keys to a good online community)

Oliver explained that WSU’s decision to partner with Pearson’s online community platform, Embanet, was spurred by the need to leverage faculty expertise in a very competitive environment.

Learn more about Embanet:

[field name=iframe2]


From what Oliver observed with students, “opportunities to engage with content that is associated with a faculty voice (i.e. lectures, video, faculty anecdotes, et cetera) as well as faculty discussions either in writing or in person are the hallmarks of the students’ satisfaction with the online community.”

Key characteristics of an online learning community, said Oliver, are

  • Colleagues with diverse, well-grounded perspectives.
  • New and interesting information (curriculum) over which the students can engage in intellectual discourse.
  • Opportunities to engage with a facilitator (faculty member) who can encourage the dialogue and present various arguments for consideration.
  • Space for small and large group discussion, as well as areas to interact with content.

In terms of IT infrastructure, Oliver noted that since consumers are “used to living and working in a fast-paced environment with information at their fingertips, our institutions have to create infrastructure for our learning communities that can keep up with the ‘real world’.”

Personalizing the platform is also important, she emphasized, since, rather than “box up a brick-and-mortar experience and try to duplicate it online, we have examined the important principles of a brick-and-mortar experience (social connection, interactivity with the curriculum, exploration of self, and more) and created opportunities for students to engage in those experiences with technology.”

Oliver revealed that both WSU’s “on campus” and online communities are “thriving” and have high retention and graduation rates—greater than or equal to 98 percent.

For the future, Oliver speculates that learning communities will be informal, “like the days where students would see their faculty member or a leader of the institution at the corner bar and engage in discourse and invention in a casual environment; think back to napkin strategy meetings.”

“In the future generation of learning communities,” she continued, “people may not be in a formal Learning Management System (LMS), but in a social environment that they use in work and life to engage and learn, create and collaborate.”

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.