Building an Engaging Online Students’ Union

There’s barely an SU strategy in the UK that doesn’t mention “digital”. Thus far our collaborative efforts in this space have almost exclusively centered on social media and comms/marketing, and NUS Digital. Over in the US there’s all sorts of other things happening. In this article Helena Iaquinta and Tiffany Fifer descrive the developments.

For generations, student unions in the US have been considered the “heart” or “living room” of campus, the place most students go to relax and enjoy downtime. Unions function as service centers and gathering places that support students, and they also provide an intentional involvement experience by housing programs, events, and student organizations. But how does this all translate in a virtual setting as more students pursue a degree online or take virtual classes? Southern New Hampshire University has embraced a new model—a virtual student union—and it is proving to be successful.

10FeaturesOfferings(1)Background
During the 2012–13 academic year, Southern New Hampshire University’s College of Online and Continuing Education had a growing online student population and began considering how to keep these students engaged outside of the online classroom. What would happen if an online student union provided students with a place to socialize and network beyond the rubrics and assignments? Would they want it or use it? An initial pilot phase with an online community platform showed interest and adoption among a small group of students. Around the same time, Southern New Hampshire University’s Office of Student Involvement began receiving dozens of requests from online students who were seeking ways to get involved. Through the student portal, they could view campus club and event offerings and inquired about ways that they could participate in person or remotely. Under the campus structure, however, there were limited opportunities.

The turning point came in 2014, when Southern New Hampshire University enhanced the online student union tool by adding purposeful engagement and leadership opportunities through an online student engagement team. This team serves the online student body exclusively through a private online community: SNHUconnect. By the end of its second year, the online student union saw a 160% increase in daily engaged users, a 224% increase in overall activity, as well as a spike in club and learning community dialogue (17% and 79% respectively). Students were networking, supporting each other’s learning, and beginning true college friendships. It had become a virtual union facility and activities office for online students.

A Virtual Facility
SNHUconnect allows students to meet not only peers in their enrolled classes, but also students across classes and curriculum, similar to walking through a student union on campus. The building blocks of student engagement in SNHUconnect were based lightly upon Tom Kriegelstein’s Dance Floor Theory: encouraging students to introduce themselves; connecting students to one another; supporting the introduction of small, relevant groups; and then quietly getting out of the way.

Learning communities now prompt students to engage with professors about course-related topics, lounges foster further exploration of programs, and online clubs and honor societies allow students to express themselves and meet others with similar interests. Current university data reveal that more than 18,000 active students have begun conversing in the community since inception. That represents about 25% of the entire online student population. Learning communities and clubs alone attract the engagement of about 7% of the overall online student population. Monthly active usage continues to grow as students participate in social, academic, and cocurricular discussions (see monthly active users chart). Feedback from students indicates the online community adds value and enriches the experience, giving opportunities to students who otherwise would not have the chance to meet or get involved in college activities.

A 2004 Journal of College Student Development study, “Academic and Cocurricular Involvement,” proved that the correlation between academic and cocurricular involvement is positive and linear. Student involvement in both academic and cocurricular activities maximizes cognitive and affective growth. In 2014, New Directions for Student Services described student success as occurring through positive, meaningful engagement of students in the cocurriculum by providing leadership programs, student employment opportunities, college union governance, student organization leadership positions, and community volunteering experiences. For online students, this type of facilitation requires the ability to meet students where they are and provide amenities that support community building, such as faculty interaction, library access, technology assistance, writing resources, peer support, career assistance, and opportunities to join clubs and honor societies.

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Providing Governance and Leadership Programs
To foster an environment that benefits students, Southern New Hampshire University’s College of Online and Continuing Education has established a Student Advisory Board to work in tandem with the administration. These types of student-centered leadership positions give students the chance to express themselves and serve as a voice for others. Southern New Hampshire University’s advisory board is a group of 12-15 undergraduate and graduate students who have the opportunity to improve student experience, listen to student feedback, inform change, raise awareness within the student body, and increase student engagement. Students work within subcommittees, have their own staff advisor, and can attend an annual meeting on Southern New Hampshire University’s main campus in Manchester. The advisory board provides students with a voice but does not have policy-making power. Feedback from students shows an increased understanding of the behind-the-scenes work within the College of Online and Continuing Education, and boasts positive interactions with faculty, staff, and other students. Students have monthly meetings with the full board and subcommittees and participate in leadership training throughout their term. Student Advisory Board members have open town halls via webinar and online community format for students to voice their questions, comments, and concerns, while working diligently to bring these topics to the appropriate administrators to find solutions.

Another organizational leadership program, titled Peer Leaders, similar to traditional orientation leaders, has an active role within the online community, welcoming new students, helping with acclimation to the platform, and encouraging new students to get involved. This program provides peer-to-peer support because it is crucial for new and current students to feel supported, receive guidance, and create social connections. Peer Leaders are available to answer questions, give course and faculty recommendations, and encourage students along their academic journey. To become a Peer Leader, requirements include completion of at least 15 credits within the institution and a 3.5 cumulative grade point average. This encourages students to get acclimated to the environment, find a routine with their schoolwork, and show mastery in their field of study. Peer Leaders are constantly finding positive ways to influence the student experience and recently started a monthly newscast with Peer Leaders as anchors. The main premise is to update online students about athletic games, upcoming events, deadlines, hot topics, and bring the on-campus and online spheres together. This endeavor is completely student-initiated and gaining traction.

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Programming
Southern New Hampshire University offers virtual students engagement opportunities not only within the bounds of the online student union. The execution of various pop-up student union events around the United States has shown success and deepened connections for many online students. These regional events are staff-driven collaborations between university departments to help students meet one another along with faculty, staff, and alumni from the SNHU community. Events have included facilitated breakfast discussions, service projects, leadership conferences, student panels, motivational speakers, networking receptions, and family picnics, to name a few.

Student-led initiatives are being explored to include club member events and regional community gatherings. Online students who live near the main campus or wish to travel are also encouraged to participate in university traditions such as homecoming, athletic games, and commencement. Additionally, any event the university sponsors that can be translated to the online community has the potential of being live streamed or recorded for later viewing. Giving online students the ability to participate remotely is ideal as it adds to their feeling of inclusion and deepens their engagement with the university.

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Online Student Organizations
With no real online prototype to follow, Southern New Hampshire University also recognized the need to officially create and organize student clubs. New online clubs now have a clearly outlined process to follow to become part of the online community. Working closely with internal colleagues in the Office of Student Involvement, registrar, and student affairs department, an online club operations guide was established to outline the path to official university recognition. Similar to how student activity departments operate, groups submit an application, constitution, roster, signed advisor contract, engagement plan, and proposed budget. A review team consisting of staff from the online student engagement team, campus student involvement office, and Student Advisory Board subcommittee review applications monthly to grant university recognition. The purpose of the group, what they will bring to the student body, and how they will complement the mission of Southern New Hampshire University are closely examined. Groups granted recognition are given privileges that include a group email address, the ability to post events on the university student calendar, an online meeting space/software, and a club advisor and cabinet leadership training. Currently there are three educational clubs: Psychology Club, Communications Club, and Creative Writing Review. In addition, there are five social clubs: Outdoor Club, Videogame Development/Design, Book Club, LGBT+ LEAGUE, and Nerds Unite.

Engagement opportunities are highly emphasized within the operations guidelines as to how clubs interact with members and the student body as a whole. Clubs are encouraged to have weekly/monthly interactions with the general membership and offer larger-scale events at least 3-5 times per year. Among these events may be webinars with special guests, regional meet-ups, photo contests, service opportunities, and cosponsored programs with other clubs or departments. An allocation process is in place through which clubs can request funding for events that benefit the online student body. Currently, there is no student activities fee, and funding is supplemented by honor society and departmental cosponsorships. The types of events groups are cosponsoring include: homecoming meet-ups, leadership conferences, Relay for Life, and sporting events. By partnering with academic departments or alumni, career, and student involvement offices, online clubs are able to get the support they need to manage these events.

To complement and support high-performing students, certain honor societies were designated for College of Online and Continuing Education students. The number of national honor societies that work with purely online students is small, and many factors need to be considered when choosing which relationships to foster. These relationships are forged between the honor society’s national office and the university with the key intent of providing meaningful online engagement for student members, beyond simply paying the membership dues. Securing motivated faculty and staff advisors is necessary to promote scholarships, conferences, facilitate conversations, and encourage civic engagement. A selective process emphasizes the goal of offering organizations that foster growth and development for online students with some being major-specific and others being more broadly focused on leadership.

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Cocurricular Transcripts and Career Opportunities
Student involvement in online clubs, honor societies, the Student Advisory Board, or Peer Leader positions are all tracked on a student’s cocurricular transcript. This official documentation was developed in collaboration with the Office of Student Involvement and registrar as a way to verify active involvement in student organizations. As current student Danielle Hickey stated, “My favorite takeaway from today’s Online Student Involvement webinar: cocurricular transcripts! The university takes note of your involvement in student clubs, organizations, and honor societies and compiles them just like your academic transcript to show your involvement! An official document that describes your university involvement level and leadership experience? Yes, please!”

The 2010 Research in Higher Education study, “Initial Evidence on the Influence of College Student Engagement on Early Career Earnings,” indicated that undergraduate students’ involvement in cocurricular activities leads to greater initial earning power in the labor market upon graduation and personal development of critical thinking and relational skills. That is why each student is assigned a career advisor who is knowledgeable about the student’s industry and major and who can help them highlight their unique qualities to propel career advancement. As an online student, it can be daunting wondering if a degree will be applicable to the type of job they are seeking. Having the ability to be coached on how to interview well, attend career webinars, and get tips to make their resumes stand out can be the added advantage in this competitive job market. Now, students can add a cocurricular transcript as a portfolio artifact and speak directly with employers about knowledge and skills gained through involvement.

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Campus-Based College Unions
While Southern New Hampshire University has a sizable online population, a virtual college experience is becoming a reality for many students everywhere. Union and activities professionals have to consider how they navigate the transition and equip themselves with the skills to serve this changing demographic. The staff at SNHUconnect has found a way to straddle these two worlds: student affairs and information technology. As one SNHU student said, “My student experience started a little over a year ago. This was my first attempt at an online school so everything was very new and foreign to me. I started with an amazing advisor who became my own personal cheerleader, which gave me the confidence to connect with other students and really make this online college experience more fulfilling. Once I went online to SNHUconnect and introduced myself, I immediately became more connected to my purpose at this school and really felt part of a team. I’ve had questions answered, problems solved, and have been directed to many additional resources that SNHU provides. I have had nothing but an excellent experience.”

Students today demand a robust involvement experience and sleek social networking tools. This requires innovative thinking and collaboration with colleagues who are still emerging in the area of online student engagement. It requires understanding how campus-based union professionals can promote and supplement the union services and activities through technology tools. While the couch a student is sitting on during term breaks or while participating in online courses may not be the one in the union facility, it is important that these students can still feel like they are part of the campus community.

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