The Next Online Challenge: 'Virtualizing' the College Experience

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?
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If you're a college graduate today, you may have cheered at your university's football or basketball games. 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.

At the same time, for-profit online colleges have faced relentless criticism for high dropout rates, and many massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have student attrition of 90 percent.

So could traditional universities attract, retain and graduate more online students by "virtualizing" the services and amenities of their campuses?

We're about to find out. This spring, the Florida Legislature tasked the University of Florida with creating the E-Campus - the new home for fully online four-year undergraduate degree programs.

As faculty build the first academic programs for a January launch, student affairs staff are at work on non-academic offerings.

Their efforts fall into two categories - services for online students such as career advising and mental health counseling, and "college life" offerings such as sports, clubs and student government.

These initiatives are in their infancy, but we've already taken steps to virtualize, for example, orientation. UF requires all freshmen to visit campus for a preview session. For our online freshman arriving in January, a virtual orientation will recreate the experience online, personalized with videos of students, staff and faculty.

We are also making mental health counseling available online.

In a typical year, about 5,000 UF women and men seek help at the UF Counseling & Wellness Center. Seeking to better serve these students and online students, the Center has just launched a therapist-assisted online-treatment program for anxiety. Anxiety is students' most common complaint, but the center also plans online-treatment programs for depression, substance abuse and other conditions.

As for college life more broadly, we're researching a number of options:

Recreation - Our Department of Recreational Sports has launched a social media exercise campaign with equal appeal to online and residential students. And we may produce more web videos featuring student trainers showing peers how to tone at home.

Clubs and activities - The Department of Student Activities and Involvement is poised to help online students join UF's nearly 1,000 clubs, or create new ones, tailored to their unique needs. Students in an online bachelor's program in business have already created the Gator Online Student Association featuring popular discussion forums.

Student government - Student government officers are beginning to ponder how to involve online students - a tricky issue here, and perhaps elsewhere. That's because E-Campus students will not pay fees funding student government, yet they deserve its representation

Alumni and campus traditions - We already hold special gatherings where alumni live; we'll use those events to build relationships with online students and graduates.

It remains to be seen whether bricks-and-mortar universities can recreate a virtualized version of the traditional college community - or even whether online students will even want one.

In working to predict the needs of these students, we are in a similar position as universities before co-education. In those times, mostly male administrators had to figure out how to serve a population of women with which they had little experience as educators. It was easy to foresee the need for more space or women's bathrooms. Such changes as the groundswell of interest in women's sports were less predictable.

Still, we've got to try. Our best approach may be an open mind to what online students actually want - as opposed to what we think they need. The universities most likely to succeed are those who appeal not only to undergraduates' academic ambitions, but also to their social desires - and hope of feeling a sense of belonging to their institution.

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