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By Helen Driver
Faculty Member, School of Arts and Humanities, American Public University
It is important for online students to establish social connections because isolation and loneliness can have a negative effect on their physical and mental health. There are some educators and social scientists who believe that online education can exacerbate feelings of loneliness because studying remotely eliminates face-to-face communication. But finding these interpersonal connections can be difficult, even with today’s social media and technological advances.
Many students choose to attend an online university because of the convenience and cost. However, some of them worry about the loneliness and distance they might feel by not being in an actual classroom with other students.
Establishing actual peer-to-peer connections while attending an online university might seem tricky at first. However, there are some solutions that can help you to feel more connected to the university and to your fellow students.
Vary Your Study Environment
First, try studying in different locations, not just at home. By working on class assignments in a location other than your usual surroundings, you can eliminate distractions such as your refrigerator, social media and television.
As Nicholas Bloom and a colleague reported in the Harvard Business Review, employees who work from home rather than in their usual office setting are more energized and productive. “[W]e found that people working from home completed 13.5% more calls than the staff in the office did,” Bloom said, citing a travel agency call center.
For example, your best studying might be done at a local college cafeteria, a coffee shop or a library — all places where people congregate. It’s easy to procrastinate when you study at home alone, but when you’re around other people, you will be less likely to check your social media accounts or to watch television.
Interacting with people in public locations can be equally helpful. Sometimes just saying hello, ordering a coffee or helping someone who is looking for a particular section in the library creates a human connection that is missing when you’re studying by yourself. Even the smallest of interactions can help you feel connected to others and to your studies.
Establish Meaningful Connections with Your Classmates
Create connections with your online peers in discussion forums. These forums are often the primary means of communication in the virtual classroom. You can make true connections in these forums, especially if you carefully read what your classmates write and respond to their posts in a meaningful way.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to your classmates through these forums; they have been created just for this sort of give-and-take communication. Developing online connections with your classmates within the forums can help you better understand the course material and establish true friendships that could continue throughout your college experience.
Connect with Your Instructor
Connect with your instructors by posting thoughtful responses to their comments within the classroom forums. Also, if you find something confusing about the course, the syllabus or the assignments, you can ask your instructor by sending a message in the classroom.
Often, your instructor will get back to you within 24 hours. Sometimes just seeing a personalized response can help alleviate isolation and loneliness.
Participate in University Online Events to Combat Loneliness
Also, take advantage of your university’s asynchronous “real-time” events. They are another way to help you feel less isolated. For example, APU periodically holds virtual organizational fairs, when students can chat with student leaders. Job fairs give students the opportunity to connect with career coaches.
In addition, APU hosts asynchronous “Lunch and Learn” workshops to enhance students’ educational experiences. These online events not only can improve your resume; they allow you to connect with others who also know what it is like to be an online learner.
Consider Joining a Student Group to Meet People who Share Your Interests
Finally, consider joining a student organization that aligns with your interests or career goals. Not only can these organizations help you to build your resume, but many of them hold online meetings that will give you the opportunity to meet peers who share your interests.
Personal interactions in online classes aren’t impossible, but you must make the effort to connect. By forming these connections with other students in online environments, you will make your university experience more meaningful.
About the Author
Helen Beth Driver is a faculty member and English instructor of the School of Arts and Humanities at APU. She teaches courses in writing and literature, ranging from English Composition to Mythology and World Literature. Prior to joining APU, Helen taught at various colleges in New York state, including Saint Thomas Aquinas, Mount Saint Mary, and Cayuga Community College. She also has experience working as an English Writing Lab Instructor for developmental and advanced students.
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