Setting the Building Blocks for an Online Learning Community in the Form of a Student Organization

Now at the end of my instructional design course, I have no excuses. I really need to get serious about my blog, especially considering the full-time course load that I will be adding to my work schedule in a few weeks. *smacks forehead* Oy, what am I thinking? I currently have at least ten ideas for the next article rolling around in my head, but since I have promised speedy production on a few of them, I really need to get to it! No time like the present, eh?

I am very fortunate and grateful for the many opportunities that I have been given in my 40 years. My mom used to love to say that I have a tendency to step in sh*t and come out smelling like a rose. Now there’s a saying for you!  Then again, that could explain my tiny obsession with expensive fragrances. Perhaps a bit of self-reflection is needed.

Anyway, maybe I used to be lucky or somebody was just watching out for me, but these days I make good judgment a habit. Well, I try, anyway. Not to get too new age on you, but I believe that wonderful things can happen when we remain open to new experiences and opportunities. Just the other day, I found myself telling a friend and colleague on Google+ how things happen for a reason, IF we just let them. Letting go of control, on the other hand, can often be easier said than done. I would use my current insecurities in transitioning to a new career as an example, but that is a whole other article, I fear.

So, once upon a time or two, I got an e-mail. The first – Did I want to participate in an advisory council tasked with designing and implementing a year-long program to benefit adult learners? The second – Was I interested in developing an online psychology club for undergraduate students? These opportunities – and being open to fully immersing myself in them – changed more than just my academic direction! The rest is sort of history, which explains why I am earnestly seeking a new gig!

Those emails arrived back in 2008 and 2009, but every so often, I will receive an inquiry from another student, staff, or faculty member via email or facebook asking how they can start their own student organization/online learning community. Some inquiries have come from adults studying at a distance from their institutions, but a few of them have come from traditional residential students. A few of those students have persisted and now lead thriving communities of engaged learners (and faculty, hopefully)! Woo Hoo!!

In future articles, I will elaborate on participation in such an organization, based on my own experiences and two years of surveying members. Of course, since I am a graduate student, there will also be discussions of the published research on scholarly communities, community building, learner engagement, student support, student success factors, and the like. For now, though, let’s talk about the basic steps for setting the building blocks of your own student community, whether online or on-campus.

My guess is that student organizations of some type already exist at your institution. Maybe they are typically concentrated on campus and you want to build an online organization. Maybe the activities are all conducted during the day and you are a night student because you work during the day. Maybe you just have not located the necessary student activities resources. Maybe you are just looking for some help in anticipating and overcoming challenges. Well, you have come to the right place!

The first question is whether or not there are other students like you. Not only will you need students to populate your organization, but research shows that the most successful online learning communities unite participants by way of a common interest or goal. (To read more on this, search out Palloff and Pratt among others.) Are you reaching out to adult students, commuter students, psychology students, students interested in politics, yadda, yadda? Hopefully you see where I am going with that. Using an existing group such as undergraduates pursuing psychology degrees, for example, provides you with both a potential population and a potential mission! Two birds with one stone and all that!

If you have located a group of interested participants, it is likely that your next step will be to locate an enthusiastic and committed faculty or staff adviser. Sadly, I have seen this step become an insurmountable obstacle for several potential organizations. All I can say here is that it never hurts to ask. Seriously. In my experience, faculty members have almost always been open to involvement when asked, especially when presented with a well thought out plan. Still, being an adviser is a time commitment that many faculty members cannot afford, so please understand the sacrifices that they are already forced to make.

If you have not already procured a meeting space, whether local or virtual, you will want to do that. Find ways to connect with prospective members and get the word out, because the next step will be taking care of the formalities.

Does your institution have a Student Activities office? If so, they may have guidelines and application materials already available online. Assemble a core group of volunteers to read these materials and establish a meeting schedule. Next, create a timeline for the tasks ahead of you based on a review of the materials. Remember to work cooperatively, gather support along the way, and delegate responsibilities wherever you can. (An authentic organization, after all, ought to be a reflection of the group and not any one individual.) This may be as simple as completing an application or as complex as starting from square one, if your institution has never before had an organization like you are proposing. Be prepared to plan a strategy for assembling a constitution and electing officers.

Now you are ready to plan your first year of activities, whether you have successfully met your institution’s requirements for formally establishing a student organization or not. If you have hit some kind of red tape roadblock, articulating – and later demonstrating – that you are a cohesive group which can and will positively contribute to your institution and to your future profession may get you far. Do not wait to do great things. Do the great things in spite of the roadblock. If you keep at it steadily, you will eventually break through or find a way around it. Stay motivated and be persistent.

I seem to have been pretty wordy here, so look for another installment that covers navigating the political landscape for pioneers and innovators, as well as sustainability and the stages of an organization.

One last thought for now…

Never underestimate the value of  enthusiasm and a :)

Comments are closed.