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Fostering Virtual Collaboration for Higher Education Institutions in Today's Digital Learning Environment

By Dennis Bonilla, Executive Dean, College of Information Systems and Technology, School of Business and College of Criminal Justice at University of Phoenix

Dennis Bonilla, Executive Dean, College of Information Systems and Technology, School of Business and College of Criminal Justice at University of Phoenix

Higher education institutions often view collaboration as the joint effort between various departments to realize or achieve a unified goal. Typically, this goal is increased retention or graduation rates. However, the ubiquity of online education has forced academic leaders to consider fostering collaboration amongst often overlooked stakeholders – students and faculty members.

Online education has increased in popularity in recent years, creating the largest population of distance learners in history. According to the Babson Survey Research Group’s “Grade Increase” report, more than 6.3 million students in the U.S. took at least one online course in fall 2016. This growing cohort of online learners is exceptionally diverse with unique needs and challenges from their traditional classroom counterparts.

"As a leader of a virtual team, individuals need to develop strategies for engaging and motivating a dispersed group"

For example, within the online platform, students have the flexibility to study on their schedule, meaning no one is on the same exact schedule, as a result. Online learning often also is a solitary journey, and many students may require internal motivation since the motivation generated by faculty and peers in physical classrooms can be lacking. In turn, this means that students may lack the same comradery and encouragement from limited face-to-face social interaction like they would find when meeting with their peers in person.

Academic leaders understand that collaboration between stakeholders and departments is vital for creating effective higher education institutions, increasing knowledge sharing, connecting people to identify needs that improve operational efficiency, streamline processes and remove duplication. But collaboration looks much different with distance learners, with whom duplication and miscommunication can become a significant issue. Poor collaboration can lead to student dissatisfaction or decreased retention or success.

For online education providers to be successful, leaders and decision-makers must focus on developing processes that bring the successful aspects of the traditional classroom – interpersonal communication, knowledge sharing and instant satisfaction – to the digital classroom. I believe institutions can develop these processes by creating a “water cooler”-type meeting hub that encourages collaboration in a more social setting.

We are conditioned to view the digital classroom similar to the physical space, a place for studying and learning, rather than social interaction. But collaboration can be fostered by developing a social location where students are encouraged to interact with their peers and share ideas, best practices and knowledge.

To determine how to foster effective collaboration within the digital learning environment and create this interactive digital hub, we can incorporate a simple algorithm: Problem + Solution = Results.

• Problem: Students may feel they are embarking on their academic journey alone or may have trouble communicating or engaging in the online classroom institutions do not establish convenient social settings.
• Solution: Create a streamlined, convenient way for students to connect with one another and with faculty. This is the digital “water cooler.”
• Result: Increased communication and knowledge sharing, leading to improved student satisfaction and increased academic success.

To reach this result, University of Phoenix Research Institute and the Institute for the Future identified virtual collaboration as a critical skill needed for the future workforce in 2020, which will become increasingly more reliant on technology and distance communication. We define virtual collaboration as the ability to work productively, drive engagement and demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual team. As a leader of a virtual team, individuals need to develop strategies for engaging and motivating a dispersed group.

The study found that to create effective virtual collaboration, institutions and organizations must create digital environments that promote productivity and wellbeing. Through this concept, social networking sites can serve as virtual water coolers that “provide a sense of camaraderie and enable students to demonstrate presence.”

As a leader in providing online higher education opportunities for working adults, University of Phoenix is an architect of virtual collaboration. In 2017, the University taught a reported 123,900 students, many of which juggle work responsibilities and care for dependents at home while earning a degree. Last year, 65 percent of students were over the age of 30, nearly a quarter was employed and nearly 33 percent had dependents. Pair that with the University’s 11,854 faculty members, many of whom teach online, and you can understand why virtual collaboration is a priority.

To serve this digital population, the University incorporated two strategies to develop a platform designed to increase virtual collaboration. The first was monthly study sessions on the University’s Facebook page. These social engagement events were designed to encourage students to be proactive in completing their homework on weekends or during times when they are more prone to procrastination.

Throughout the session, University of Phoenix staff and faculty members will post words of encouragement, study tips and provide support to students within the event. Topics and conversations include time management, study techniques and building a peer support network. Study session participants range from prospective students trying to understand student life to current students looking for study support and alumni offering wisdom and encouragement. The first study session was held in December 2016 and included 417 attendees. The sessions have been hosted monthly since, with roughly 1,200 to 2,000 students, on average, attending each month.

The second initiative is the University’s social network, PhoenixConnect. This social engagement platform features more than 800,000 students, alumni, faculty members and staff. Through PhoenixConnect, students can receive advice from faculty members and enjoy a true sense of community customized to their area of study, personal interests and career goals. Within PhoenixConnect, University of Phoenix provides more than 30 learning and support communities that students can join to engage with faculty members and students who can help you apply course knowledge to real-world situations.

While the combined work of all stakeholders determines much of the success of an institution, leaders must remember that, while students are our clients and our audience, they also are stakeholders in their education. As we look to enhanced educational offerings for distance learners, we must look at how we can foster improved collaboration between students and between students and staff.

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