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Students online but not isolated

This was originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

How does an online education provider go about creating the social links between students that aid their study habits and support them through the rigours of their course?

Answer: Start a social network.

That’s what Swinburne University’s online arm has done to give its more than 5000 students the ability to connect with one another and build the links traditionally created between students in face-to-face ­university study.

Launched in September this year, Swinburne Online’s new Connect feature lets students comment, set up groups, and exchange information about in a manner similar to a social network such as Facebook.

Students can use it to find other students doing the same course, living in the same locality, or having common interests.

“I can’t wait to chat with some people in the course and get started,” says one student in a typical post as her course is about to begin.

Groups are being set up by students, typically around courses or geographic locations, but one student-initiated group is for pregnant mums or mums with newborns.

It’s been established to give support to mothers who are studying and who want to be in contact with others in the same situation.

Academic dean Kay Lipson says that Swinburne Online, established three years ago as a joint venture with online job search company SEEK, has always known it needed to create an online social space.

Many students used Facebook to connect with one another, but the problem was that many of ­Swinburne Online’s students are mature-age people with jobs and ­families who are not customary Facebook users.

“Facebook was not a natural place for them to go; the majority didn’t use Facebook,” Professor Lipson said.

In contrast, students link to Connect from Swinburne Online’s student portal and, in the two months it’s been operating, about half of its students have set up a profile.

Students are still also using Facebook and Facebook groups for individual courses will continue to be supported by Swinburne Online, although it is hoped students will migrate to Connect, which is still being developed. Connect’s most recent feature, private messaging, was launched last week.

Professor Lipson said that, contrary to many people’s expectations, online students say they do feel connected with their educational institution, as reported by student evaluation questionnaires.

She said that because many students studying face to face had part-time jobs and were supporting themselves, they didn’t develop on-campus networks.

“For a lot of students in the big universities, many go on campus and off campus and don’t speak to anybody,” she said.

“But when you are an online student you are a person from day one.”