When Dave Numme started his online MBA at Southern New Hampshire University, he wanted his education to focus on more than courses and grades.
“Obviously the academics are highly important, but at the same time, I found it challenging to form more personal relationships” outside of class, says the 43-year-old, who finished the program in February and now works full time at SNHU as an associate dean of graduate faculty in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math.
Numme joined several virtual groups hosted through SNHUconnect, the school’s online student center, including a peer leader program and a student advisory board.
[Discover how to join a virtual club as an online student.]
SNHU isn’t the only online program offering student organizations outside of class. Experts say extracurriculars allow online students to a do what they would be able to on campus: build a sense of community, pursue interests and build leadership skills.
“Their first thought may not be, ‘How can I get engaged with my peers?’ But I definitely encourage students to take the time to think about that. A strong collegiate experience should be full of something more than just your relationship with your professor and what you’re learning in class,” says Ashley Adams, director of student affairs at Pennsylvania State University—World Campus. The university’s online arm has student groups ranging from honor societies to ones connected to certain majors, such as the economics club.
Prospective online students considering joining extracurricular activities should answer the following five questions when researching programs.
1. Are activities geared toward online students in particular? Prospective online students should start by researching what clubs are available, experts say.
“When you’re on campus, you may walk through the student union, and there’s posters or flyers about clubs and organizations,” Adams says. But learning about student groups is more challenging for online learners, she says, though they can usually find information on a program’s website or from admissions officers, faculty or school officials.
[Learn tips to interact successfully with professors and students in online classes.]
SNHU, which has both online and on-ground degree programs, has 19 online student groups, says Tiffany Fifer, the school’s director of online engagement. Among them are the outdoors club – which teaches members about nature – and a book club.
2. How do members communicate? “I think they should ask, do you have the opportunity to interact without being on the physical campus?” Fifer says.
At the for-profit Kaplan University, which has more than 30 clubs, mostly made up of online students, members mainly talk through Facebook and Adobe Connect videoconferencing software, says David Starnes, the school’s chief academic officer.
Those methods of communication, along with email, are common in online program student organizations across schools, experts say.
Experts say understanding how groups communicate can help reassure members that they will build meaningful relationships and determine whether they’ll be able to catch up on their own time if they miss a meeting.
“It’s really nice to have these various technological tools to record a meeting, post a meeting and then when someone has the time, they can access it,” says Fitzroy Lewis, a Penn State—World Campus online bachelor’s student who helped form the school’s Active Minds chapter dedicated to spreading mental health awareness.
3. Will the time commitment fit into your schedule? Many online students juggle their education with jobs and family obligations, experts say. These students in particular need to find out how much time to set aside for clubs.
[Explore four time management tips from online students.]
Adams, of Penn State, suggests prospective students figure out whether club leaders have to devote more time than members would. They should understand whether clubs meet at specific times or only as needed.
4. How might joining a club enhance your online learning? Online students are generally pretty busy outside of class, so they should make sure extracurriculars are worth their time, experts say.
Online learners, experts say, might pursue extracurriculars for similar reasons as on-ground students – to connect with peers, dive deeper into subjects of interest or network.
“Part of creating a professional network is about spending some time investing in relationships and getting to know people in different ways outside of classes,” says Dana Grossman Leeman, associate dean for online and continuing education and program director at [email protected], the online master’s in social work program at Simmons College.
5. Are clubs recognized by the university? Online students should confirm that the clubs they want to join are legitimate – or approved by the online program – or look into ways to start their own, says Fifer from SNHU. At SNHU, virtual clubs must have a constitution with concrete goals, specific activities and at least 11 members.
“It’s that value added for a student that really ties them much closer to their institution, and it provides them with a lot more value to their experience,” Fifer says.