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Monday, October 17, 2016

Private Online Communities: Why Your Students, Staff, and Faculty Will Thank You

As more and more Students opt for the flexibility afforded via alternative schedules, night & part-time enrollment, and through commuting and online courses, there are fewer opportunities to meet and interact with peers face to face.  Yet, we know that satisfaction is highest when Students feel a sense of belonging and identify as part of a community. 

Most institutions utilize public social networks and have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others. These social networks provide dual value. First, they combat concerns of Student isolation by promoting interactions between Students, Staff, and Faculty that might not otherwise happen. Second, these networks are a public-facing representation of the culture and identity of the school.  By providing a face and voice to the public, social networks have become deeply rooted in an institution’s branding and marketing strategy.  
In light of the existence of low-cost or free public social networks, does it make sense for an institution to additionally adopt a Private Online Community?

The answer is: YES!

There are many advantages a Private Online Community has over public networks. Here are just a few.

Advantage #1: Distraction free environment

In public social networks, content is delivered primarily through the personal wall or timeline of the participant. The aggregation of content from varied sources results in a timeline whose content spans personal and professional interests. Family photos, updates from friends, sponsored content, news items and advertisements are interspersed with professional and academic updates and conversations.
While Students can use a public social network – even via a group or hashtag thread – for school collaboration, idea-sharing, and peer-mentoring, a social media timeline will be both ineffective and inefficient.

Unlike public social networks, Private Online Communities allow for content to be organized by themes or topics and stay distraction-free.  Because they are private, they are free of sponsored content and advertisements, unwanted notifications, and the general temptation that is ever-present during time spent on a public social media site. This allows the Student to avoid being drawn into less fruitful activities like looking at friends’ photos or watching funny videos. The time spent in a private, topic-based forum is concentrated on content that is focused on the social or support needs of the Student. The result is that while many Students will spend less time on private networks than they will public ones, their time is far more meaningful and productive. 

A Private Online Community can be a huge relief to Students, Staff, and Faculty users. One of the most common struggles reported by non-traditional Students today is time management. Balancing school with family, work, and other commitments necessitates the Student being extremely efficient with the time they can dedicate to their education.

Advantage #2 Connect to topics, not people

Private Online Communities organize conversations around topics. This structure allows Students, Staff, and Faculty to selectively participate in the discussions they deem to be most interesting and/or valuable. It also eliminates the pre-requisite of friending or following someone, which is a hallmark trait in the most popular public networks.

The Private Online Community provides immediate fulfillment to the Student by connecting them to peers, Staff or Faculty that are relevant to their current needs. As dialogue unfolds around a subject, Students will naturally identify as part of a broader community.

Advantage #3: Segmented messaging

Because users of Private Online Communities self-organize themselves into topic-based conversations aligned to their personal interests, it becomes very easy to target messaging based on a topic, ensuring that shared content is relevant to the group and to each individual member.
In Connected Campus from Education Technology Associates, each topic-based conversation is housed in a channel.  As such, institutions establish a channel for each of their programs of study, each of their student services areas (think Career Services or Financial Aid), each geographical location, etc.  This kind of structural organization supports sharing information with only the Students where the information is relevant. If there is a news article or TED Talk that is valuable for Business majors to review, the Business Majors Channel allows the faculty member(s) to promote the content only to Business Students. If there is a trending news topic surrounding Medical Coding, this can be discussed in the Channel established for Medical Coding Students.

By concentrating discussion topics or announcements to the appropriate Channels, community members avoid the distraction that comes from conversational threads that are not relevant nor interesting.  Not only does this make the Private Online Community less distracting (Advantage #1) but it also results in more efficient use of time on social media.

Advantage #4: Automated membership

While the social media platform(s) of the school are readily accessible, there is no guarantee that all Students, Staff, and Faculty will choose to join/follow or pay attention.  And as new Students come onto campus, they must be informed and encouraged to join the public network.

Private Online Communities can benefit from integrations with existing systems to manage membership. In the case of the Connected Campus Courtyard, integration with the Student Information System (SIS) at the institution ensures that all new Students, Staff, and Faculty are connected to the community and available for private messaging. Upon account creation, Connected Campus capitalizes on the information known about the user to pre-join them to Channels that are relevant to their academic experience. This setup includes channels that are both student-specific and school-wide in order to optimize the interactions with the Student.

Advantage #5: Own your data

As individuals post to social networks they leave a trail of data.  The effort required and built-in complexity of capturing and analyzing data from a public social network quickly becomes untenable. With a Private Online Community, however, the data created by Students, Staff, and Faculty is readily available for analysis. Institutions can realize the significant benefit of gaining a better understanding of the mood of student populations and the engagement level of the individual.
Sentiment analysis tools can be applied to uncover attitudes in order to determine the emotion and outlook of the community.  With the segmented groups that topic-based channels create, the sky is the limit for the data-inclined.  There is an opportunity to measure and evaluate numerous indicators to determine where Students are finding the most positive and satisfying experiences. 

Beyond aggregated sentiment data, social metrics – frequency of posts, trends in usage, and topics – are also valuable in understanding the engagement level and focal areas of the Student.

Trending: #Private Online Communities

With so many advantages, it's understandable why institutions want to offer Private Online Communities to their Students, Staff, and Faculty. Engagement strategies that align with current systems and the needs of students are vital toward attaining institutional retention goals.  Institutions are redefining new ways of communication and collaboration to improve student outcomes.  These strategies lead colleges and universities toward multi-purpose, student-focused solutions, while also helping in the preservation of institutional revenue.

Connected Campus, as an example solution, includes an ideal Private Online Community.  Unlike alternative solutions, such as those found in today's leading LMS platforms, Connected Campus supports dialogue around academic and non-academic topics and is open across all Students, Staff and Faculty.

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