Cracking the social cocoon: Students online and on campus

Two groups of colleges students standing outside talking

How many degrees are you from Kevin Bacon? I know, the game really only goes for celebrities – see if you can beat my one degree for Billy Crystal. But then, take the Footloose actor out of it and try it at your school. How many degrees of separation are between you and the English chair or the valedictorian or that sophomore who just got bad news about her grandma.

We have definitive proof that humans need connection to others. It’s not only obvious to most people, but guys like Matthew Lieberman, the neuroscientist who has evidence of a “social brain” showed what happens if we experience a lack of socialness… pain. Like real pain. The brain doesn’t distinguish between hitting our thumb with a hammer, being ostracized, or feeling alone.

So, an important question is begged. How is your school handling social experiences? How are you intentionally, purposefully creating experiences for students that promote positive, reinforcing socialness?

Maybe you are through the allowance of student clubs and groups. Maybe you host events here and there – bingo, speaker series, ultimate frisbee tournaments, which are great things for those who participate. All great things for students who aren’t online students. All great things for students who are outgoing or extraverts.

But what about the others? How have you tapped into the social world of the students who are at a distance or, by virtue of personality or life context, who simply try to keep their distance?

College students standing in a hallway talkingAfter traveling the globe for years and genuinely looking for tools and solutions to this very issue, I have to say I haven’t seen many attempts, let alone answers. Typically, it seems schools put all of their effort into student services for face-to-face experiences, but rarely for students online. Also atypical are social events promoted for nontraditional, off-campus, online, or on-campus-but-shy students. It’s just a nut that I haven’t seen cracked. We’re trying to change that at Saint Leo University. We’re about to stitch together a pretty remarkable learning system that includes a few different social components. Partially based on profiles to generate “hooks” by which to connect, we’ll try to connect our students as learners, but also as people. See, in our estimation we should try to provide a safe, social opportunity for at least three experiences:

  1. Academic Socialness: I’m in algebra and struggling. I should be able to reach out for help socially. Yes, that may mean my instructor. It may also include a classmate. And it could mean a tutoring service. But why can’t it also mean someone at our school who has a profile description saying they like algebra or that they like talking math? Perhaps an upper classman who has been there or a peer from 1,000 miles away.

  2. Organizational Socialness: I have a question about my student government. I want to see their page to get some info and I want to ask a question. Whether it’s real time or asynchronous, I want to be able to communicate with that group.

  3. Personal Socialness: I just had a hilarious experience happen to me and I want my university community to know it. I want to add a selfie or tie to a Twitter post with a cartoon.

We believe that these experiences should be capable of happening anywhere. Think of your learning system like a house. After someone comes in the front door and they’re in the foyer (or mudroom or entryway, etc) they want to chit chat. They want to get to know you and scope the layout. Can they?

Then, people may move into a formal space to talk or discuss – perhaps a living room. This is probably checked off already as your students can talk formally through their online class sections, all day long.

But beyond that, where do people typically end up? Where do the HGTV shows tell you that the social hub of the house is? It’s the kitchen. That is where people congregate. They may talk about stuff from the living room as well as insights they first shared in the foyer, but they’re likely to look for meaningful conversations and the deepest connections there. They’ll want to laugh, share, and maybe even help while they grab a drink from the fridge and try your guacamole.

So, what should the school’s online kitchen look like? Should it look like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or none of these? Should you build your own social experience or tie into an existing one? The jury is out. People have tried all of these and failed. But maybe it’s not as much about the look and feel as it is about usage. Maybe if we tie a social experience to the academic experience and interconnect organizational experiences, then we’ll get a lot more adoption, buy in, and ultimately, we’ll connect our students online meaningfully. Maybe our kitchens, living rooms, and foyers will be filled with introverts and extroverts alike. Maybe you’ll see that kid from your history class who never comes to any events. Maybe you’ll get to know a mom, half a world away while you sip on your soda.

We need connection. We need people. We need socialness. How are you being intentional about creating a meaningful social experience for your students?

Oh, by the way, Billy Crystal was in Monster’s Inc with John Goodman who was in Death Sentence with Kevin Bacon. How many degrees are you from the freshman at your school who is from another country? How many different systems do you have to use to get to the student government homepage? Why not find out?

Good luck and good learning to all.


Dr. Jeff D Borden
Chief Innovation Officer
Saint Leo University

About the Author
Dr. Jeff Borden

Dr. Jeff Borden

Dr. Jeff Borden (@bordenj), Saint Leo University’s Chief Innovation Officer, is a consultant, speaker, professor, comedian, and trainer, all while creating an incubator of innovation learning at SLU. Having continuously taught for 20 years as well as consulted, trained, and presented ways by which to transform education at scale, Jeff has assisted faculty, administrators, executives, and even politicians in conceptualizing and designing eLearning programs globally. Jeff has testified before the U.S. Congress’ Education Committee, blogs for Innovations, provides global keynote addresses, publishes in both Education and Communication periodicals, and has been asked to transform teaching and learning, at scale, for Saint Leo.  Jeff is also a regular contributor to the Teaching & Learning blog.

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