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Reimagining Your Campus Communities in Digital Spaces

graphic with a blue background made up of circles and text that reads reimagining your campus communities in digital spaces and has a small icon of a laptop with a heart on the screen.

As social distancing continues to impact the way we think about student engagement in colleges and universities, I’m seeing a nominally different reality emerge in online spaces across the landscape of higher education.

My webinar, “Building Online Community for College Students” brought together staff and administrators from all over the world to discuss how online communities can get students, faculty, staff, and administrators through the age of COVID-19. I see how a larger ecosystem can support students—one that keeps them not socially distant, but rather highly connected—and what these ecosystems need to be able to sustain the lives of the students they house.

An Active Transformation Into Digital Student Engagement

When we think about “digital student engagement,” we’re referring to the ways that we help students build capacity, community, and belonging using the features of digital spaces. Be it a social media platform, a learning management system, a team communication hub, or a virtual meeting space, these online settings have the power to be not just useful, but transformative. Because what happens is real – not virtual or less than.

Perhaps these aren’t the spaces that theorists like Alexander Astin, Vincent Tinto, or Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini saw these milestone moments taking place. But necessity has been, for us all, the mother of invention and transformation. To borrow a phrase from Pascarella and Terenzini themselves,

Interaction with peers is probably the most pervasive and powerful force in student persistence and degree completion.

(2005, p.615)

Whether we’re on campus or the bandwidth of online spaces, this remains our charge. Which means we must be fueled by questions like “how can we encourage these interactions in digital form?”, or “how can we make these interactions powerful, meaningful, impactful?” As a person who likes to think from a lens of positivity and possibility, I believe the creation of robust and thoughtfully supported online communities can get us there.

Transformation is an important term here, in no small part thanks to the work of EDUCAUSE and their principle of digital transformation. I wrote about this concept in a broader post about student engagement, but want to briefly touch on what it can mean for the development of an online community.

According to EDUCAUSE, digital transformation

is a series of deep and coordinated culture, workforce, and technology shifts that enable new educational and operating models and transform an institution’s operations, strategic directions, and value proposition.

Digital transformation, along with heavier reliance on online tools, is framed as a way to make our work faster and more efficient. But EDUCAUSE’s view of digital transformation cares more deeply about the human side than we might think at first. As they see it, “[e]mbracing digital transformation is about building on the core values of higher education and developing new and significantly more effective ways to enrich and expand higher education’s mission.”

This part matters; in moving online, it shouldn’t be done to satisfy a requirement or to stake a claim on a digital domain. When we set up shop online, we should do so with the same care as an in-person space. We must create community.

graphic with text that reads what are digital communities?

What are digital communities?

Crafting digital communities means creating spaces that engage students in meaningful ways- aligning our digitally based work with the mission, vision, and values of our organizations, using technology not just as a substitute but as a fortifier for the college experience.

These sorts of communities can start and grow on platforms with structured groups like Facebook or LinkedIn, across hashtags on platforms like Twitter or Instagram, in the comments sections of platforms like YouTube, Discord, or Twitch. As the variety of options just mentioned will hopefully demonstrate, you have a number of options, which I’ll share more at the end of this piece. While it’s tempting, don’t immediately adopt platforms. You must begin with purpose.

In considering which platform makes the most sense for your community, it may be worth considering the motivation that you anticipate your members coming to the group with. I’ll share three examples below, each informed by a theory from sociology to explain why online communities work.

Spaces to find mutual benefit

First, the reciprocation theory states that “a successful online community must provide its users with benefits that compensate for the costs of time, effort and materials members provide. People often join these communities expecting some sort of reward.”

My colleague Amma Marfo founded a group based on this principle in 2014, called the Summer Virtual Connection Circle. The idea was borne from the Humax Corporation’s “Reciprocity Ring” concept, where members join with the expectation of offering help to other members and at some point also asking for help from members. Six years after its founding, it boasts over 400 members, lively conversations about careers and friendships, and a strong atmosphere of support. Amma keeps members active through weekly prompts, the occasional convening of online and offline events, and encouraging members to make “big asks” of the community each summer.

Women who get the most out of their time in the group are just as likely to kick off a post with “I need help!,” as they are to drop a supportive or excited GIF in response to someone’s celebratory message. The reciprocation theory could work for the online community you’re envisioning if you anticipate it being a space designed for community members to be able to help one another out.

Spaces to find and make consistent contributions

Next, the consistency theory says “once people make a public commitment to a virtual society, they will often feel obligated to stay consistent with their commitment by continuing contributions.” An example of community that has developed through a hashtag (that feels especially necessary at the moment) is #ReignyDayJobs. The former was developed to offer a day of the week where employers in search of good candidates could post jobs to Twitter so prospective hires could see them. #ReignyDayJobs is the creation of culture commentator April Reign, who many may know from the #OscarsSoWhite campaign she founded on Twitter in 2015.

While that hashtag was designed to call out a negative behavior (continued erasure of outstanding work in film from professionals of color), #ReignyDayJobs was meant to draw positive attention to jobs that needed applicants of color. The hashtag boasts a reach of 80,000 people, and it features both employers sharing jobs that they’d like to see filled, and applicants who want to make their skills known.

Community has built around the hashtag; it’s always nice to see jobs pop up in the feed accompanied by the #ReignyDayJobs hashtag because you know that they want to see people work, and want to see workplaces diversify meaningfully in the process. This group motivation works if you’d like people to stay engaged to fulfill a goal or meet a specific purpose.

Places to find social validation

And third, the social validation theory explores “how people are more likely to join and participate in an online community if it is socially acceptable and popular.” A fascinating example of this type of online community has emerged for what, in many ways, is actually a “one-way” communication channel: podcasts. Fandoms like Murderinos (for the Karen Kilgariff/Georgia Hardstack podcast My Favorite Murder), Baby Nation (for the Baby-Sitters Club book series recap podcast The Baby-Sitters Club Club), and Degens (for the Canadian TV show Letterkenny and its associated podcast How’re Ya Now?) have filled that gap that one often feels when listening to a podcast, by creating communities on Facebook and Reddit, or engaging in conversations via Twitter and Instagram.

As these shows go on in length, loyal fans can find each other and find community-based on additional interests or needs- as an example, the Letterkenny group recently completed a highly successful fundraiser for a member undergoing treatment for cancer…fueled by a quote and ethos from the show – “when a friend asks for help, you help ‘em.” In addition to being the type of community many of us are likely being charged to build, it bridges a type of social distance by design—which could be profoundly instructive for many of us as we seek to build communities that do the same.

graphic with text that reads finding purpose to drive your digital community

Finding Purpose to Drive Your Digital Community

With these three theories laid out, I want to point out that the three are grounded in a sense of care from the others in the community, and from themselves to be (or be seen as) strong contributors to such a space.

To find that care and to truly let it shine through in all the services you provide, there are questions you will need to answer as an office, department, or organization looking to build community online:

Why? Always start with why.

What is the goal of creating this online community (or anything digital)? Mimicking the structure of your in-person infrastructure might feel comforting, but it’s not a compelling enough reason for students or your ideal community members to come find you.

As you ponder your “why,” consider: what do students need? At its base, Maslow’s model cites Physiological Needs (e.g. food, water, shelter, sleep) and Safety Needs (e.g. personal security, employment, health, property) before it gets to the Love and Belonging level (e.g. friendship, intimacy, family, series of connections).

In other words: your online community efforts need to acknowledge (and potentially provide for) those base-level needs before it can do the work of bringing people together, such as entertainment. And it needs to meet those needs with specificity.

Think about the creation of a group as a type of gathering; The Art of Gathering’s Priya Parker says when putting together gatherings, groups, or communities, “[s]pecificity is a crucial ingredient. The more focused and particular a gathering is, the more narrowly it frames itself, and the more passion it arouses.” If those needs aren’t being met for any reason, or if they’re trying to address those needs in a vague way? It could explain why current online engagement efforts may not be successful.

Who is this space for?

This can be a more complicated conversation than students versus alumni versus faculty and staff, or first/second-year students and upperclassmen. But it’s important to get very specific.

Does it make sense to create communities for certain segments of audiences: those participating in Greek life, student government, student leaders, honor societies, or academic majors?

It may, but it may also make sense to consider how COVID-19 is impacting the campus population and develop communities accordingly. For example, how are international students faring, and what resources can be gathered and shared in a community for them? How about first-generation students? Student parents? Students of color?

And should digital delivery of the college experience continue into the fall, student engagement groups could follow the lead of alumni and development departments by setting up communities for prospective and current students in certain geographic regions. This strategy could allow, when safe, a hybrid approach to develop: online activities could be supplemented with occasional, physically-distanced approved in-person gatherings.

Again, the makeup of these communities may not neatly mimic the structures that currently exist on campuses…but the attention to who these students are will be welcome and comforting.

What do we do here?

Once you have a sense of why you want to create this community, and who to gear it toward, you might then find yourself wrestling with the biggest question of all: what do we do here? In many cases, the what logically follows the why and the who. For example,

  • For a group designed to reassure food and housing insecure students of their safety, the “what” could be sharing hours for campus and other local food pantries, announcing where new places of shelter and safety have opened up, and offering resources for how to ensure uninterrupted wi-fi access. To engage the community, members could exchange recipes for common food pantry items, facilitate a plating photo challenge, or use crafting prompts to liven up the spaces they’re currently calling home.
  • For a group that may have once been geared toward the festivities of Senior Week, the “what” could need to pivot toward making new plans that students can participate in from a distance, sharing updates on alternate commencement plans, and engagement opportunities like bringing in alumni digitally who sought employment during the last recession to reassure and strategize with their younger counterparts, or a storytelling series where members of the campus community submit StoryCorps-style audio of their favorite campus memories.
  • For a group seeking to supplement offerings of a likely overtaxed counseling center, the “what” could be sharing contact information for community organizations who can offer support, leading group meditations or arranging live yoga classes that students can participate in from home, or posting weekly challenges that encourage students to think about and act upon their need for self-care.

With these important questions answered, you can then start to think about how an effective digital community might come together. There are four I’s that can help an online community exist and persist in a positive way: intentional, interactive, inclusive, and impactful.

I’ll speak briefly on each, share an example of communities who actively embody this quality, and offer a few tips for moderators and administrators in these online spaces.

graphic that reads the four I's of digital communities

The Four I’s of Digital Communities

There is an I in community, recognizing individual influence and collective make-up of members. There are also four I’s that I implore you to build your communities on: Intentional, Interactive, Inclusive, and Impactful.

Intentional

It might seem buzzy to start a conversation around online community with a word like intentional, but it really does matter that these spaces are thoughtfully constructed and carefully moderated. After all, “intentional” is a word that means “done on purpose”; here, it could also mean “done with purpose.” And in a moment when members of our community are feeling lost and overwhelmed, we owe it to them to create spaces monitored by individuals who are thinking about how best to serve them, to meet their needs. This is why the section above was spelled out with questions to get you thinking intentionally.

Moderators in intentional spaces serve not just as the “founders” of a space, but also its shapers and norm-upholders. To borrow from history, they’re less like the settlers of Jamestown and Plymouth, and more like the Founding Fathers. They acknowledge the needs of the individuals who will be inhabiting the space, and create systems and norms that uphold and respect those needs. Furthermore, as those needs shift, they update the norms of the space accordingly.

To be an effective moderator of an online community, you have to open and maintain dialogue with those who your community is serving.

Put another way: ask people what they need.

If students are too overwhelmed trying to meet basic needs, holding and promoting things like open mics and bingo nights will ultimately prove to be a poor use of time or energy. At this stage, you may be asking, “once I know what is needed, how do I address that in the community?” If you draw on the tools you already have in your toolbox for student engagement, you might find that the answers are already there. Craft digital programming, social media challenges, and inter-office collaborative services that demonstrate you’ve heard what your audience needs…and that you’ve found ways to address those needs. Align those efforts both with the mission and values of your institution, as well as the wishes of your students. And as their needs shift (as we move from the physiological and safety stages of Maslow, to relational and esteem based needs), our approach should shift in tandem.

Interactive

Building an effective digital community is about more than just finding a platform and sharing information. It’s tempting to start a group and shout “hey y’all, look at everything we have for you!”, especially if those offerings were designed with the input of those we want to serve. But in order for these spaces to be true functioning communities, we have to apply a philosophy beyond promotion.

To be strong moderators in these newly essential spaces, we have to do more than talk; we also have to listen and respond based on what we read, hear, and are asked about. Some platforms make this sort of communication easier than others. With that said, don’t focus too much on the tool. Instead, consider where your target audience is currently active, and adapt your approach to fit that space.

This doesn’t have to be a wholly new concept; it can adapt ideas or mechanisms that have been circulating on the internet and tailor them to your audience. Office hours likely already exist at your institution, but several institutions have demonstrated that they can bring them online in an engaging and thoughtful way using Zoom. Recognizing that prolonged time at home can mean many are cooking for themselves for the first time, I’ve also seen several campuses create “cook-along” programs on Instagram Live where campus “celebrities” invite members of the community to follow a recipe together.

But these interaction opportunities aren’t limited to synchronous (“in real time”) engagement. For example, Instagram Stories have come alive with current students and alumni creating and playing institution-specific bingo games, with each block representing a memory, milestone, or “bucket list” item that students may have participated in during their time on campus. Even though many are embarking on the actual bingo card alone, they’re following prompts created by the bigo card designers…and further nurturing community by tagging friends and classmates. The same is true of pet photo challenges that have spread across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. When we interact with people organically, they eventually get a window into our worlds; good digital community building has the power to do the same.

Inclusive

As we seek to build communities that all students can benefit from, we have to acknowledge that not everyone will be able to interact with the same frequency or enthusiasm – as when they were learning under “normal” circumstances, or as one another. A headline from a recent New York Times article stated the issue bluntly: College Made Them Feel Equal. The Virus Exposed How Unequal Their Lives Are.

This means that, as we craft engagement opportunities, we have more needs to consider than in our “normal” surroundings.

  • Who felt isolated on campus, and is feeling even more isolated now that they’re at home?
  • Who is juggling school work and involvement with care for kids, siblings, or parents?
  • Who, when students were sent “home” from residence halls, didn’t get to go home?
  • And how will that affect how they show up in the spaces we curate…if they show up at all?

To engage in an inclusive way, we have to think about all the ways a student could be involved with, or need to hear from, an institution, and then use as many resources at our disposal to include them in the communities we’re building.

This might mean amplifying the community efforts of affinity related offices (gender studies centers, multicultural offices, LGBTQIA centers, etc.) with more “volume” than normal. This might mean pairing recommendations for counseling center services with recommendations for places of worship that serve congregants online—in the process acknowledging that there’s more than one way to seek comfort and psychological safety in a difficult time. This might mean sharing resources about seeking safety from intimate-partner violence that understands it can happen to anyone, regardless of gender.

Inclusion in online spaces also means thinking about the unique quirks of online communication, and how we can make them easy for all students to participate in. If you’re using a platform that encourages the use of images, does it also allow for alt-text so images can be described? Pairing pictures, GIFs, memes or infographics with text will be helpful for the visually impaired but also for the neurodiverse, who might need the additional context to fully participate. If you post a video, are you making sure your selections are correctly captioned, that it has a transcript available, or that audio description is available? Building and fostering digital communities means attending not just to the inequities that your members are experiencing out in the world, but also the ones that your platform of choice might bring to light.

And lastly, we have to remember that members of our community are coming to these spaces in various stages of vulnerability. The sadness, anger, anxiety, frustration, and hopelessness they feel may come across in the tone of their posts. As moderators, it’s easy to want to call out that tone in the name of “civility” or “constructive dialogue.” But to be truly inclusive in these instances is to seek understanding, even as it causes discomfort, and find ways to educate community members in the process. Resist the urge to correct or reframe negative or critical language in a dismissive way, and follow up with individuals who voice it with a goal of finding and addressing the challenges they’ve voiced. A sentiment that will be key for us to remember as these communities aim to meet the needs of many different people: while in some ways we are in the same boat, University of North Texas’ Ozlem Altiok pointed out a key tidbit that her students are teaching her: “the truth is that we are not positioned equally to weather this storm.”

Impactful

Impactful communities are what you get when intentional, interactive, and inclusive come together. We have an opportunity as digital community builders and champions of student engagement to create spaces that change the course of students’ experiences – beyond the disruption of COVID-19 crisis. Digital engagement and community building initiatives will have an impact on our students for years to come.

Think about it: how often do we hear from alumni that their time with a student organization, or on an athletic team, or in an honor society, changed the course of their lives? Student engagement, when done thoughtfully, has the power to alter students’ futures. We already know that.

And now, we’re in a moment where the student experience is being changed in major ways.

Curiously enough, a recent example of an impactful community event showed up online with the help of actor and “Some Good News” creator John Krasinski. The Jack Ryan star and The Office alum has been hosting a YouTube series that shares good news in a world that badly needs to hear it, and has managed to engage viewers in some interesting ways.

His recent SGN Prom, designed to give a fun experience to high school students whose closed schools meant canceled proms, brought together celebrities like the Jonas Brothers, Billie Eilish, Chance the Rapper and Krasinski’s former co-star Rainn Wilson (and his date…his dog Poe).

But through social platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, “attending” seniors got to share their prom stories with the world. Posts showing teens wearing corsages purchased by parents, dancing with boyfriends at the event over FaceTime, and parents serving as supportive impromptu dates for their kids. Even teachers who would normally have chaperoned the big dance tuned in to do their duty digitally. And the engagement numbers were impressive; Mashable reports that attendance was over 214,000 at the event’s peak!

In a number of ways, Krasinski’s effort successfully built community- not just for students, but for parents, chaperones, and those all over the world who might have missed prom for one reason or another. It was intentional in how it met a very specific need: addressing the understandable grief that came with the cancellation of a milestone like prom. It was interactive in that it allowed students to not just watch the proceedings, but encouraged them to share their experiences on social media. And it was inclusive in that it featured performers from across the landscape of music, but also united those who’d be missing their prom, with others who just wanted to relive the fun and excitement of such a fun night.

graphic that reads community-minded platforms: literally where to begin?

Community-Minded Platforms: Literally, Where to Begin?

Even after reading everything I shared so far, you may still be wondering, “okay, but where do I build this community?” And I’m here to offer you the clear as mud answer: it depends.

The “right platform” for you depends on the capacity of your team, on the spaces where your audience is most likely to spend its time, and a few other factors like:

  • How secure is student data likely to be? How secure does it need to be?
  • How accessible is the platform for those who need accommodations for disability
  • If accommodations need to be made, what tools are available to you to reformulate or reformat content?

Community-Minded Platform Considerations

  • While platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn benefit from high user numbers – most people have an account – many students tend to interact with them more sparingly than other platforms. So if the information you plan to share or solicit is timely, these may not be your best bet.
  • Twitter has an advantage in its chronological timeline, but it’s used by a far smaller percentage of people than many other platforms. If your campus community has a critical mass of users, proceed; but as with all these platforms, there’s no need to be there just to be there.
  • Instagram (as well as TikTok and, to an extent, Snapchat) may yield high engagement numbers by virtue of the platform’s high user numbers and the type of content it enables. But being present on a platform isn’t the same as building a community. Know that if Instagram is your platform of choice, it will take additional work to create hashtags, curate and share content that gets tagged, and closely monitoring comments and DMs to keep conversations going.
  • Video and streaming platforms like YouTube, Discord and Twitch are a great bet for creating and sharing dynamic content, but these platforms have a very specific culture. Building community there means taking the time to understand the culture, and committing to communication that’s consistent with that tone…even if it doesn’t come naturally for you as a moderator.
  • The same “culture-specific” warning also applies to platforms like Reddit and Tumblr, whose content is a bit less dynamic but are spaces with a very specific feel. Pay attention to that feel, if you opt to interact there.

Remember, the decision doesn’t have to be left to you alone. A powerful team for choosing the best platform combines the forces of student engagement professionals (who typically have a sense of what students are using most frequently), IT (who have a sense of security protocols and integrations with other campus programs), disability services (who can offer insight into which tools are friendly to a wide range of disabilities), and marketing and communications (who are proficient in a number of tools, and in tailoring messaging to each).

And, as I mentioned earlier: ask your students! Their knowledge of, familiarity with, and appreciation for platforms, can and should help guide your decisions. A sense of community here will contribute to a stronger sense of community in the finished product.

graphic with text that reads moderator checklist

Signing on to be a community moderator/manager/administrator is no simple task. The strongest digital communities are heavily due to the squads behind the scenes. I want to make sure you have the tools to engage with the community you’re preparing to build. This can be an intimidating project to take on, but you’ll succeed when you keep the following tools and thoughts in mind:

  • Communities are at their most effective not only when they allow you to interact with its members, but when members can engage meaningfully and impactfully with one another.
  • Any digital community you create, should have the same sorts of goals that an in person community would: to help people learn, grow, and become better from being with one another.
  • There’s more than one way to build a community; Priya Parker would recommend you “[r]everse engineer an outcome: think of what you want to be different because you gathered, and work backward from that outcome.”
  • An intentional community is one where each move is thought out and aligned with your larger purpose. Tie each post, interaction, prompt, or programming initiative back to that purpose.
  • An interactive community is one that lets promotion take a backseat, instead encouraging organic conversation and engagement with members and content.
  • An inclusive community seeks to acknowledge the differing circumstances of its members, and to guide interactions, programming offerings, and mindsets accordingly.
  • An impactful community is, in many ways, a combination of the three I’s that precede it. No matter the platform you choose, communities of impact use all the information, tools, and care at their disposal to change students’ lives in a much-needed positive way.
graphic with text that reads community builders unite!

Community Builders Unite!

Still not sure you have what it takes to pull such an ambitious project together? Then the Monthly Community Building Mastermind might be just right for you.

Starting in May and through the summer of 2020, I’ll be working with small groups of professionals to develop, activate, and evaluate the digital community they strive to build.

Here’s what you’ll get as a member:

  • One full month of digital community development support
  • Weekly working meetings with all mastermind members, guided by Josie
  • A four-week curriculum, broken down as follows:
    • Week 1: Defining and developing your digital community
    • Week 2: Creation of community guidelines, policies, moderator training/development, and begin on content curriculum
    • Week 3: Continue work on content curriculum, as well as recruitment plans
    • Week 4: Community kick-offs, evaluation, and assessment
  • Access to a private Mastermind digital community with all members and Josie
  • Continual access to Dr. Josie Ahlquist, which includes feedback through the development, activation, and evaluation of your community during the month

Even if the Mastermind ends up not being the right fit for you, I hope you’ll take advantage of other opportunities to learn from me. We’re having vibrant conversations about Digital Student Engagement and Community Building in the Facebook group of the same name, and I invite you to join many more aspiring and current community builders there.

And if there’s any encouragement, education, or inspiration I could offer to you, your team, or to your students, I encourage you to reach out to learn more about my keynote, workshop, consultation, and small group coaching options!

To stay updated on all resources – make sure you are subscribed to my newsletter and of course, find me on all the socials: Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

Be well,

Josie

graphic with text that reads bonus resources

Don’t Just Throw Together a Webinar — The Virtual Events Crash Course You Need

How to Launch a Successful Online Community: A Step-by-Step Guide

Making Memes Accessible

Building Inclusive Communities toolkit from University of Kansas

Laying the Groundwork for Virtual Communities

Ethical Community Management in a Struggling World

The New Normal: How COVID-19 will Impact Community Strategy in the Long Run

The Art of Gathering

Together Apart Podcast by Priya Parker

Belong: Find your People, Create Community, and Live a More Connected Life.

The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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