Helping Graduate Students Join an Online Learning Community

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Key Takeaways

  • Online learners in graduate studies often face two new realities at the start of their academic careers: shifting identity into becoming graduate students, and developing online course competency.

  • The Student Success Center — a strong orientation to online learning and graduate education — provides a foundation for establishing a community of online graduate program learners.

  • Through that community of learners and with frequent interactions with instructors and staff, students can begin the process of becoming socialized into our department and their field of study.

  • Finding collaborative ways to reduce their feelings of isolation and help online graduate students realize that they are part of a learning community that spans the university greatly improves the student experience and helps foster their success.

Graduate education requires both independent and group learning to create a community of engaged learners who not only develop content knowledge but also become socialized into their chosen discipline. Traditionally, much of this community building and socialization happens in face-to-face interactions with both faculty and other graduate students. Replicating these types of interactions and experiences can be very challenging when graduate programs move online. In spring 2016, two individuals (authors Christina Yao and Brian Wilson) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) came together to address the challenge of creating a community of engaged learners in the Department of Educational Administration (EDAD). Our department currently has 423 students, with 66 percent of them fully online. In our discussion, we realized that online learners in graduate studies often face two new realities at the start of their academic career: shifting identity into becoming graduate students, and developing online course competency. We identified three overarching problems in online graduate learning and used these questions to guide our approach to this challenge:

  • How do we prepare graduate students for online learning who may not have prior online experience?
  • How do we prepare graduate students to function in a community of learners that requires active participation and community building?
  • How do we better socialize online graduate students into their chosen field? (e.g., practical application, graduate-level writing skills)

In later evaluating our fully online Educational Administration graduate program, we began to notice a common theme in student responses to survey questions, as well as faculty perceptions of student preparedness. Students not only struggled with the basics of graduate school on-boarding procedures, they also expressed a general disconnect with our department. Not only did they feel that resources were scattered and often difficult to find, they also felt that making real connections with the people who had the answers (faculty and staff) was also difficult. It is a common refrain among fully online students that, although they take classes in a college, they feel more disconnected from their collegiate community than face-to-face learners.1 Distance students may e-mail or communicate sporadically with faculty and staff on the phone; however, unless the faculty and staff were intentional about engaging the students in conversations rather than simply answering questions, students often had a hard time perceiving them as real people. These types of connections often happen naturally for students who are on campus — casual conversations between faculty/staff and students are common. These types of interactions allow students to perceive the faculty/staff as real people with whom they can make personal connections.

We knew that establishing a strong orientation to online learning2 and graduate education3 would provide a foundation for establishing a community of learners. Through that community of learners and with frequent interactions with instructors and staff, students can begin the process of becoming socialized into our department and their field of study. After discussing the need for an early and detailed orientation, we actively sought key collaborators at UNL who would have vested interests in graduate student success: departmental faculty and staff, colleagues from the UNL Libraries, and current graduate students representing the EDAD Graduate Student Association (GSA). Thus, the first inaugural working group for the EDAD Orientation Site, which was later renamed the EDAD Student Success Center, included the five members who are co-authoring this article.

EDAD Orientation Site

To address these problems, we decided to put together a comprehensive orientation that not only covered the more prescriptive items that new graduate students need, but that was also infused with the culture and personalities of faculty and staff both inside and outside of our department. In the spring of 2016, we collaborated with faculty and staff inside the department for buy-in, but we also asked UNL librarians to collaborate with us on building a custom library tutorial that created the opportunity for distance students to engage with their subject librarian. In addition, graduate student representatives from GSA were key in providing the student perspective on necessary components and content delivery.

We decided we needed to put together a comprehensive orientation that included not only basic on-boarding tasks for new students but also resources from across the university. We divided tasks among the people involved, and as a result of several planning meetings as well as individual work, we put materials together late spring 2016 and refined the content throughout the summer. We created a site that contained five different steps, which launched in mid-August 2016:

  • Getting Started at UNL
  • About EDAD
  • Graduate Student Success
  • Program Information/Requirements
  • Research/Writing Help

Each step included an introductory page that had both video (closed captioned) and text information pertinent to each section. We deliberately labeled them "steps" because we knew that it needed a level of organization for students to know where to start first. Also, by labeling the steps, students can easily return to the specific sections that are relevant to their current needs. For example, the "Getting Started at UNL" would be most important before the semester starts, whereas they could wait until classes actually start to get the "Research/Writing Help." In our structure, we hoped to create an orientation site that would scaffold knowledge and come across as being user-friendly.

"I found the EDAD Student Success Center to be essential in my first weeks of the program. Having just been accepted, I felt a little lost, and a little uncertain. The EDAD Student Success Center gave me the tools to navigate the program, as well as continuing support."
—Adam Fullerton, PhD Student in Educational Leadership and Higher Education

In addition, we ensured investment and cooperation from all faculty and staff in the department by requesting that each person record a video introducing their role in the department as well as a quick tip for success. Almost all faculty and staff made short introductory videos which allowed students to attach a face and voice with the names and also get a few tips (e.g., study tips, navigating an online program, etc.). In doing so, we humanized our faculty and staff in the department, which many students claimed was one of their favorite aspects of the Orientation Site. Figure 1 shows a screenshot of two of those faculty videos.

Figure 1. Faculty introductory videos

Figure 1. Faculty introductory videos

Highlights from each step include:

  • Getting Started at UNL. We started with a brief video welcome from the EDAD department chair, and then included basic information such as the academic calendar and class registration. Most importantly, we included basics on technology tools (e.g., TechSmith Relay, Canvas) that students would need to access for their online courses.
  • About EDAD. In this popular step, students could meet departmental faculty and staff through videos as well as learn more about the EDAD GSA. In addition, a link to course offerings helped students do more focused program planning.
  • Graduate Student Success. We added information about time management strategies as well as a list of professional organizations and conferences. Later we added a pilot program from the UNL Writing Center that provided writing assistance to distance students.
  • Program Information/Requirements. EDAD includes two doctoral programs, three master's programs, and three certificate and specialization programs. In this step, students could go to specifically labeled pages that included milestones and expectations for their specific degree programs.
  • Research/Writing Help. Highlights included the library orientation sections, which focused on short guides aimed at connecting virtual learners with the most important tools likely to be used by the majority of students. Brief overviews explained delivery and interlibrary loan services, how to access education research databases, information on citation management tools, and how to contact the subject librarians.

Figure 2 shows step 1 and part of step 2.

Figure 2. Navigation for step 1 and part of step 2

Figure 2. Navigation for step 1 and part of step 2

One highlight of the site worth noting is the comprehensive and detailed library overview, which is particularly important for distance students. This overview included its own five steps that our library partners felt were critical to distance student success. Many of the students in this program are working professionals who often have not conducted bibliographic research in years. The library research tools and the ways information is accessed have changed dramatically over the past decade, often leaving these students anxious and uncertain as to how to shift from their everyday information seeking behaviors to more rigorous methodologies necessary for graduate study. Further, we have noticed that many students seem reluctant to obtain help from library faculty and staff; the additional uncertainty over how virtual learners can receive assistance adds to this reluctance. One goal of including library collaborators in the process of creating this orientation was to give them the opportunity to create content that not only conveyed information but also infused a bit of their own personalities into the tutorials.

"Thank you for the [library] tutorial! This is my fourth semester as a graduate student, so I only wish I had experienced this earlier in my academic career here. I enjoyed the simplicity and intuitive nature of the presentation. Great job!"
—Anonymous Student

Further, as we continue to revise the orientation, we hope to soon include video of our subject librarian introducing herself and describing her role in working with EDAD students. Figure 3 shows a screen on the UNL Libraries site with a section devoted to online students.

Figure 3. Library web page support for distance students

Figure 3. Library web page support for distance students

Feedback and Next Steps

"Our department was challenged to meet the needs of our distance students in three areas: (1) logistical support for the university, (2) an orientation to graduate studies, and (3) academic support. The EDAD Success Center is a collaborative effort across campus departments to meet these needs. Student feedback has been very positive and highlights not only the orientation and transition to graduate work at a distance, but the continued academic support provided throughout their studies."
—Brent Cejda, Professor and Department Chair

Initial feedback from faculty and staff in EDAD was overwhelmingly positive. Anecdotally, several faculty expressed appreciation that the fundamentals of online learning could be found in a comprehensive site that included all pertinent information. In addition, due to the positive feedback, the faculty voted to expand the EDAD Orientation Site from being a resource for only new students. As a result, all current students in the department were added to the newly named EDAD Student Success Center.

Beyond the anecdotal faculty feedback, we also conducted a preliminary survey to assess the extent to which students found the information to enhance their understanding of the various concepts included within the site. Overall, the respondents (n = 30) found most of the site to be helpful, particularly with the library tutorials. Feedback from preliminary survey responses indicated that a majority of respondents at least somewhat agreed that the information was useful, with a range of 50–53.27 percent of respondents selecting somewhat agree, agree, or strongly agree for assessing various library content areas. In addition, we were pleased that respondents reported that the EDAD Student Success Center (Orientation) was easy to navigate, with 58.6 percent who strongly agreed or agreed. In addition, many students indicated they somewhat agreed, agreed, or strongly agreed that the information increased their knowledge and familiarity with the noted aspects of the department, ranging from 51.72 percent responses to 55.17 percent, respectively.

Ten students responded to the open-ended question that asked students to identify the three most helpful things they learned from the site. Some of the frequently noted areas included faculty videos (5), library resources (6), programmatic and institutional information such as obtaining a student ID and the academic calendar (3), and writing resources (2). When asked if there were areas that could have been improved in the site, several students requested the addition of information that was already included in the orientation, such as contact information for the writing lab — a possible indication that the information within the orientation may need to be better labeled and communicated to students.

We also noted that after examining the descriptive statistics of the survey responses for several survey questions, many respondents answered “not applicable (N/A)” to several of the questions. For example, for the part about how to access and navigate institutional resources, we noticed that of the 30 individuals that completed the survey, a range of 46.67 percent to 60 percent of respondents marked N/A — an indication they did not review this information. These findings raised the question of whether individuals found this information useful or relevant to their student experience, or if, in fact, it was simply not easily accessible or navigable and students skipped over it. As a result, we are now considering how to increase use of this section by either reorganizing or reconstructing the content.

We have several recommendations for next steps as a result of our year-long creation and establishment of the EDAD Student Success Center:

  • First, collaboration both within and outside of the department is key to the program's success. For example, partnering with the UNL Libraries on this project has ensured that the Student Success Center includes the most pertinent and current research tools for the students. It also has helped strengthen the relationships between the librarians, instructional designers, and EDAD faculty and students.
  • Second, we suggest including the student perspective in the design and creation of an orientation/success center site because they have the most experience in what online students actually need from the department.
  • Third, faculty and staff within the department must feel invested in the process so that they can continue to promote the success center site and include it in their courses to encourage student use throughout the semester and year.

After implementing the center, we found certain steps necessary in maintaining and further developing the services provided:

  • Regular maintenance requirements of the site have been minimal, yet we need to continually remind ourselves to keep the information current. For example, documents and links sometimes need to be updated throughout the year.
  • We also found it helpful to send periodic e-mails or announcements through the site reminding students to use specific institutional services (e.g., the Writing Center and UNL Libraries).

    "What I appreciated the most about the EDAD Student Success Center was how easily accessible it was on Canvas. It is a resource that I can refer back to as I need it. The most valuable piece is the research/writing help, which has contributed to my growth as a writer."
    —Sarah Aguirre, Master of Arts Student in Higher Education Administration

  • We realize that we need to be responsive to student feedback. For example, one student asked for an informal chat space or discussion board for students to share information and get advice. We are considering developing the site into a communication hub, yet see no easy answers in determining how to moderate the site and who should serve as the moderator.
  • We recognize that continuous communication is important in building community, but it can be a logistical challenge.

Figure 4 shows a screenshot of the page views of the Student Success Center. Note that some faculty required use of the resources in their courses.

Figure 4. Basic analytics of Student Success Center use

Figure 4. Basic analytics of Student Success Center use


Based on feedback from students and faculty, we feel that we have begun to help students not only overcome some of the procedural barriers inherent in successfully completing a graduate degree but also have taken a step toward better humanizing our faculty and staff in the students' eyes. Online education can feel very isolating. Finding collaborative ways to reduce that isolation and help students realize that they are part of a learning community that spans the university will greatly improve the student experience and help foster their success.

"The EDAD Student Success Center has provided the addition of a deliberate and systemic approach to on-boarding graduate students (both distance and non). This 'one stop' information center has provided a quick and easy way for students to find answers to their questions and information that they didn’t even know to ask, but will need. The Student Success Center is a collaboration between departments that has expanded the reach of the Department of Educational Administration, and our students have benefited from the availability of information and resources that can help them be successful as they pursue their degrees."
—Mary Beth Lehmanowsky, Professor of Practice

As universities increasingly look for ways to become less siloed, these types of orientations provide an opportunity for groups within a department, college, and across campus to collaborate. Though our Student Success Center has been online for more than a year, the need to frequently revise the site helps us maintain collaborative relationships with others who have a vested interest in our students' success. This process has strengthened communications between the various people involved, and it has allowed us to create an orientation that more authentically represents our faculty and staff. In doing so, we have established a virtual learning community that better connects distance students to the information and people necessary for their success in their graduate program.


  1. Thomas N. Kahl and Arthur J. Cropley, "Face-to-Face Versus Distance Learning: Psychological Consequences and Practical Implications," Distance Education, Vol. 7, No. 1 (March 1986): 38–48.
  2. Laura Zieger and Joe Pulichino, "Establishing a Community of Learners: A Case Study of a University Graduate Orientation Program for Online Learners," Journal of Interactive Online Learning, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Spring 2004): 1–13.
  3. Ann E. Austin, "Preparing the Next Generation of Faculty: Graduate School as Socialization to the Academic Career,” Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 73, No. 1 (January/February 2002): 94–122.

Christina W. Yao, PhD, is an assistant professor, Department of Educational Administration, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Brian C. Wilson, MA, is an instructional design technology specialist, Innovative Instructional Design, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Crystal E. Garcia, PhD, is an assistant professor, Department of Educational Foundations, Leadership, and Technology, Auburn University.

Erica L. DeFrain, PhD, is assistant professor and social sciences librarian, University Libraries, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Andrew J. Cano, MS, is assistant professor and virtual learning librarian, University Libraries, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

© 2017 Christina W. Yao, Brian C. Wilson, Crystal E. Garcia, Erica L. DeFrain, and Andrew J. Cano. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY 4.0.