Dec 30, 2016 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Think online students live in a sad and lonely world populated entirely by themselves and their computers? Think again. The truth is that many online students lead rich, full, engaged lives in college -- without ever stepping foot inside a classroom. These five tips can help you start connecting with others during your time as an online student.


1. Reach Out Right Away

At the beginning of the semester, all students are in the same boat: Unsure about what to expect, feeling a bit alone and wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into. And just as this might be the hardest time to put yourself out there, it’s also the time when people will be most receptive to others who take the initiative by reaching out. Not to mention that the sooner you start building a community with your fellow students, the more chances your community will have to grow and thrive over the time.

Most online courses have mechanisms in place designed to help students connect with each other. If you’re expected to introduce yourself or engage in another kind of icebreaker, don’t write it off as a meaningless exercise or as “busy work.” Instead, embrace it as an opportunity to deliver an authentic and thoughtful answer. You won’t just be making a good impression with your professors, you’ll also be laying the foundation for positive relationships with your classmates -- not just this semester but also as you move forward throughout your academic career.


2. Embrace Social Media

While course-specific discussion boards are a great way to start connecting with your classmates, nothing says you have to limit your interactions to these forums. Think of it this way: If you met a classmate with whom you shared similar interests in a traditional “bricks and mortar” classroom, you wouldn’t hesitate to add that person as a friend on social media. So why not apply the same approach to your online classmates, as well?

In addition to helping you nurture relationships outside the classroom, social media can also be a useful way to fortify new friendships, get help with assignments and even start study groups.


3. Be An Active Participant

In any physical classroom, there are people who sit at the front of the room, raise their hands often and routinely contribute to the course dialog. These are the students to whom other students look for leadership, feedback and collaboration. There are other people, however, who sit in the back, never contribute and are generally disengaged from the classroom experience. These students not only add nothing to the dialog, but can actually detract from any sense of community.

These same distinct student profiles exist in online courses. Establish a solid presence in the first group by remaining an active participant in all class sessions and discussions over the entire course of the semester. It’s not about getting in your “face time” or meeting a minimum standard, it’s about setting an expectation for yourself and committing to meet it.


4. Add Value

Many courses will specify the degree to which students are expected to participate in class forums. Rather than thinking about your contributions in terms of quantity, think about them in terms of quality, instead. Are your responses thoughtful? Original? Constructive? Proactive? All of these things make you a reliable, valued and appreciated member of the classroom community. An added benefit? Instructors are also present in course forums, and your efforts will not go unnoticed when class participation grades are calculated.


5. Put Yourself Out There

We already covered metaphorically “putting yourself out there” in #1. Now, we’re talking about literally putting yourself out there. Just because you’re an online student doesn’t mean you’re forbidden from participating in on-campus activities. If you live near your campus, visit the library or join a student club. Even better? Connect with another local classmate for coffee or happy hour.

If you’re a long distance learner, meanwhile, you can still meet other students by studying at your local library or joining a Meetup. From co-ed flag football leagues to dinner and social clubs, the possibilities are near-endless.

While online learning once took a backseat to traditional learning environments, it’s quickly become a popular way for students to pursue their higher education goals under more flexible terms. But just because you’re an online student doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a connected college experience. These five tips can help you easily go from isolated to engaged.





Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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