While the convenience, flexibility, and versatility of online learning are among its main advantages, prospective students may have concerns about missing out on the social life, usually associated with the university on campus experience. However, institutions offering online studies even prior to the pandemic, went to great lengths to create opportunities for online social interaction among their students.

Let’s take a closer look at the level of socialization offered to on campus versus online students.

Creative social opportunities for college students

As is often said, “necessity is the mother of invention”. Higher Education institutions had no choice but to find creative ways to bypass social distancing. Activities which were once held in person are now happening virtually, from lectures, seminars, tutorials and exams, to student interactive groups and clubs.

Smithsonian Magazine recently reported on several universities which have created their own gamified virtual campuses to help students stay engaged and connected. “We've had so many casual, fun interactions -- both ones that would also happen in real life, but also experiences that are now possible because of this online platform,” says Allison Zhang, who helped create such a club at her university.

Universities believe that such virtual experiences can lead to the creation of extended student communities, which facilitate the flow of communication amongst students in a more diverse and interesting way than social media or online communication platforms. And this is only the beginning. Zhang says her club mates ultimately hope to expand their virtual club into a social platform, where students from different universities can network, visit each other’s campuses, attend events, and connect. “[It] isn’t necessarily a replacement of in-person socializing, but can definitely supplement it and become a new form of socialization,” Zhang said.

Meanwhile, universities are exploring new ways to transfer many of the social activities once held in-person to online settings. These include everything from scavenger hunts and field days to painting competitions and beer and wine mixers. Many participants in such online events reported their satisfaction at feeling connected with fellow students. In fact, even the process of organizing such events can bring people closer together. There are other benefits, too: participation in online events requires no transportation or other costs. Plus, you can attend online events in your pyjamas, if you feel like it!

While many universities may be rising to the challenge of creating online socialization opportunities, it’s important to note it’s not a new phenomenon. In fact, a lot of student socialization has been happening online for years. Just under 10 years ago, research from Bahrain highlighted the importance of virtual socializing -- specifically social networking -- among college students.

Obstacles and opportunities

This isn’t to say that all universities deliver when it comes to providing a social experience for online students. Students who had to abruptly switch to online learning may be dealing with new stresses and strains, while trying to stay socially connected during lockdowns.

Distance learning requires a different set of skills. Online students have to develop these skills, while, at the same time, attending to their studies, family and work obligations, without neglecting their mental health and their need for social interaction either.

Experts agree that social interaction is vital to fight feelings of loneliness and isolation. Elizabeth Redden writes, "I think one of the highest risks we have these days in the college and university environment is loneliness, the lack of well-being, anxiety, poor mental health, feeling isolated -- all things that the pandemic has amplified. So when I think about balancing the risk, helping students have a sense of community and well-being is a really valuable calculation."

So, while it may take some extra effort to facilitate virtual socialization opportunities, it’s not only worth it, but it is imperative for the mental and physical health of students. In fact, many people report that they have grown closer together through virtual interactions. Mental health clinician Shelbey Mitchell Cogswell says, “It’s an opportunity for us to really get deeper with each other.”

The unique proposition of Unicaf University

While online learning is new territory for some universities, there are other institutions which have been doing it for years now, with great success. This includes internationally recognized and accredited Unicaf University, which offers the option of choosing between exclusively online studies, or a combination of on-campus, face to face tuition with some online delivery.

With state-of-the-art campuses in Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe and new campuses planned in several other African countries, as well as learning centers across the continent, Unicaf University offers a robust online learning option.

In fact, the Unicaf organization is known as a pioneer in bringing high-quality online educational opportunities, at a fraction of the cost, to students all over the world, through its generous scholarship programme. More than $100 million worth of Unicaf scholarships have helped over 30,000 eligible candidates in 156 countries across the globe to begin their journey towards earning internationally recognised undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications from Unicaf’s partner institutions.

Unicaf has partnerships with Liverpool John Moores University, the University of Suffolk, and the University of East London in the UK, as well as the University of California Riverside Extension in the USA and multi campus Unicaf University in Africa.

Unicaf scholars, who enroll for online studies at any one of Unicaf’s partner universities, gain 24/7 access to a state-of-the-art online, digital platform, which hosts the Virtual Learning Environment and can provide a comprehensive university experience.

Students can access study materials and conduct research in the expansive e-library in their own free time, either from home, or from the office, or even while commuting to work, using any digital device connected to the Internet, from a PC down to a mobile phone.

The VLE also provides communication forums to communicate with tutors and fellow students, while the Unicaf website maintains a Live Chat Service. Teaching through the VLE employs modern technological tools like videos, podcasts, polls, quizzes, summative essays and more, which make learning more memorable and fun. All of these add up to a well-designed online learning opportunity that meets the unique demands, needs, and preferences of today’s online learners.

In the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing is a fact of life for everyone, including university students. And while many of us may long for the return to our previous way of living, there are, unfortunately, no assurances that it will be happening anytime soon. But this doesn’t mean your need to dismiss or put on hold your plans to earn a new qualification.

Choosing an institution like Unicaf University, which offers internationally recognized degrees, is accredited by local education authorities as well as by the British Accreditation Council in the UK (Malawi and Zambia campuses), and has been providing a comprehensive online learning experience for years with great results, can make a big difference in ensuring that your academic needs are met, without neglecting your need for interaction, socialization and networking with fellow students around the world.

Online student

Article written in association with Unicaf.