Creating community when you don't have a "quad"

April 18, 2011

What happens when your students are not physically at your campus? How do they find and create community when they are not meeting up at the campus union, hanging out at the quad, or studying together at the library? These are the questions that Rita Wilds, Director of Advancement and Public Relations at Brandman University, asks on a daily basis. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Rita about how Brandman is incorporating the generative capabilities of social media to create an online community. Brandman is launching the Schools app as part of a new community-building initiative.

Why did Brandman University decide to implement the Schools app on Facebook?

Brandman has 26 campuses throughout California and Washington State and a large number of our students attend fully online. We are always looking for ways to connect our campus communities and students so they can meet one another on a social level and fully engage in the Brandman experience. Our students are typically about age 35, have a full-time job and are raising a family. They don’t have the same opportunities to build a social network that students at traditional schools enjoy. But it’s really important that students feel connected to their school community and having a strong support network is critical to their success. The Schools app was designed to do exactly that. We hope students will use the app like a virtual student union – a quad or campus coffee shop without the bricks and mortar where they can find others with similar interests, gather casually for study groups, or organize formal clubs and networking events. We want them to have a comfortable space where they can share ideas and make recommendations, or get the support they need to continue from others who understand their situation even if it’s 2 AM. Facebook has already connected 500 million people globally, so we think it’s a great model for us!

What are your goals in using the schools app?

Our goals are to increase retention, build community, strengthen support systems, and because we are inviting applicants as well as students to use the app, to engage potential students and help them decide if Brandman is the right choice for them.

How many of your students are online only? How many total students attend Brandman?

In the current semester, we have about 500 online-only students and another 2,000 who are taking online classes in addition to blended classes (face-to-face + online). In the current semester we have 6,300 students registered. Annually, about 10,000 students register with close to one-half studying online.

In terms of the Schools app, what does success mean to you?

In quantifiable terms, success would be measured by seeing increases in retention, enrollment and eventually graduation of app users vs. non-users. We are also hoping to see an increase in our Facebook fan base and engagement. Less quantifiable, the app is an important component to developing a vibrant student life community and raising Brandman pride.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities at a school like Brandman?

The biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity are the same. Our challenge has been how to ensure that every student who enrolls at Brandman will eventually receive a diploma. We see this as a great opportunity to serve adults who may have put college on hold for one reason or another, but never let go of the dream.

Our students are non-traditional. In addition to attending school, most of them work full-time, have families and other responsibilities. They are full-time teachers, nurses, firefighters (we have an exclusive agreement with the CA State Firefighters Association and a special Bachelors Degree program just for firefighters), moms and dads. We have a strong military and veterans program –some are deployed across the world. For most Brandman students, school is not their only priority, it is one of many.

I tend to focus a lot on technology for brick-and-mortar-based student affairs endeavors. With blended learning fast becoming the new campus norm, what does that mean for student affairs units? Will we be able to take our traditional functional areas into online spaces? How are we preparing tomorrow's student affairs professional for campuses that are completely web-based?

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