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Feeling isolated as an online student? Join the club.

Or rather, join a club. At a handful of institutions, students working toward degrees online are meeting outside of class via the Web. These extracurricular organizations offer online students what many feel they are missing: the social and professional opportunities that historically have been part of the college experience.

“When you’re on campus, you have opportunities to engage your faculty and your peers,” says Debra Ann Mynar, 39, an online psychology student at Pennsylvania State University’s World Campus. “When you do distance education, you don’t have those similar opportunities unless you make them.”

Mynar, a full-time business administrator by day, is the president and co-founder of the World Campus’s psychology club -- a completely online group that sprung up several years ago alongside the World Campus’s psychology program. The club, which has 124 members from far-flung states and several foreign countries, hosts online discussions and video lectures -- mostly focusing on career advice -- through the campus’s learning management system. It has even organized a meet-up in the virtual world of Second Life.

The club also holds video lectures and question-and-answer sessions with guest speakers from different fields of psychology, so online students can learn more about where their degrees can take them and what steps they will need to take to get there. The guests -- usually professionals affiliated with Penn State -- give the talk in front of a computer-mounted video camera in the office of Brian Redmond, the club’s faculty adviser, and students watching the live feed can ask questions via text.

And unlike many live talks held by traditional student clubs, the events are archived online for posterity. Aside from the occasional technology snafu, these channels have proven effective, he says.

“It’s a way to further their education and get them thinking about how to join social and professional organizations,” says Redmond, adding that being able to learn through casual interactions with peers is a major benefit of being part of an academic institution, and one that can be lost in the online environment, where students are usually only “on campus” when they are logged into the classroom.

“That feeling like you’re part of something or belonging -- with distance education you can really be isolated, so this is sort of like bridging that gap,” says William Wells, 45, also a co-founder of the club , who otherwise serves as a regional manager for a drug company in Georgia. “When you’re in Atlanta and going to Penn State, you can’t just walk down the hall to the offices and say I want to see Professor X.”

At the University of Maryland at University College, which boasts a number of extracurricular organizations, some clubs will organize face-to-face meet-ups for those students who live near the campus’s headquarters in Adelphi, Md.; members of the English and literary arts club have gone to plays together, and members of the history club have toured museums in nearby Washington, D.C.

But across the board, students seem to join online clubs primarily for professional reasons. Since many online learners are adults who are back in school because they want to advance or change their careers, student clubs at online universities tend to be career oriented, perhaps more so than their counterparts at brick-and-mortar institutions that cater mainly to young adults. Wells guessed that of the participants in Penn State’s psychology club, about 70 percent probably joined for professional reasons. At UMUC, 80 percent of club members said they joined primarily for networking and career building, according to a 2008 survey.

Nathan Decker, 32, serves as head of UMUC’s environmental management club when he is not taking classes or working his day job as a microbiologist at a food processing plant in central Washington state. Since many of the adult learners in the corresponding program are also established professionals, the benefits of networking with peers are potentially immediate. “A lot of people there work in the environmental field already,” Decker says, “so maybe [being part of the club] can help someone get a job.”

But the professional opportunities that the extracurricular clubs enable are not limited to networking among members. One of the main reasons Mynar and Wells say they helped found the Penn State psychology club was because being a member of a club is a prerequisite to opening a chapter of the Psi Chi, the international psychology honors society that advertises itself as a “springboard for professional growth.” Eight honors society chapters at UMUC recognize qualified online club members there.

Officials at the universities where online clubs have sprung up also see potential benefits for the institution. UMUC has made nurturing these organizations an explicit part of its retention strategy. The more students feel part of a community, the likelier they are to stick with an online program, says Shelley Hintz, coordinator of student engagement. Penn State’s World Campus, meanwhile, is planning to make the online psychology club there a part of its marketing strategy.

“We see retention improved through the use of any social networks,” says John Bourne, executive director of the Sloan Consortium, an online education leadership organization. “Clubs tend to form social networks, and those increase communication among students and thus retention. Less isolationism leads to [a greater] feeling of belonging.”

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