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Students are shown in a computer lab.

Digital support communities allow for peer-to-peer assistance, similar to how peers might help each other during in-person learning.

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Accommodating online or self-paced learning requires thinking outside the box.

College of Information Technology leaders at Western Governors University created digital support communities for students to receive real-time assistance from peers and faculty while engaging in self-paced learning.

What’s the problem: WGU’s College of IT offers competency-based education programs, allowing learners to work at their own pace.

The flexibility expands opportunities for students but can also leave them isolated from their peers or without adequate support for their more challenging questions, as computer science and IT concepts are “notoriously complex,” says Mike Peterson, associate dean and director of the computer science and software program for the college.

“When our students have a question, it’s not usually followed by a simple answer,” Peterson explains. “Our students and our support teams needed a more dynamic virtual space to collaborate and provide the academic support needed along the way.”

What’s the solution: To accommodate students at all levels of learning, the College of IT implemented digital support communities in its bachelor of science in computer science program.

In the communities, hosted on InScribe within WGU’s Learning Resources, students connect directly to peers and faculty, asking questions, looking for solutions and solving problems together, Peterson explains.

WGU used InScribe because its tool set allowed for images, videos, code editing and complex math formulas to be shared directly, Peterson adds.

Further, when a student joins a digital community, they’re given access to existing answers and resources addressing common questions.

Students in need of additional support can post a new question, which alerts other community members to jump in and help. “This offered a more scalable support model that would accommodate learners regardless of how far they’ve progressed in course materials,” Peterson says.

It also allows for peer-to-peer assistance, when students who were farther ahead in the curriculum could support those just starting out—reinforcing mastery, building connections among learners and reducing the work faculty members have to do.

Following the pilot with BSCS, the College of IT expanded digital communities across the college.

What’s the impact: The launch of digital communities has produced three key results:

  • Faster response times. Students can receive answers to their questions at all times—not just when professors are online during the workday—and continue to work uninterrupted, thanks to peer support.
  • Positive peer engagement. Students are eager to contribute to the communities and respond to each other in thoughtful, diverse and well-rounded posts. The new learners benefit from the help of those farther along and those who have mastered topics reinforce their understanding of earlier topics.
  • Deeper thinking. When students ask questions, those questions go beyond generic information and range in complexity. The digital community allows for high-level engagement with content to solve CS problems.

Other things to consider: While WGU’s digital communities produced promising results and helped solve the college’s problems, Peterson says communities should come with defined goals to create the right kind of space and benefit students most effectively.

Moderators serve a key role in digital communities, as well, to monitor conversations, validate responses and step in when expert help is needed.

The resource also works best when students are using it and engaged, so educators should communicate early and often about the purpose of the community and where to find it.

Do you have an academic success tip that might help others support student success? Tell us about it.

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