By Katharine Webster
It looks like Facebook and acts like Twitter. You can post selfies and status updates or joke around with friends. You can search out others with similar interests, join groups and weigh in on hot topics.
But SNHUconnect is more than just another social network. Its familiar surface masks a serious academic purpose: giving online students the social support they need to keep them motivated, learning and succeeding.
“This whole thing is about making online education, which has been generally impersonal, more personal,” says Chris Bogle, who led SNHUconnect’s development and serves as its community manager. “Bringing students together and supporting connectivity actually makes them more likely to succeed. They get better grades, go further along the path and are more likely to get a job.”
History major Jeni Kirby, 30, of West Monroe, Ga., uses SNHUconnect while studying to socialize, share interesting news articles and talk about World War II. She says it combats isolation, making the online student experience feel more like the on-campus experience.
“It reminds me of how you go from class to class, and you stop to talk with somebody, and then you go to your next class,” she says.
She says she has more in common with her SNHUconnect friends than her Facebook friends.
“A lot of us are stay-at-home moms, a lot of us are dads who are trying to better their education,” she says. “They’re dear to me because I can go on Connect and say, ‘My day stinks,’ and they’ll say, ‘Tell me what’s wrong,’ and they’ll send encouraging messages.”
Bogle says this is one of the most valuable functions of SNHUconnect. Most online students are juggling jobs, family responsibilities and school. Others had unhappy experiences at traditional colleges. Students who have been studying online for a while can offer essential support to those just starting out.
“One of the things we realized very early on is how anxious many students are when they come back to school,” Bogle says.
SNHUconnect launched in January 2013. A private network, it was built on an enterprise social media platform, a business tool increasingly used within large companies to help employees quickly find, prioritize and disseminate key information.
SNHUconnect enables students to search for and follow other students, groups and discussion tags. They can form clubs and use private meeting rooms to collaborate on class projects, and get reminders of tasks and due dates. They can also ask and answer questions, and vote others’ answers “up” or “down.”
More than 5,000 students have entered the community at least once. As soon as they show up, they are encouraged to introduce themselves, fill out a user profile and try a few basic actions. The SNHUconnect team then follows up with personal messages guiding new users to other people, groups and tags that match their interests. Once students start connecting organically, the magic happens.
Finance and economics major Michael Williams, 35, of Orlando, Fla., is a perfect example. When he lost his job as a property manager last fall, he began interviewing with local securities firms. Employers told him he was well qualified, but they wouldn’t hire him without a college degree. Discouraged, he sounded off in the SNHUconnect finance community, and his online friend Nathan Yates, a research associate at Langenberg & Co., offered him an unpaid internship researching mining equities.
“I just went to a trade show for a company they track, and I did the Q&A as a financial analyst representing Langenberg,” Williams says. “I’m getting lots of experience.”
The SNHUconnect team continues developing the site in response to student demand. Michael Forrest, 24, of Matthews, Va., is excited to be part of one of the newest groups, Creative Writing Review. Forrest already posts some of his poetry online, but the Review group will enable him to share a longer piece once a month, and then choose another person’s work to critique.
“It’s a closed group and it’s only for other creative writing majors: You either have to seek acceptance or be invited to it, so you have a better chance of people who are critiquing your work knowing what they’re talking about,” he says.
As Bogle extends the site, he’s determined to keep the focus on what students want. Although some faculty and staff are permitted to enter SNHUconnect, the areas they can visit are strictly limited – and spaces where they are present are clearly labeled.
Lisa Phillips, a 27-year-old psychology major from Pelham, N.H., says that’s important because she uses SNHUconnect to get other students’ honest opinions about professors and courses. Recently, a faculty member commented on an assignment Phillips had posted in a way that seemed harsh to Phillips. She was upset, but felt better after venting to her friends on SNHUconnect.
“You can go on there and air out your troubles with school and not get judged,” she says. “I think it’s a godsend that we have that. I think I’d go crazy if not.”