How one online university helps students stay connected and engaged SALT LAKE CITY — For an increasing number of adults returning to college to complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree, online universities offer the accessibility and flexibility they need to fit their busy lives. And, with a little research, they can find a quality, accredited institution that will allow them to achieve their educational goals without neglecting their work and family responsibilities. A wealth of information is available online to help students select an online college, but once they’ve enrolled, one of the most daunting challenges for both the students and faculty is establishing and maintaining a sense of community and connection to the university. In other words, how do you take the ‘distance’ out of distance education? Western Governors University, a non-profit, online university and an innovator in distance education, was founded by 19 U.S. governors to provide working adults with affordable access to a quality college degree. WGU is not only all online, it uses a unique competency-based learning model. This competency-based approach to learning allows students to advance in their online degree program by demonstrating their knowledge and skill, instead of logging hours in class. Rather than “attending” classes online, students have 24/7 access to a variety of learning resources for each course. They can complete their studies on a schedule that allows them to meet their job and family responsibilities. WGU faculty do not teach—they serve as mentors, working one-on-one with each student to provide coaching, support, and guidance. Since the WGU “campus” is online, its nearly 24,000 students live and work in all 50 states, and WGU faculty members are also located across the U.S. Unlike universities established using a traditional, brick-and-mortar approach, WGU’s academic model was designed for the online environment. Just as the university employs technology to teach, it also uses technology to bring students and faculty together in several ways: Each student “meets” with his or her mentor by phone regularly—usually every other week—and has contact through email, instant messaging, text messaging, and telephone as needed, often even on weekends. All WGU students have access to an online portal, which serves as a gateway to student communities created to help students and mentors build relationships. There are two types of communities: Program communities are focused on helping students expand their knowledge in their field of study, providing information regarding industry research and current events, and offering networking opportunities. Learning communities provide a virtual ‘place’ for students to meet to obtain subject-specific information as they work through their studies. These communities provide small group learning sessions and individual academic help from subject matter experts called course mentors. Social media tools allow students, staff, and alumni to connect using platforms they work with every day. Facebook pages for Western Governors University, WGU Indiana, and WGU alumni provide regular updates on the university as well as student and alumni accomplishments, and provide prospective students, students, alumni, and faculty with a way to exchange thoughts, comments, and ideas. WGU has its own YouTube channel, Tweets news regularly, and encourages students and staff to blog and join online conversations. WGU was designed for busy working adults who need to finish an undergraduate or graduate degree, but can’t fit a traditional college or university into their busy schedules. WGU recognizes that its students are individuals with different needs, and as with its competency-based learning, the university offers students a variety of ways to connect. For more information about Western Governors University, go to www.wgu.edu, or call 1.866.225.5948.