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Report Demonstrates How Virtual Communities Can Foster Belonging in Online Learning Settings

The College Innovation Network’s study highlights best practices for facilitating peer connections

Feb 16, 2022

SALT LAKE CITY - ​The College Innovation Network (CIN), an initiative spearheaded by WGU Labs, today published the results of a study that illuminates the importance of fostering belonging among online students, and demonstrates how intentional design of virtual spaces can enable impactful peer connections.   

Previous research has shown the benefits of improving belonging for college students. For example, underrepresented and underserved student populations at a broad-access university who took part in a belonging intervention had greater academic persistence over two years as a result of increased belonging. Yet, as colleges and universities embrace online learning, many are recognizing the need to account for the lack of organic, spontaneous connections it affords.

Building Belonging with InScribe at Rio Salado College shares how mostly-online Rio Salado College partnered with EdTech startup InScribe to create a customized virtual community for Rio Salado students. Named RioConnect, the social platform was designed to provide students with a virtual place to ask questions, share resources, and provide support. 

“Evaluating EdTech has traditionally been difficult because solutions are often implemented to all students at once. At Rio Salado, CIN was able to compare the sense of belonging among students who began participating in RioConnect soon after launch, with students who either joined later or never at all. By surveying these different user groups six-weeks apart, CIN was able to track changes in belonging for more than 200 students,” explained Dr. Omid Fotuhi, Director of Learning Innovation at WGU Labs. “This is the closest to the gold standard of evaluation that is available in the marketplace, and offers the greatest confidence about the impact of a given solution.” 

Key findings include:

  • Students who engaged with RioConnect reported greater belonging and greater peer connectedness than students who never joined, and students who joined the community in the middle of the study had significant increases in belonging after they began using RioConnect. 

  • During the study period students viewed resources posted in RioConnect 19,048 times; viewed conversations 142,214 times; and replied or reacted to conversations 920 times. 

  • 64% of students said they would recommend RioConnect to other students looking to connect with peers.

  • 70% of students said the InScribe platform was easy to use.

  • Students said connecting with their peers was their most “liked” aspect of the platform, followed by InScribe’s UX. 

“It's really encouraging to see such robust results after just a couple of months of students using the RioConnect community,” said the report’s author, Dr. Barbaro. “The work that Rio Salado and InScribe did to create this space for students shows that intentional design of virtual spaces can have a significant impact on students' experiences."

The study uncovered several best practices for higher education administrators looking to launch similar initiatives. InScribe co-founder and CEO Katherine Kappler advised, “Communities thrive when they are authentic and reflect the voices and ideas of all the members. We designed InScribe with that in mind, integrating directly into the platforms Rio is already using, keeping the interface clean and easy to navigate, and showcasing the meaningful conversations taking place among students.”

Janelle Elias, vice president of strategy & advancement at Rio Salado College, shared, “When launching an ed tech solution intended for students, it is critically important to involve them in the decision-making process. At Rio, we partnered with student leaders to design the community. Because of their involvement, students felt greater ownership and actively engaged and supported their peers using the platform. ‘Students helping students move forward with Rio’ became our motto.”

CIN was launched in 2020 by WGU Labs—Western Governors University’s research and development hub—with support from the Charles Koch Foundation and is designed to connect leaders from colleges and universities with educational technology (EdTech) innovators to advance students’ academic, career, and life outcomes. Learn more about CIN and the report at     

About the College Innovation Network  

The College Innovation Network (CIN) at WGU Labs is a network of higher education institutions committed to addressing the core challenge of promoting belonging and engagement in the modern higher education environment. We’re leveraging technology to build highly engaged learning communities from enrollment through graduation, and beyond. CIN supports educational institutions by identifying areas of need, implementing effective education technology for students, and demonstrating impact through research. Join us as we build learning communities where all students belong. Learn more about CIN at

About Rio Salado College

Rio Salado College is one of ten Maricopa Community Colleges and one of the largest online public community colleges in the nation, serving nearly 40,000 students annually with more than 28,000 online in 50 states and internationally. Founded in 1978 and headquartered in Tempe, Arizona, Rio Salado offers 600+ online classes, 135+ degree and certificate programs and general education courses. The college also provides support for dual enrollment, military and incarcerated students and serves as the largest provider of adult education in Arizona. Learn more about Rio Salado College at

About InScribe

InScribe is a digital student support platform that leverages the power of community and artificial intelligence to connect students with the answers, resources, and individuals they need to succeed. InScribe's digital communities cut across the traditional support silos in higher education, giving students a single place to turn when they need help—no matter the topic or time of day. Students benefit from on-demand, peer-to-peer, and student-to-expert collaboration that helps them feel more connected, increasing student engagement, satisfaction, and retention. Learn more about InScribe at

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