Fostering community across geographically dispersed university campuses

Researchers find that students at branch campuses feel a stronger sense of community with the overall university than students at the main campus

Research led by experts at the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology reveals that students at branch campuses tend to feel a sense of community with the university at large, whereas students at the main campus tend to consider only their own campus as being important to their community.  Credit: Adobe Stock: Drobot DeanAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Many U.S. universities comprise a main campus and several branch campuses distributed throughout the state. Do students at these various campuses feel that they belong to a unified university community?

New research, led by experts at the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology, reveals that students at branch campuses tend to feel a sense of community with the university at large, whereas students at the main campus tend to consider only their own campus as being important to their community. The findings could inform the creation of new technologies that help to strengthen community bonds among students, regardless of their location.

“There is a lot of evidence to show that feeling more connected to your instructors and classmates not only promotes a stronger academic performance, but also a more positive mental state and enhanced long-term relationships with the institution, such as alumni engagement,” said Mary Beth Rosson, professor of information sciences and technology who co-led the studies. “We are trying to explore the sources of what contributes to those feelings of connection and belonging and if there is anything we can do to promote them.”

The researchers aimed to learn how students at a geographically distributed university understand community, the levels of community they feel, how their campus location may affect those feelings and technology’s role in their community-building. They conducted two exploratory studies — a survey of nearly 200 students across all campuses at a geographically distributed university in the northeastern U.S. to examine their feelings of community and how they vary across campuses, and interviews with 10 students who had transitioned from a branch location to the main campus after two years.

In the survey, participants were asked to select which best defined their perception of the student community — their friends and personal network, students at their campus or all university students across campuses. Participants were then asked to assess their feelings of community based on the definition they had chosen. The survey also asked participants about their engagement in university activities, knowledge of university trivia and frequency of travel to other campuses.

In their interviews with students who had transitioned to the main campus from a branch campus location, the researchers aimed to learn how feelings of community may shift when students change campuses, as well strategies they use to cope with the transition.

The team found that students at branch campuses tend to view the university holistically with all campuses being a part of the same collective community, while those at the main campus were more inclined to think of the university community solely in the context of their single location.

Through both studies, the researchers discovered that a shared identity with one’s campus, or with the entire university, is important to how students think about community. Overall, students reported relatively strong feelings of student community, but varied in how they defined community. Most notably, there was an imbalance in the number of branch campus students describing the university community as holistic compared with those at the main campus.

The researchers also found that students at branch campuses were more likely to indicate that their personal networks contributed to their sense of community — which, according to the researchers, could be a result of the smaller student bodies at the relatively smaller campuses. Branch campus students also made an active effort to become a part of the broader university community, with the majority traveling at least once to the main campus during their undergraduate career. Conversely, main campus study participants rarely traveled to other campuses.

“In a main campus student’s mental model, a branch campus does not actively register as something that they are a part of or something that they consider an active part of the entire university community,” said Sanjana Gautam, a doctoral candidate of informatics who co-led the research. “Meanwhile, the students at branch campuses have the sense that the main campus exists and belongs to the same university umbrella as their own location.”

With many branch campus students looking toward the main campus for feelings of belonging, and far fewer main campus students doing the reverse, the researchers suggest design ideas for tools and activities that could help students build and strengthen students’ supportive communities and could promote a cross-campus community identity. These ideas include virtual guided tours of branch campuses, an interactive multi-campus map information system and a unified platform for members of student organizations across all campuses to engage with one another and to coordinate activities across locations.

“One thing we found was that student groups are very strongly formed during the first two years of the undergraduate experience,” said Gautam. “So, if you are joining an organization in your third year, it’s harder to break into the social construct. But if you have a friend who can introduce you to their friends and help you grow your network, that kind of matching would be really beneficial for students who are changing campuses.”

While the researchers’ studies centered on a single university, they said that their design suggestions could potentially be applied to other institutions, or even global corporations, where there is a primary campus or headquarters with other students and employees studying or working at geographically-dispersed locations.

The work was published in the April 2021 proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction and will be presented at the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW), beginning Oct. 23. It was supported partially by a research grant from the College of IST.

Last Updated October 25, 2021