Here to Stay: Engaging Students Outside of the Classroom

In the last 10 years, colleges and universities started to move toward hybrid and online learning for delivering post-secondary education with virtual tools like Blackboard and Zoom. The COVID-19 pandemic saw most institutions of higher education shut down in March 2020, forcing institutions to move toward virtual learning at an increasingly rapid pace.

“In recent years, online schools have expanded beyond the virtual classroom to offer students extracurricular activities such as virtual clubs,” the U.S. Department of Education reported in 2021. As the pressure from the pandemic waned, colleges and universities experienced increased societal pressure regarding the delivery of education post-COVID. In one instance, Vermont Technical College, Castleton University, and Northern Vermont University were tasked with merging to become Vermont State University with a “digital first” method of educational delivery.

 “Academic institutes have an urgency to support students in an online environment while adapting extracurricular activities to the new domain and providing an additional level of engagement, support, and community of learners for their student body. It is important to adapt distance learning to meet all the social, academic, and cognitive needs of all students,” reported Aleen Kojayan and Aubrey Statti in “Extra-Curricular Activities: The Virtual Element,” published in 2021 in Advances in Educational Technologies and Instructional Design.

As colleges and universities look to provide education to students virtually and through hybrid models, institutions must also determine how to engage students outside of the classroom. Positive extracurricular and co-curricular life on college campuses are catalysts to student learning and development, which contributes to retention, persistence, and graduation, as George Kuh, J. H. Schuh, and E. J. Whitt noted in the 1991 book Involving Colleges: Successful Approaches to Fostering Student Learning and Development Outside the Classroom.

While research on the benefits of engaging in extracurricular life through remote and hybrid modalities is limited, psychologists Inaya Jaafar and Aubrey Statti noted that “there has been an increase in dropout rates in distance learning, particularly because students are struggling to engage” in their 2021 article, “Extra-Curricular Activities: The Virtual Element.”  

Traditional research on engaging socially outside of the classroom has shown that it assists students in building a peer group and connecting with faculty and staff in a different manner. Research by University of Wisconsin business professors Lois Smith and John Chenoweth, published in 2015 in the American Journal of Business Education, confirmed that student involvement in clubs and organizations helps students learn soft skills like team building, leadership, communication, and conflict resolution. 

More recently, writing in the American Psychological Association’s Technology, Mind, and Behavior, a team from Indiana University—two computer scientists and the dean of the School of Education—looked at the use of collaborative technologies before and during the pandemic in over 1,500 faculty and more than 4,800 students. While instructors favored individual learning activities prior to the pandemic, the team found that “in those situations where collaborative activities were present during remote instruction, triangulation analyses indicate that their use was related to improved performance as measured by instructors’ survey responses, by students’ performance in their courses, and by an increased sense of belonging among students.”

Observations show that “instructors’ survey responses, students’ estimated grades, and students’ survey responses all suggest improved academic and socioemotional outcomes when students had such opportunities to collaborate,” according to the work by Benjamin Motz, Joshua Quick, and Anastasia Morrone. They also found that “collaborative technologies were neither prioritized nor privileged during the rapid transition to remote instruction,” and that a “further consequence of this rapid transition is likely that many of the potential benefits of introducing more collaborative tools and resources in supporting students’ development of social and disciplinary knowledge were not realized.”

This probable outcome is most likely due to the lack of time observed by students and teachers in planning and implementing effective activities to conduct and regulate their teaching in addition to the numerous stressors that were introduced because of rapid social and institutional change.

Additional new research has shown that students naturally utilize online platforms to socialize with others. A recent study, “Extra-Curricular Activities and Well-Being: Results from a Survey of Undergraduate University Student During COVID-19 Lockdown Restrictions,” of 786 students showed that 89% of respondents engaged in socializing with others virtually.

This was the third highest activity students engaged in during the pandemic, after listening to music and watching movies. Recognizing that students who are involved in extracurricular life on college campuses are more likely to persist and graduate, there now seems to be evidence that during the pandemic students who sought opportunities to socialize virtually with one another outside of the classroom may represent a group who sustained student success as remote learners. That was emphasized again in the same study when participants were asked which activities most contributed to their wellness. It wasn’t listening to music or watching movies, but instead it was outdoor exercise, followed closely by socializing with others virtually. They found that be it extracurricular activities conducted virtually or in person, students felt that social interaction made those activities most beneficial.

Post-pandemic, Vermont Technical College and many other campuses followed that practice, continuing to offer both in person and virtual options for club members to participate in organization activities. Specifically, Vermont Technical used three strategies adopted from “Virtual Resource and Guidance for Student Organizations.” These strategies could benefit all higher education leaders: 

  • Move meetings, group chats, or events to
    an online or virtual platform.
  • Utilize OrgSync features for organization business like elections, award ceremonies,
    and news.
  • Host virtual trivia and game nights to recruit
    and engage students.

Many other campuses embraced these strategies during the pandemic, and in many cases, shifted to hybrid versions of completely virtual programming after the pandemic, often to meet the needs of non-traditional students.

Ithaca College conducted a virtual student leadership institute with flexible registration and participation schedules; the University of California–San Diego opened a virtual student union for counseling, psychological, and legal services, where students could also take video-based yoga classes and listen to student-curated Spotify playlists. Virtual museums, art platforms, and giveaways also kept students engaged.

“Our virtual events have seen participation from students who never had the opportunity to participate before,” said James Contratto, who was associate director for student activities, university programs, at the University of South Alabama Student Center South Alabama, when he spoke with ACUI. “We’ve had nursing students, grad students, students who are parents, and non-traditional students participate and have a great time. I believe offering virtual programs will still be a part of our programming schedule in future years,” said Contratto, who is now executive director for student involvement at the College of Charleston.

Benefits and Challenges of Engaging Students Virtually

Activities Fees

Colleges and universities in the United States have traditionally charged a student activity fee to support student organizations and to provide extracurricular life on campus. For example, the SUNY Board of Trustees policy allows for state operated campuses in New York to charge a mandatory student activity fee of up to $250 per student. If state colleges continue to collect activity fees for students in hybrid or online programs, they need to ensure that there are quality extracurricular activities provided that engage student interests.

SUNY–Empire State students in the higher educational leadership and change doctoral program pay a $35 student activity fee each semester for a program that is completely online (except for three days of residencies each year). Services provided by the fee include a student kickoff, a student conference, student scholarships, and a non-traditional student week. The first cohort in the doctoral program established a club called the Higher Education Leadership Association that meets virtually, offering members the opportunity to engage with speakers in the field. 

Since the SUNY student activity fee requires students to vote every two years whether they want the fee to be voluntary or mandatory, it is important for colleges such as Empire State to show the value of the fee for virtual students to avoid potential loss of the fee and funding in the future. 

Promoting Civility

Another challenge is promoting civility in virtual modalities such as virtual classrooms, virtual clubs and organizations, and virtual extracurricular events. In 2020, when the college moved toward primarily remote delivery, the Vermont Technical College Student Council began meeting through Zoom; this has continued in a hybrid model. On occasion, what could be a healthy debate about student concerns has turned disrespectful with students yelling at one another over Zoom. While advisors did observe students engaging with social attentiveness in the remote groups, civil discourse appears to be less harmonious during virtual meetings. Staff advisors wrestle with the challenge of reigning students back into a polite, healthy discussion in a virtual format. Further research regarding this dynamic would be beneficial as engaging students outside of the classroom virtually becomes more prevalent.  

Health and Wellness 

Health and wellness opportunities through virtual options have expanded how colleges can provide services. As Vermont Technical College merges with other colleges to become Vermont State University, the university is considering partnering with TimelyMD to provide students with 24/7 access to virtual counseling and health. There is concern that by providing this service the college will no longer need in-person health and wellness staff. However, the data obtained from the Annual Healthy Minds Survey conducted at Vermont Technical College shows that more than 75% of current students prefer in-person services and more than 50% of the respondents would not opt into virtual services. A hybrid of virtual and in-person health services would provide healthcare to the most students possible, which was the position Virginia Tech took in adopting the TimelyMD service.

“We know that mental health is a critical component of overall well-being,” said Frances Keene, interim vice president for student affairs. “TimelyCare services complement our existing mental health services and educational programming by giving students a robust and flexible way to use technology to seek out support 24/7.”

Student Conduct Meetings

Hosting student conduct hearings through Zoom has made scheduling more flexible for students and professional staff. For low-level conduct cases, the flexibility and ease of meeting virtually has proven to be advantageous. The challenge of virtual conduct meetings is more apparent during higher-level cases that could result in students being suspended or dismissed from the college or the residence hall. For a conduct officer to build a rapport and be able to understand the nuances of higher-level cases, the in-person option is more beneficial. Additionally, some students who agree to virtual conduct hearings do not have the bandwidth to turn their camera on. Lack of non-verbal clues and facial expressions limits a conduct hearing officer’s ability to fully investigate a case.

The pandemic also saw a rise in student conduct hearings overall, virtually or not. At the University of Pennsylvania, the Office of Student Conduct saw case investigations of cheating spike 72% in 2019–20, when classes moved online, and cases of “unauthorized collaboration/use of another person’s work” nearly doubled, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian. Reports of academic misconduct tripled at Virginia Commonwealth University and doubled at the University of Georgia in 12-month periods during the pandemic. This resulted in campuses implementing online proctoring and browser lockdowns during testing, but also in effort to
communicate more with students about what constituted misconduct. 

Flexible Learning

An additional benefit of engaging students outside of the classroom virtually is providing a flexible option for students who wish to live in the residence halls on a physical campus but sign up for online only classroom learning. Students may want a “traditional college experience” from the engagement standpoint, allowing them to interact in activities with peers in-person. But the flexibility of a virtual class may better meet the needs of some students. For example, a virtual student can choose when to complete their online classes giving them more free time to be a club leader, participate in sports, or become a residence hall advisor. Specifically, athletes who travel regularly for games during the week, non-traditional students who still want to engage on campuses, and those with jobs have a more flexible schedule when virtual options regarding academic participation are offered.

It Is, After All, About Meeting Students Where They Are

We know that participation in extra-curricular activities is associated with increased well-being for college students, and there is now widespread recognition that students want robust virtual services and engagement options. Now that they have seen the convenience of getting to meet with advisers, attend programs, receive health services, and attend workshops virtually, it is no surprise students will want to see options continue.

“One of the lessons learned from programming during a pandemic is being able to adjust and meet students where they were,” said Joe Lizza, director of Chamberlain Student Center & Campus Activities at Rowan University. “This forced us to change our model of programming and rethink traditional events to be able to successfully serve our residential on-campus and off-campus commuters and remote learners. These adaptations can now carry forward post-pandemic to more equitably engage those students who may not typically be on campus during the evening or weekend hours.”

At the University of Arkansas, the award-winning master’s thesis of a communications student found evidence that agreed with Lizza’s belief that the future for virtual engagement holds untold opportunities. Kaleb Turner, a 2021 graduate of Arkansas’ Department of Communications, won the 2022 Top Qualitative Thesis Award from the National Communication Associations’ Master’s Education Section for his work “Investigating the Role of Social Capital and Everyday Communication in Campus Community Resilience During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Designed to explore how individuals crafted a sense of normalcy, harnessed social support, and developed positive-focused narratives over the span of the pandemic, the research sought to understand how a university community communicatively constructed resilience during a public health crisis that disrupted the traditional capacities individuals and communities rely on when faced with adversity.

“Aligned with the belief that resilience is about bouncing forward,” the research suggested that the “contradictory messages students constructed about resilience were missed opportunities to understand themselves, the lessons they learned over the pandemic, and their individual capacities to adapt to future challenges.” In concluding, the paper noted that “universities work with students to develop individual and community trauma narratives,” a process that is already informed by research and by scholars and professionals at the center of post-pandemic interventions, according to Turner’s advisor, associate professor Matthew Spialek.

Turner’s work underscores the use of individualized education plans that accommodate the unique needs of students, no matter where they are. This personalization movement has been facilitated by capacity built into higher education through enhanced technological infrastructure. In some ways, as higher education continues to augment hybrid and virtual capacity into learning and engagement, students may experience more of a horizontal structure for learning by using digital tools, as opposed to vertical structures found on campuses.

There are now free, research-based tools that allow educators to tailor recommendations for student learning and engagement that support diverse learners, an example of how artificial intelligence’s presence will continue to impact higher education. A report from the Boston College Center for International Higher Education found that in 2020 more than 220 million students were directly affected by the pandemic, translating to the education technology market expanding that year by nearly 10% to almost $78 billion. Fortune Business Insights predicts that market will surge to $169 billion by 2028, “creating an unprecedented relianceon technology.”

The good news is that more and more research is reflecting that when remote instruction and engagement is blended with choices for on-campus opportunities, performance by professionals and students can support a sense of belonging, positive interactions, and most importantly, opportunities toward a path for overall improved learning experiences. 


  • Jason Esner

    Jason Enser has been working in higher education for over 20 years. He is currently dean of student affairs at Vermont Technical College, and previously served as dean for student affairs at SUNY–Adirondack and as associate dean of students for student organizations and student center operations at Clarkson University. He has a Master of Science in student personnel administration from Buffalo State College, a Master of Business Administration from Castleton University, a Bachelor of Science in communication and political science from SUNY–Fredonia, and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in education at SUNY–Empire State College.