Online Courses, Services and Social Networking Tools Foster Opportunities for Community College Students, Study Shows

Community colleges are using online courses, online support services and Web 2.0 social networking tools to increase learning opportunities for non-traditional students, a recently released national report on community college student engagement shows.

The report, titled "Making Connections: Dimensions of Student Engagement," is produced annually by The University of Texas at Austin's Center for Community College Student Engagement. The 2009 Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) includes a cohort of more than 400,000 students from 663 institutions in 48 states as well as British Columbia, the Marshall Islands, Nova Scotia and Ontario.

Grounded in research about effective educational practice, the CCSSE assesses the degree of community college students' engagement in education by asking questions about the effort students invest in their studies, ways they interact with faculty and fellow students, degree of academic challenge they perceive and support they receive from their colleges.

"Community colleges serve students who face a number of competing priorities and challenges," says Dr. Kay McClenney, Center director. "Unlike the 'traditional' student body at a four-year university, the students at a community college are more likely to attend school part-time, be older, work full-time, commute in order to attend classes and be parents with family responsibilities.

"We want to know--and leaders at community colleges want to know--how best to connect with these students and support them as they work, sometimes against significant odds, to gain an education. The 2009 survey results reveal that technology is yet another tool that colleges can use to meet students 'where they are,' both literally and figuratively."

This year's survey was the first to include a special focus on students' use of Web 2.0 social networking tools, with CCSSE respondents reporting steady increases in students' use of computers, the Internet and e-mail each year since 2004.

McClenney stresses that, whether colleges use Facebook, Twitter and online tutoring or in-person interaction, the connections that seem to work best for students are the ones that require a personal investment on the part of the student and instructor and a real commitment to listening and being heard.

"Responses to our special-focus survey questions about Web 2.0 use indicate that some use of social networking tools improves engagement," says McClenney, "but there is a point of diminishing returns. Using social networking tools to communicate with other students, instructors or staff about coursework correlates with higher levels of engagement, and the more frequently students use these tools for academic purposes, the higher the returns. On the other hand, highly frequent use of social networking tools 'for any purpose,' including uses unrelated to academics, is associated with lower levels of student effort related to their studies."

Data from this year's CCSSE indicate:

  • About 22 percent of students over 24 years of age reported never using social networking tools.
  • Around 78 percent of students 18 to 24 years of age said they used social networking tools to communicate with other students, instructors or college staff about coursework.
  • Only around 17 percent of students have participated in internships, field experiences co-op experiences or clinical assignments.
  • While the majority of students (62 percent) and faculty members (85 percent) say they believe academic advising and planning are very important to students, only 29 percent of instructors refer students to these services often.
  • Well over half of the students (60 percent) attend college part-time.
  • About 54 percent work more than 20 hours a week.
  • Well over one-third of students are first-generation college students.
  • Around 67 percent of community college faculty teach part-time, typically teaching half to two-thirds of all course sections.

The CCSSE report states that "the potential for creating on-campus connections is largely untapped" and notes that connections beyond the campus are most likely to happen when colleges incorporate them into mandatory learning activities.

The Community College Leadership Program, of which the CCSSE is a research and service initiative, is ranked number one in the nation. It has produced more community college chancellors, presidents, vice presidents and university professors with community college specialties than any other university program. The Program is in the College of Education's Department of Educational Administration.

To learn more about the Center for Community College Student Engagement and download a free copy of this year's CCSSE report, visit