Networking at a Distance

Building a Student Community Online

One drawback of studying online is the lack of student interaction.  AU has tens of thousands of students, yet few of us ever meet or speak to another student.  We study in our silos, often struggling along without the peer support system that other university’s students enjoy.

There are supports for AU students, but they feel as remote as we are.  Sometimes we have a question but think it’s not important enough to bother our tutor or phone AU.  In a classroom setting, we’d just turn to the student next to us and ask.  In an online setting, we have to reach a bit further.

Many AU students counter the isolation of distance studies by joining online groups.  Although not everyone is engaged in social media, many AU students have found their student experience enhanced by the small but vibrant online community of fellow students.  While lacking the intimacy of in-person interactions, social media forums can still offer camaraderie and support.

The most popular online AU student community is the student-moderated Athabasca University group (a.k.a.  the “AthaU” group) on Facebook.  Members of this group are invited to “discuss any AU-related subjects or events, or anything else that you think might pertain to AU.”  This group has been active for over ten years.

Having a social media forum like the AthaU Facebook group can enhance the AU experience for students and help them feel less alone.  JoAnne Formanek Gustafson, who has helped administer the AthaU group for the past five years, says the group “helps [members] to link with other students and gain a sense of being a student community.”

The AthaU group is a good place to seek student feedback on general topics.  “There are lots of questions about assignments, exams, and funding.” says JoAnne.  “Occasionally people are seeking reassurance regarding their pace of study, length of time taken to achieve a degree, and similar issues.”

While not affiliated with the university itself, enough AU people congregate on the AthaU group to make it likely someone can answer most questions or direct you to someone who can.  Most of the 2000 group members are students, but a few tutors and AU staff belong to the group, too.

“Similar to a bricks-and-mortar setting,” JoAnne says, “this is a shared space where tutors as well as administrative staff will occasionally ‘wander in’ and comment, often in cases where students are frustrated and really need to make contact with the university.  I’m always impressed when this happens; being a student in a distance program is an isolating experience and it can be hard to know when and where to call for help.”

JoAnne is well aware of the importance of connecting with peers at AU, having studied at AU for 25 years before graduating from the BGS program in 2013.  Things have changed over the years for AU students.  “When I first started at AU it was all paper-based, mail-in work,” says JoAnne.  “The transition to electronic communication changed everything!  As a group admin, I love being part of something that allows students to connect with their peers, and I enjoy offering encouragement and support to students in this unofficial role.”

A smaller AU student Facebook group is the Athabasca University Study Group.  AU student Rebecca started the study group in 2015 as “a place for AU students to come to motivate themselves and others.”  Group members are invited to use the group as a place to “post your goals for the day, encourage others, …  hold yourself accountable, or whatever else you need to get your work done.”   The almost-300 group members, primarily AU students, provide each other with support, motivation, and humour.

AU student Katy Lowe has been active on both Facebook groups.  Katy, who lives in Calgary, began her Bachelor of Psychology studies with AU in 2017.  Expecting isolation in online studies, she soon found otherwise.  “You know, as isolated as a correspondence university is, it’s kind of the opposite also,” Katy says.  “I would never have joined a group or randomly connected with students in person and yet I find myself posting frequently and enjoying communicating with other students on Facebook.  It’s kind of ironic that the more distant it is the more motivated to connect with peers I become!”

Katy’s not alone in making these connections part of her AU experience.  As JoAnne says, it’s been “interesting to see the continued growth” of the AthaU Facebook group.   “This group is a terrific community space; I’ve made some wonderful contacts from my time here with people that I would like to meet in real time and space.  As an educator I’m pleased to see people motivated to learn; I’d have to say that I get as much as I give by being an administrator.”

While some members of these online groups post infrequently, others regularly contribute to discussion threads.  Some discussions continue off-line, or spill over to other AU-related group pages.

Another Facebook group was created for and by AU students juggling their studies with growing families.  The Athabasca University Student Families Group  is “a place for student moms and dads to interact about everything:  housework, relationships, children, and of course school work.”  This group has been around for about 6 years and has over 300 members.

There are also a number of program-specific Facebook groups, including for Psychology, Bachelor of Commerce, and Criminal Justice.  Browse more AU-related Facebook groups at

Online students spend most of their time studying alone.  However, the AU experience need not be lonely.  Connections with other students—many of whom are just like you— are just a few clicks away.

AU’s student community reaches across borders.  Students still congregate for mutual support and camaraderie but, like our studies, our networking is mostly online.