Although students enrolled in online higher education programs have discussion boards, chat rooms, and other resources available to connect with others, they can understandably sometimes feel alienated from their classmates since they can’t always interact in person. The assumption is that if they were on a traditional campus, it would be easier to socialize and they would feel less lonely – right?
Cut to a typical scene at a college campus today. In the courtyard outside of a cafeteria, groups of people sit around and mill about, most deeply engrossed in listening, watching, or talking. However, hardly any of these students are actually communicating with one another, and sometimes not even with a person at all – more commonly than not, the subjects of their attention are often a cell phone, mp3 player, or tablet.
Never at any other time in history has the phrase “alone in a crowd” rung more true than today. With the explosion in smartphone use, communicating with people who are miles away from us, spending a free moment zoning out with a YouTube clip, or listening to music is the norm. But with the merging of technology and education, face-to-face communication can fall by the wayside when it’s so much easier and more comfortable to just hop on a device. Those students in the scenario described above may see many of the same people every day in that very same spot, but most probably haven’t met or spoken.
However, when you’re in need of advice and perspectives regarding personal topics from others who may be going through similar things as you, how can you know whom to talk to – while maintaining your anonymity? It would help if people were walking around wearing blindfolds along with signs around their necks displaying the category of issues they would love to talk to you about. Sound farfetched?
Enter Spill. Upon logging in, you’re urged to “Spill your guts. Share advice. Connect with people who get it.” It’s an online community offering peer support where traditional and online students (even non-students) can anonymously vent in forums about specific topics, and receive answers and guidance from others who have been in their shoes. As site creator Heidi Allstop told Co.EXIST, she felt frustrated by long wait times at her school’s counseling center, but also by fellow students constantly walking around with their heads down and headphones on. She realized that many of them could be going through the same things, but wouldn’t know it because they were choosing not to connect with one another. A website like hers allows users to do what they simply cannot or will not do in person, despite how much they may need to.
The new social norm of communicating mostly via smartphones and social media seems to be a train that isn’t stopping any time soon. So an online forum that encourages open, online student communication is certainly an arena that can be further explored and taken advantage of. Perhaps individual institutions can adapt their own Spill communities to further customize the advice students can receive. Who knows, perhaps it could even lead to an eventual good old-fashioned face-to-face bonding moment here and there.