A University of Wisconsin Systems virtual student union has launched a trial run, offering students studying sustainable management online at various system schools a place to foster communities with fellow students.

The virtual union is currently only available for students studying online and at universities where the bachelor of science of sustainable management is offered; these include UW-Parkside, UW-River Falls, UW-Stout and UW-Superior.

The trial run is the next step before the virtual union is available to all students studying online in the UW System, not just those studying sustainable management at the respective universities, according to Dean of Continuing Education, Outreach and E-Learning David Schejbal.

Part of the trial run will be to make improvements to the union before it’s available to all students, Schejbal said.

“It’s really a pilot. Our goal is to make this available to all students [studying online],” Schejbal said. “It’s essentially a place for students to engage with one another.”

While courses are not taught on the virtual union, Schejbal says it will be a place for students seeking degrees online to socialize and discuss anything from financial aid to employer contacts, using resources and ideas from four different universities.

Schejbal wanted to make a distinction between campus-based students who occasionally take a class online to non-traditional students who want to finish their education online while balancing other responsibilities such as childcare.

The 63-credit sustainable management degree is essentially a green business degree, combining business, economic, social and environmental factors, Rovy Branon, executive director of the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Lab (AADLC), said.

There are a wide variety of students who will be using the virtual union, including students from Germany and China, Schejbal said.

He likened the virtual union to a university cafeteria where everyone goes. His goal is to have the same face-to-face conversations about job opportunities and course curriculums grow organically on the Internet.

Branon said the union would be integrating new technologies, some of which are similar to YouTube and Facebook.

A series of blogs from returning students who write about returning to school, a green jobs career center and a news feed displaying environmental related news are some of the features on the site, according to a statement from UW-Extensions.

The blogs have four categories; current students, faculty, featured returning students and Green Guests. The Green Guests blog has a line-up of sustainable management leaders who are expected to post to the blog throughout the semester, according to the statement.

The AADLC built the platform for the virtual union.

Approximately 100 students have access to the union, which includes blogs and forums with returning students relating their experiences, Branon said.

The enthusiasm for the new sustainable management degree and the online union is clear among the small number of students who have begun to use the union, Schejbal said.

The website contains links to UW System’s Sustainable Management Skype, Twitter and Facebook accounts — all venues for online students to communicate.

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