Building community in an online course is no easy feat. But it’s so important.
A sense of belonging to a community has a strong positive impact on learning. It affects motivation, task persistence, course success, and perception of the instructor. It has what we can call a skyrocketing effect on student learning.
If building community in an online course can affect all those things, it has to happen. You owe it to your students to give them every chance for success. This series is designed to help you leverage the magic that is online community.
Over the course of four weeks, we’re going to
- learn about building community in asynchronous and synchronous courses
- uncover the power of teamwork in an online course
- and puzzle out how to build strong teacher/student relationships in the online world.
That’s a lot, I know. But it’s going to be so worth it. Stick with me.
What about those words, though?
First, let’s talk about those um… yucky… words: asynchronous and synchronous. Ugh. There’s got to be better words for this. Chronos is time. Syn means same. A means opposite. So synchronous is literally ‘same time’ and asynchronous is ‘not same time’.
In online-class-speak that means everyone moves through the course together, synchronously, or people move at their own pace, asynchronously.
For this series, I will call asynchronous courses self-paced courses. Synchronous courses will be paced courses. Those are much easier to spell. Thank you.
What does it take to build community in an in-person class?
Think about what it takes to build community in a face-to-face class. If you’ve taken an in-person class you enjoyed, chances are it had many of these elements:
- An enthusiastic and personable instructor
- Friendly and cooperative students
- Great class discussion
- A sense of accomplishment
- Some laughter or playfulness
Doesn’t that sound like a class you want to be in? Your students think so, too.
What does it take to build community in a class of scattered learners?
How do you accomplish all that in an online course?
Start with high expectations. Be clear that you expect students to participate in community-centered assignments. Be consistent in giving them those assignments. You’re not being harsh or asking too much. You know the value of community and it will take consistent effort to pull them along until they are moving under their own speed. Think of yourself as a tugboat.
There are a number of strategies you can use to start building community. You don’t have to do them all, but you may find that many are intertwined.
Strategies that Work in Both Self-Paced and Paced Courses
Several elements of community-building work well in both types of courses. I’ll mention those in this first post. We can refer to them as needed throughout the series.
Have students post responses to their assignments in a blog or online journal. This gives students the opportunity to reflect on their learning or explain their thinking to an authentic audience. It also allows them the opportunity to catch errors in their thinking as they write and revise.
Personal photos can build a sense of community. Have students introduce themselves in the discussion board and include a photo of themselves. This allows students to feel like they have ‘met’ if they can recognize each other by face. Whenever possible, use photos as avatars rather than other images.
Video is powerful stuff. It allows us to feel like we are in the same room with someone. Even if the video is recorded and not live, we feel a sense of connection. Have students present something in video and post it where others can see it. Seeing other students present information in video connects the class. It increases the sense of presence and lessens isolation.
Video also gives students a chance to practice presentation skills. The more students get in front of the camera, the more relaxed they will become. Consider requiring some assignments to be answered in video. How Student Video Presentations Can Build Community in an Online Course by Robert Talbert is an excellent example of the value of student video presentations.
Have someplace you can showcase students. You can use this as a place to share successes or just as a place to spotlight and let students get to know one another. A showcase of successful students inspires other students and gives them something to aspire to.
A showcase also allows students to get to know another student better and feel less isolated in class. Kind of like having coffee one-on-one.
Conversation is critical in building community. Discussion boards give students a place for academic and social discussion. Have a social discussion board where students introduce themselves. You can post questions there that are light and entertaining. The more students learn about each other, the more they will grow together as a group and support each other.
Another community builder is to post a quote and ask students how this applies to their lives. The personal connections students make to the quote give insight into their classmates and help reduce isolation.
You can use the discussion board to get a sense of student goals. It also helps students find other students at their level. You can ask questions specific to your course topic to help students get a sense of their place in the class community. Ask things like “Rate your confidence level on the concept of ___” or “Rate your knowledge about ___”. This allows students to reflect on their own knowledge levels. It also shows students that they are not expected to know everything already. And you get valuable insight about your learners.
Create open-ended discussion questions. These encourage longer answers and invite discussion more than closed questions which only require a yes or a no.
Take part in the discussion. When the instructor is participating the learner is more active. Try not to answer all the questions, though. Encourage students to respond to each other or expand on each other’s statements.
Discussion boards, unlike live chats, allow students the time to reflect and write thoughtful responses. It’s a good place to ask students for feedback or ideas.
The list above isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a good foundation. We will be diving deeper into some of those topics as they apply to self-paced and paced courses.
Strategies for self-paced (asynchronous) courses
Since students aren’t entering and exiting the class at the same time, you will need to make some adjustments to account for that.
Discussion boards in a self-paced course
The discussion board in a self-paced class will be a rolling discussion board. If you can leave the past posts available to students, it allows them to see they are not alone. They are walking with others. Some a little ahead and some a little behind.
Some online courses use a single Facebook group for their course discussion board. This is an excellent way to build community in a self-paced course as it allows past learners to remain and support current learners.
Successful Facebook groups are active and the learners enjoy helping each other. New students to a course and Facebook group will have a ready-made support group of students who have completed the course or are ahead of them. Interactivity is generally higher than a regular in-course discussion board.
Ask students to share their purpose for taking the course and what they hope to get out of it. Also ask something fun. These types of questions humanize their classmates and help build community. Don’t forget to include photos and videos.
When you’re using a discussion board, whether in a learning management system or on Facebook or some other group, it’s important to stay organized. Students can get overwhelmed trying to find the information they need. If possible, you post the question and students can only comment. This will keep the group page from becoming cluttered.
Set regular challenges
Another nifty way to get students moving forward through the course and connect them to other students is to set regular challenges. This could be something simple like ‘write 5,000 words this week’ in a writing class. It could be ‘take 500 pictures this week’ in a photography class. Have the students post their results, in text, photo, or video, to the group. Make sure students can access all past successes so they can feel part of a community.
Building Community Takes Work
I’m sure you’ve noticed that each of the strategies I talked about in this post take some thought and planning. If you’re just starting to work on building community, choose one or two strategies to work on first. As you get comfortable with them, incorporate a new strategy. I see four strategies being a good solid toolset to help you build your community. You choose your four and work up to them.
There are two pieces that are non-negotiable for this community-building to work, though. You have to start with high expectations and maintain them. And you need to be an active participant in the course. Those two things have to be in place or nothing else will work.
Next week we’ll cover some strategies for building community in a paced (synchronous) course.
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