A review of key considerations and tactics for building strong online learning communities.
After reading and reviewing this chapter students will be able to:
- Describe how instructor presence in a course is key to student satisfaction.
- Design for engagement and motivation keeps students interested in the course.
- Foster good communication strategies helps keep online students on track.
- Connecting with Online Students
- Building a Learning Community
- End-of-Chapter Resources
Section 1: Connecting with Online Students
There are many tools which can be used for connecting with students in a blended or online course. Making use of programs such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, Blackboard Collaborate in the Blackboard Learning Management System (LMS), or other virtual meeting programs can replicate a face-to-face meeting. Using asynchronous methods such as discussion forums, wikis, blogs, email, or other social media tools such as Facebook, Edmodo, YouTube, Twitter, and social bookmarking encourage active and collaborative learning among students and instructors. For the online instructor, the time investment can prove to be quite a challenge as the instructor’s presence must be felt on a regular and consistent basis. Students need to know that the instructor is available regularly and participates actively in the course – that he or she is present.
Once logged on to the course or course social media tool, an instructor can spend numerous hours dealing with various course management issues such as contacting students, providing feedback, addressing student concerns, drawing attention to misunderstandings, participating in discussions, and monitoring and grading assessments and assignments. To avoid unrealistic expectations, the students must be provided with specific information regarding the instructor’s availability and role in the online environment. As with any course resources, there are practical considerations which need to be addressed when delivering an online or blended course. Students and instructors may experience some issues with internet access, individual devices etc. These issues can often be solved by the instructor or the institution with relative ease.
In addition to the academic requirements of the course, the technical requirements should be very clear to students in advance of the start date. This will ensure that, except in extreme circumstances, all students will be able to fully participate in the course and meet all course requirements and expectations.
Work Smart, Not Hard
Social interaction in online courses should always be handled carefully and the instructor must be the role model and the moderator of such interactions. Use of humor can be problematic as students cannot see facial expressions or hear nuances of voice, so may not realize that humor is intended. For a similar reason, cultural sensitivity is vitally important and an instructor will have to be aware of the potential for disagreements to take place and how to deal with them swiftly. Additionally, from an instructor’s point of view, those who are used to seeing certain cues in a face-to-face context, such as confused expressions to indicate lack of understanding, have to rely on the students themselves to identify difficulties in understanding in the online environment.
Learning to communicate online effectively, clearly, and politely is often termed as ’netiquette.’ Learning proper netiquette is one of the key online teaching and learning skills that both students and instructors will want to acquire. Learning to manage time effectively is also important, as online teaching and studies can easily take over one’s life. In an effort to communicate with everyone, an online instructor can begin to feel overwhelmed by the number of posts in their inbox or the discussion forums. Where possible, think of strategies to efficiently communicate that won’t take up all your time.
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Section 2: Building a Learning Community
The key to building connections and a warm learning environment online is simple: make it personal. Students want to feel that the instructor notices them, cares about them, and is there to support them. Following are some key tactics in creating strong online communities with students:
- First Names: Every time you address a student, in the discussions, by email, anywhere online, always use first names.
- Personal Notes: At the start of the course note a few facts about each student (Mark, Colorado, likes parks, wants to manage a wildlife refuge). Then, when relevant, integrate a personal fact into a comment you make (Nice work, John, on your discussion review of this nature preserve, which I expected since you would like to work in managing such areas after you graduate.). This takes very little effort or time on the instructor’s part, and makes the student feel like an individual who is valued and respected and will encourage them to feel more connected to and motivated in the online classroom discussions.
- Include Everyone: Make an effort to respond to students whose posts still have no replies, so that they will feel included and more motivated to participate as well.
- Make Communication Channels Clear: The instructor should set regular office hours, or give students multiple means of contacting them (phone, a special discussion forum, office hours, online chat-hours, email). At a minimum, an announcement of the week’s due dates and work should be sent out on the first day of the week. It is recommended to send at least two updates a week to keep students on track. A variety of regular communication methods with the students helps them to feel like they are part of a connected community.
- Allow Small Talk: Sometimes some discussion threads will break down into irrelevant chit-chat. Do not discourage this, as this allows the students the time to build stronger social connections that are important in keeping them motivated to participate in the online course. The instructor can reply and note the topic (Happy Birthday Sue!), and then gently guide them back onto the course topic with an interesting resource, fact, or question.
- Explain Netiquette: Some people have the wonderful knack for clear communication skills online while others do not. At the start of the course give students an outline of what netiquette is, and how to employ it. Here is a quick review of netiquette:
- Explain that disagreement is wonderful, but should be done politely. Give the students examples of polite disagreement (I respect and understand your views Jane, but I have a different experience I would like to share. . . ).
- Outline what emoticons are and how to use them to exhibit body language, meaning, and tone in the online format.
- Explain that ALL CAPITALS is equivalent to YELLING at someone.
- Tell students to refrain from sarcasm and even some jokes, as it is too easily misunderstood online.
- Manage the Personalities: Most blended and online courses will have the same array of student personalities that the face-to-face course will contain; the bully, the dominate, the timid, the unmotivated, the struggling, the high achiever, the demanding, and so on. How these personalities interplay online will be different from course to course. The timid may need to be encouraged less since it is online and they may feel less shy than in face-to-face sessions. On the other hand, a bully is less likely to be rude or inappropriate in the classroom where the instructor is present but may be more trouble in the online discussions. It is important to bring in the shy and struggling while managing the difficult so that bullies do not ruin the learning experience of other students.
- Example: Rude, inappropriate or offensive comments should be addressed directly and quickly to stop the behavior immediately. If a student posts something rude, never ignore it. It will only get worse if you do not put a stop to it. If necessary, delete the offending post. If the offended student emails you complaining, don’t commiserate (Yeah, that was rude of him!), and don’t say how you will deal with the other student (I will email and tell him to get his act together), as that could violate student privacy laws if you do this. Just explain that you have heard their concern, and will deal with the situation. Next, contact the rude student right away. Explain that you had to delete the post (if it was bad enough to delete).
- Important: Do not be too harsh or judgmental on the first offense. Give the student a way to save face so that they will be motivated to stop the behavior and so that the situation is less likely to escalate or get worse. In some cases they really did not realize how inappropriate or rude something was and will stop if given the chance to learn from their mistake. There may be something else going on in the student’s life to make them be rude in the forums (sick one at home, death in the family, financial or familial stress). In most instructors’ experience a personal, but polite and kind, email to them will put a stop to the behavior. In rare cases it may not, and then a more strict email may be warranted. If that does not stop it, then the situation may need to be escalated to the Academic Dean.
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- Think about the ways, methods, and tools you could use to create connections between and with your online students. List the techniques you might use to build a strong online learning community in which the students feel connected to each other as well as to the professor.
- Interaction and engagement in the online classroom helps learners develop a variety of perspectives on a given topic. Select a learning activity from one of your recent courses. Find a technique that could be applied to the learning activity that would help increase student interaction and engagement. Why would this particular tool help achieve that goal?
- Bob posts in the discussion forum on the difficulty he had in staying home to take care of his mother while she had cancer. He was referring to how hard it was to see a loved one who is sick, but his wording isn’t clear.
- Jane misunderstands, and thinks he is saying he didn’t like taking care of a relative and doesn’t like seeing sick people. She feels offended, so she replies to his post telling him that he is uncaring and selfish.
- Bob is distressed by Jane’s reply and emails the instructor to complain about Jane.
How would you reply to Jane and Bob in both the private and public forums? Construct your responses to help mediate this conflict and re-establish civility in the classroom.
Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D.R., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5(2), 1-17.
Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.
National Survey of Student Engagement. (2007) Experiences that matter: Enhancing student learning and success
– Annual Report 2007. Bloomington, IN: Center for Postsecondary Research
Vaughan, N. D. (2010). A blended community of inquiry approach: Linking student engagement and course redesign. Internet and Higher Education, 13(2), 60 – 65.