Some learners feel isolated in online courses. Increasingly, online course instructors are seeking ways to build a sense of community among the members of their class. Enthusiasm is contagious. The more the course developer and teacher can establish a positive atmosphere for learning, the most comfortable students are to ask questions, contribute to discussions, and go beyond the basic course requirements.
Nurturing a Community Atmosphere
Unfortunately, there's not a magic formula or procedure for creating a class community. The best you can do is to establish a nurturing atmosphere where collaboration can evolve.
Alfred Rovai (Apr 2002) identified four elements of successful online communities in his article: Building Sense of Community at a Distance. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning; 3(1).
- Spirit. A sense of group identity.
- Trust. Honest exchanges and feedback among students
- Interaction. Quality interaction among students
- Common Expectations: Learning. Exchanges that contribute to learning
Based on a review of the literature, Rovai identified seven factors associated with a sense of community:
- Transactional Distance. The structure and dialogue of the course determines the psychological and communications space between learners and instructors. When you combine a flexible learning environment with lots of communication, students don't feel as distant.
- Social Presence. Students need ongoing communication to nurture a sense of community. Instructors must nurture this social presence throughout the length of the course.
- Social Equality. Instructors must establish an environment of cooperation over competition. When one person dominates discussions or when people feel excluded from activities, students disconnect from the community. The instructor must create an atmosphere of mutual respect.
- Small Group Activities. Too much or too little structure can weaken a community. Explore ways to incorporate small group activities throughout your course such as discussion groups, group projects, and cooperative learning activities.
- Group Facilitation. Inspire learners through carefully designing assignments and discussions, incorporating supportive dialog, and bringing the class together without dominating activities.
- Teaching Styles and Learning Stage. Instructors must design and manage courses using a variety of teaching methods and addressing a range of learning styles to meet diverse student needs.
- Community Size. When courses become large (over 20-30 students), it is difficult to nurture a sense of community. Explore ways to incorporate one-to-one interaction, one-on-few coaching, small group, as well as large group activities.
Establishing and Maintaining Community
There are many ways to establish and maintain a sense of community. Select from the following ideas.
The Welcome Wagon. From the instant a student enrolls in the course, they should feel welcomed. Each student should receive a personal email greeting weeks before the course begins. The message should have an encouraging tone with the assurance that the course will be a positive experience for everyone. Provide an atmosphere of flexibility, openness, and humor.
Introduce Yourself. Before the class gets rolling, ask class members to introduce themselves in an open forum area. Consider incorporating an ice breaker into the introduction. This may or may not relate to your course content. For instance, you might ask students to share their favorite book, movie, or leisure activity. Or, you could ask students to reply to someone who has something in common with them. Encourage students to share photos, personal information, and their feelings about taking an online course. The instructor can jump right into the introductions. Or, post a final message with a personal introduction and draw the forum to a close.
Conversational Updates. One of the most important aspects of community building is the sense of a shared learning experience. A periodic email update is a great way to bring the class together, introduce new topics, review deadlines, and debrief assignments.
Personal Notes. Consider adding personal notes to course materials. Textbooks and web-based information pages can be content-rich, but rather boring and academic. Spice up your class with personal notes, laments, or ramblings. Many faculty members are incorporating text, audio, and/or video recordings directly into the course materials to add professional experiences or alternative views. These are also useful for bridging theory and practice.
Rather than hour-long lectures, think of these as the type of conversations you might have when a student asks a great question that engages reflection. Try to keep these notes under 3 minutes.
Check out Dr. J's Jags & Jabs on these topics:
He also uses Listen Up! audios that are embedded in this course guide.
Check out Lamb's Latitudes including on these topics:
Ice Breakers and Creative Assignments. Throw in some a few assignments that are relevant to course materials, but have a creative or low stress approach. Rather than asking students to post a text discussion, consider asking for a concept map or photograph.
Direct students to share an analogy. How is a school library media center like an emergency room, farmer's market, or coral reef? Can you think of an analogy for the creative writing process, a relationship between two nations, or a math formula?
Social Space. Develop a gathering place for informal conversation and socializing.
- General Discussion Area. Provide forum space open for all types of conversations. Start the conversation yourself with FAQs or something found on the news. You can use the same starters from semester to semester if needed. Blogs are a good source of starters.
- Technology Troubleshooting Area. Provide forum space for discussing technology topics. This is a particularly useful area in courses with lots of technology requirements.
- Open Chat Times. Rather than formal study groups, consider an open chat time. This could be combined with virtual office hours. These are optional get-togethers that may be regularly scheduled or flexible.
- Second Life Get-Togethers. For students who wish additional live interaction, consider Second Life activities. These might include virtual field trips to The Globe Theatre, historical recreations, and science sites.
Establish a positive atmosphere for community building.
Design ongoing activities to establish and maintain a sense of community.
Examine your online course.
Design activities that will help establish community at the beginning of the course.
Identify a few ways that you will nurture community throughout your course.