By Nanda Dimitrov, Associate Director, Teaching Support Centre
Students who take courses online are often independent, self-directed learners, but they still look for engagement with other students, instructor presence, as well as opportunities to connect with others in the online classroom (Kelly, 2014). This spring, I taught a fully online, master’s level course in the Faculty of Education. My students were located all over the world, so I wanted to spend time creating a community of practice in the course that would allow my students to share their diverse teaching and learning experiences with each other. I reviewed the literature on online learning and tried out several of the strategies recommended. Within a couple of weeks my students were so engaged with the material and with each other that I could barely keep up with their forum posts. They asked great questions, gave each other feedback and shared examples of the theoretical models we learned in class. Here are a few of the strategies that worked. Try these in a fully online class, or add them as an online component to a face-to-face course.
1) Start Class With A Creative Activity
Ask students to post a multimedia introduction of themselves in the course discussion forum, such as a 30 second video, one animated PowerPoint slide, a collage of images, or a one minute animation created using Sparkol. In the introduction, consider asking students to talk about what they hope to learn in the course or what their most memorable university level learning experiences have been. In addition to creating community, this activity helps students practice how to present themselves in a professional or academic environment and see a variety of examples from others. In my course, students posted their teaching philosophy for the intercultural classroom as a way of introducing themselves to the group. I was amazed by their creativity – one student created a narrated video, another a narrated powerpoint, and we had several beautiful wordle word clouds that captured different aspects of intercultural learning. I also asked students to post pictures of their location during the course, so the class can visualize the context in which they are teaching. Very thought provoking side conversations resulted about these images that allowed students to discuss cultural differences between various educational systems around the world.
2) Add Social Space to the Course Website
Create a forum discussion titled “coffee room” or “open discussion forum” where students can raise any questions related to the course, discuss current events on campus and around the world, or have a conversation about topics other than the readings. In my face-to-face graduate course on university teaching, for example, students have used the online forum to discuss the role of parents in university education, post interesting articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education or share cartoons related to the readings. The posts were relevant, and inspired by the discussion in class, and helped continue the conversation beyond the classroom. The coffee room can be the place, for example, where pre-service teachers post pictures of their school; science students share images of their internship site or the site of their field course (be sure to ask permission).
3) Encourage Students to Communicate With Each Other
Build interaction into assignments. For example, after posting their own reflection on the readings, ask students to respond to the posts of two others and post questions. Build peer feedback into assignments. In my graduate course, students wrote case studies, then worked in groups of four to discuss the case and give each other feedback on the first draft before handing in the final version. They received a grade for their feedback, and we discussed the characteristics of effective, constructive feedback before they began the assignment. After the course, several students commented that the small group case discussion was the component of the course that they learned the most from. It helped them create better questions for case discussions, and helped refine the learning outcomes they wanted to achieve with their case study. Other strategies for encouraging student interaction include asking students to create exam questions, then asking them to exchange and solve each other’s questions; or to send students on a “virtual field trip” and asking them to compare their observations.
4) Build Student Contributions into the Design of the Course
In addition to posting reading reflections, encourage students to post web-links or photos that illustrate concepts learned in class or share the results of their research on course topics. In a physics class, for example, students were invited to create a set of laws for physics cartoons – such as “gravity only works when you look down” and to find examples of the way cartoons violate principles in physics. In an anthropology course, students were asked to conduct a mini-ethnography of North American culture in their local grocery store and to post how key values of the culture were represented by products, advertising and interactions in the store. The examples that students post become part of the learning material for the course and enrich learning for everyone else in the class.
5) Share Laughter
Shared laughter is one of the best ways to create community among students. In an online environment, where facial expressions do not clarify the intentions of the communicator, we have to be a bit cautious about using humour and be aware of the risk of misunderstanding. Humour needs to be relevant to learning in the course and it should encourage critical thinking among students. Cartoons, videos, or quotes can add humour related to the course material or about learning skills. One instructor helped prepare students for a major paper by sharing Lev Yilmaz’s one minute video on procrastination with the class, and then encouraged students to share their own strategies for overcoming procrastination.
Erickson, A., Neset, C. (2014). Building Community and Creating Relevance in the Online Classrom. Retrieved from http:// www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/building-community-creating-relevance-online-classroom/
Kelly, Rob (2014). Five things online students want from faculty. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/online-students-want-from-faculty/
Vesely, P., Bloom, L., Sherlock, J. (September 2007). Key Elements of Building Online Community: Comparing Faculty and Student Perceptions. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3 (3). Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol3no3/vesely.htm