Enhancing Community in the Online Course

A photo of a café with people working on laptops.

We have talked about the importance of creating connection in the online course. In this article, we take the notion of connection in the online course with suggested activities and tools for enhancing community in the online course.

A Semester Long “Icebreaker”

Starting off the course using an ice-breaker is a great way to get everyone talking. However, often the connection from that experience can be lost as the real work of the semester gets underway. You may want to consider the possibility of creating an ice-breaker activity that ties into a variety of community building activities throughout the remainder of the course. This can have the effect of continuing to bring everyone back together periodically to touch base and renew connections. Organized interactions like this throughout the course can assist in fostering a sense of inclusion for students and, if tailored to the subject matter being covered, can also enhance relevance and meaning.

For continuing community building activities, you will most likely want to use a scenario that will be relevant to the topic you are teaching. For example, you could start students off with a case study scenario that will be revisited throughout the class. The first discussion could integrate introductions with ideas on how students would approach the situation based on the knowledge they currently have. Throughout the class, complexities could be added to the situation that relate to the topics of study. Here is an example:

"To get started in the class, let’s take a few minutes to introduce ourselves to each other. First, please create a short post and:

  • introduce yourself
  • tell us how far along you are in the program, and
  • tell us your projected career path.

Next, take a few minutes to read through this case study: http://support.mchtraining.net/national_ccce/case1/case.html. Think about the three questions posed at the end and provide your answers based on what you already know about health care.

We will talk more about everyone’s answers in the following modules and continue to come back to this case as we learn more about how social, emotional, and cultural aspects can impact health care."

In this example, the case study becomes a focal point throughout the course and a familiar situation for students to keep coming back to. Later discussions can be crafted in such a way as to encourage students to relate how they would respond in different situations and then base those responses both in their own prior personal experiences, as well as the information that they are learning in the class. This type of setting allows students to learn from each other’s experiences and encourages deep learning by grounding the course information in realistic and relevant situations that apply to their future careers or courses. The emphasis on integration of personal experiences and discussion is the community building aspect of this activity. As the course progresses, students continue to learn more about each other and a greater sense of inclusion can be created in the course.

No matter what topic you teach, this idea could be adapted for use in your course. For example, you could focus on a math proof, an ethical dilemma, a legal case, or a business situation. For help with ideas on how something like this might work with your subject area, you may wish to talk with your instructional consultant. They can help you brainstorm what might work best with your teaching style and the goals of your course.

Promoting “Casual Interaction”

Another way of continued community building can be using discussion forums for students to talk casually with each other. These can be a great area for students to share ideas and talk about things that are not necessarily course related – just general conversation. Casual discussion areas do not have to be limited to students, though. Instructors can use these areas, as well, to encourage the kind of small talk that might typically go on in the face-to-face classroom before or after class. Discussion of things like current events or popular books and movies can be ways for people to get to know each other better and become more comfortable. Some instructors even post trivia questions with minimal rewards for the correct answer or set up periodic scavenger hunts for extra credit points. Creating areas for casual interaction doesn’t have to be difficult, and with a little planning, it can become another way for everyone to interact within the course.

Use Synchronous Tools

The use of synchronous meeting and presentation tools is another way that community can be enhanced, built, and maintained within your class. These tools are ones that will allow everyone in the course to interact online in real time and are unique in that they give you the opportunity to choose areas of your course that could most benefit from this type of interaction. A variety of activities can be supported allowing you the flexibility to be creative. Here are a few common ways that these tools can be used:

  • Orientation: Consider starting your class off with an optional synchronous orientation session. The suggestion here would be to make this optional, but create an enticement that would make students want to attend. Perhaps you could make it the start of a course long scavenger hunt that would add a small number of points to students grades at the end of the semester? Maybe you could add some trivia questions covering the content and then award some small prizes to those who answered correctly? Usually, getting most students to attend is not that difficult. Especially if you can work some fun elements into the presentation and create a reason for them to want to attend.
  • Office hours/Chat: Many instructors set up periodic times throughout the semester when they will hold online office hours. The idea behind this is that there is a dedicated time when the instructor will be online and available to answer questions in real time. While normal office hours are held on a weekly basis, this does not necessarily have to be the situation online. You may want to simply pick points in the semester when you normally have the most questions and set up times then.
  • Demonstrations/Clarification: Synchronous tools offer an opportunity for you to demonstrate something to the class or provide further clarification on a complex topic. These types of sessions could be held on an “as needed” basis depending on the topics and needs of the students each semester.
  • Presentations/Guest speakers: Since individuals can participate from wherever they are located, a synchronous tool can be used for class presentations or to host a guest speaker along with a Q&A.

When crafting synchronous meetings, be sure to try to include both instructor-student and student-student interactions where appropriate. For example, in an orientation setting you could have the instructor present information on the course and syllabus for a few minutes (instructor-student) and then have students interact with each other by introducing themselves and chatting about common interests (student-student).

To learn more about enhancing community in your online course, click here to set up an appointment with an instructional consultant.

References

Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.