Tasha F. Davis, Ph.D.
Conversations in the higher education community surrounding distance learning continue to focus on the distance created by online instruction – instructors existing at one location with students detached from the learning experience in another. In truth, there are distance learning courses and programs that still fit this description; but there are many others where instructors take the time to develop online courses using methods designed to build and maintain a community of engaged learners.
While it is no doubt difficult, building community in the online environment involves careful consideration of the types and frequencies of messages from instructor to student, and also promoting peer interaction that mimics the type that might typically take place in traditional face-to-face courses. This management of the virtual communication climate begins at the start of the semester.
Starting off the semester with the goal of building community in mind sets the stage for the level of interaction you will have with your students.
It is important for students to perceive a real person behind your online posts. I like to start off the semester with an introduction that includes my photo. Your photo can be personal (e.g., you on a hiking trip or family vacation), or the professional headshot you might use for work-related pursuits. In this introduction message I share information about my professional background as well as personal information such as hobbies and other interests. Although I take the time to explain my teaching philosophy and approach to instruction, I try to keep the introduction conversational. The goal is for students to see me as a “real” instructor, not just someone who is facilitating the course; and to let them know I am approachable, even if they may never see me in person.
It is possible to work with students for an entire semester without any idea if you have ever passed them in the hallway or shared an elevator with them on campus. Likewise, students in online courses often work on course assignments and reflect on learning material alone without any awareness of how their peers are responding to this same material. To get students involved in the course early, ask them to post their own self-introduction in response to the instructor’s. Students can develop a written introduction with a photo, and you can easily relate the self-introduction to course material in the public speaking course by requesting a video introduction.
Starting off the semester with the goal of building community in mind sets the stage for the level of interaction you will have with your students. Students will then come to expect this from the instructor making it crucial you continue to follow set patterns when communicating with students throughout the course.
While it is easy to post information and instructions and simply wait for student to make contact with you when they have questions, it is best to try and anticipate common questions and use this as an opportunity to reach out to them. The frequency of interactions can be especially crucial for online students. Face-to-face students see you every week and hear reminders and anecdotes online students do not get to experience. You can mimic these interactions by posting announcements and sending friendly email messages reminding them of upcoming due dates and deadlines. Students also enjoy short “lecture” videos offering them the opportunity to see your face and also a bit of your personality and teaching style.
Even if you offer face-to-face office hours on campus, the majority of online students will most often prefer to communicate with you by email. I receive far more email messages from online students than those in lecture based courses. When responding to online students in writing, be personable by referring to them by name. It can also be important to let them know it is perfectly acceptable for them to use this channel of communication when they have questions. I am sure you have had a student begin an email with “I’m sorry to bother you, but…” or “I’m sure you are busy…” In response to these messages, I typically open with, “Thank you for contacting me…” to let them know they are not a bother, and more importantly, they should certainly take the initiative to reach out when they have questions or concerns. It is also a good idea to get in a habit of closing your messages with a friendly, “Have a great week!” or “Enjoy the weekend!” Again, this reinforces the human quality of your written messages. Be sure to mix it up though; if a student sends frequent messages they will quickly sense canned responses!
Providing feedback is yet another opportunity to engage with online learners. I’ve often found myself giving my face-to-face students an overview or reflection of my evaluation of their work by speaking generally about strengths and weaknesses at the start of a class meeting, but that becomes difficult if not impossible for online students. Feedback for online learners is most frequently provided in writing; and when working rapidly through my “Needs Grading” que, it is easy to revert to quick corrections that may seem harsh and impersonal. In such cases, the sandwich method – beginning and ending with a positive comment – is often the best approach. You might also consider making references to previous work or interactions when providing feedback so students see the building of familiarity with them and their work as individuals. For example, “You struggled with this on the quiz, but really seem to have a good grasp of the material now.”
Online students need to hear from you on a regular basis throughout the course, but just as important to promoting a sense of community for these learners are the relationships effective course design can help students build with their peers during the learning process.
Most instructors rely heavily on the discussion board to facilitate online interactions between students about the course material. These assignments might range from simple question prompts to which students respond, to ongoing work in large and/or small groups where student discussions are used to actually produce some end result for evaluation and grading (i.e., group assignments, peer evaluations, etc.). Regardless of the type or purpose, requiring students to participate with both an original post and replies to classmates’ posts can help generate “conversation.” Getting students to talk about course concepts can help them better gauge their own comprehension. Further, requiring that students post on multiple days during a specified discussion period rather than waiting until the due date keeps them engaged in the discussion and the given topic or subject matter.
Finally, I have come to be a big proponent of peer-to-peer collaboration. Students often have to be encouraged to work together, and this may be because they have been taught to view collaboration as some form of cheating. When assignments, however, are designed for students to work together either by sharing their work or engaging in peer evaluation, they become critical of their own work while increasing their knowledge and understanding of course material. The feeling of being a part of a community of learners is an added benefit.
Online instruction can be challenging for both students and instructors. It often takes a great deal of thought and effort to translate what works well in lecture based courses to an online platform. Please feel free to share your own course design suggestions or tips for increasing involvement and decreasing isolation in your online courses.