Building Community and Interaction Online

Online education can be so much more than the self-paced, “correspondence course” that you might first envision. Central to this idea is the need to create a community of learners in your online course. A strong online community keeps students engaged with the content, pushes them to think critically and articulate their ideas, and provides a supportive environment in which to do that. Arguably, the interaction in an online course can create a much stronger intellectual community than a traditional in-person class where some students can sit anonymously in the back of the room while the instructor lectures. How do you accomplish this?

To build a community among students, there are numerous tools that are available: discussions, collaborative projects, wikis, blogs, and real time (synchronous) sessions.  How to choose?

First, identify your desired outcome: a good discussion? collaboration among students?  reflection? sharing? getting help? Then, pick the tool that is most appropriate for your goals. The following brief presentations talk about this “purpose first, tool second” approach to designing online interactions.

Start with Interaction Purpose in Mind

Asynchronous versus Synchronous Interaction

Once you have chosen the interactive tool, set expectations for the level and extent of the interactions. Students will need clear directions and motivation to get involved. Decide if and how the interactions will be graded. 

In online courses, for example, participation in an on-going Discussion Board is often included in a grading scheme at 10-25%, depending on the type of course. You want to give enough credit to underscore the importance of participation. Decide upon your role; an instructor must maintain a strong presence in the online classroom since students do not have the opportunity to interact with you in person. How will you interact with students in an online discussion?  For group work, how can you check in and monitor progress, redirect students when necessary, and provide encouragement?

Starting the Semester

Just as you might do in a face-to-face classroom, set up your course to create a community from the start. In addition to your contact information, add your bio and a photograph. Include a welcome to the students, describing the journey you will be taking together, your expectations and goals for the course. Ideally, put this welcome in video format to give students a personal connection to you and the course.Give students the opportunity to meet each other. Many courses include a Discussion Board forum for “introductions” at the beginning of the semester, and there are alternative “ice-breakers” that can be used online as well.

During the Semester

Throughout the semester, continue to make connections with your students through the use of Announcements, weekly or unit introductions or summaries, synchronous sessions, surveys or polls.

Ending the Semester

Don't forget to bring your community together at the end of the semester to tie together all that you've learned.