Creating Student Learning Communities Online

For all its advantages, sometimes “online learning can be a lonely experience” (Kaufmann & Vallade, 2020). Building community in an online course can combat this feeling of isolation, and also “has positive effects on the quality of student learning, increases student engagement, and encourage motivation of students in online courses” (Fiock, 2020).

Online learning may thus be more successful and satisfying if it occurs in an effective learning community. How do we foster community in an online course? Practices that occur naturally in a face-to-face classroom require a bit more intention and planning online, but it is possible to incorporate strategies to reduce isolation and create a positive and effective learning community for your course.

Practices that promote community

  1. Building personal connection and trust
  2. Promoting positive peer interaction and feedback

Building personal connection and trust

Trust is necessary for participants to connect with each other. What does trust look like in an online classroom? Participants feeling confident that others will provide open, honest feedback. That their posts will be received in an atmosphere of caring and connection. That members of the online group will be honest and respectful with each other, and with the instructor or facilitator as well. Although honest feedback is sometimes difficult to hear, when delivered respectfully, it is critical to the development of an online learning community and to the transformative nature of this type of learning.

Michelle Pacansky-Brock describes the week prior to the start of instruction and the first week of your course as a “high opportunity zone” for building connections in your course. Citing Estrada et al, 2018: she recommends “incorporate kindness cues of social inclusion” during this time.

Strategy 1: Model inclusivity.

Strategy 2: Know and respond to your learners’ needs

  • Conduct a survey the first week of class to learn about student’s goals and expectations for the course.
  • In your survey, ask students them about potential barriers to learning that might exist for them, so that you can offer resources and suggest strategies for them to succeed.
  • Offer choice in office hours (online or in person; time of day; group or individual)
  • Use a mid-semester check-in to see what is working for students and what isn’t, and responding accordingly.

Strategy 3: Be present

  • Pacansky-Brock, citing Hammond, 2014, encourages “selective vulnerability: “Choose to share aspects of your life that portray you as a real person – tell a story about a personal struggle you worked through or record a video while cooking dinner or walking your dog.
  • Especially in fully asynchronous courses, a weekly announcement with updates and reminders that includes a recap of the previous week shows students that you are present in the course. An informal weekly video is especially effective!
  • Actively answer email, monitor discussions, and hold office hours (aka “student hours”) so your students get the help they need without delay.

Explore Further:

Promoting positive peer interaction and feedback

Strategy 1: Include some fun, ungraded get-to-know-you activities in the first week of classes. This signals that personal connections are important to you, and it starts to build a sense of community among course participants.

Strategy 2: Define and agree on a culture of respect. Share your own expectations about netiquette, but also take time to collaborate on adding to these expectations as a community at the start of the semester.

Strategy 3: Maximize the value of online discussions.

  • Keep Moodle forums interesting. Don’t require every student to answer the same question because students will be unlikely to read each others’ responses if they are all saying the same thing. You might consider setting up a debate instead, and you might ask students to use the Moodle plugin PoodLL to post video or audio to discussions.
  • Keep an eye on active discussions and comment/guide to keep the discussion vibrant and focused.
  • Consider using Yellowdig instead of Moodle forums. Yellowdig invites learners to relate the subject matter to their life experiences and their own interests.

Strategy 4: Design group activities and/or collaborative assignments.

  • Put students in small groups for discussion.
  • Assign students to write blogs or online journals where other students comment using Perusall.
  • Ask students to create Wikis or web pages together
  • Use jigsaw activities where groups of students develop expertise on a topic and then teach each other.

Strategy 5: When assigning group work, set your groups up for success.

  • Provide the parameters, team roles (e.g., team leader/organizer, researcher, writer, & presenter), and peer evaluation forms to ensure everyone participates fully.
  • Encourage students to meet synchronously outside of class by setting up their own Zoom meeting.
  • Encourage student groups to set up their own ground rules for group meetings and task sharing, perhaps through a group contract.
  • Provide a space for students to collaborate, such as a Moodle Forum.
  • Monitor group work by asking to be added to the document workspace such as a shared Google folder.