Online courses are becoming increasingly prevalent as students find new ways to attain credits that traditionally could only be done in a physical classroom setting. While online courses can be very beneficial, many online courses do not have the cohesive, community feel that an in-person class has.
So how can online instructors create learning environments that are collaborative, inclusive, and feel more similar to the experience of physically being in a classroom?
Online courses have their benefits. The costs associated with online courses are often times lower, and students can often complete their coursework at their own pace. Online courses allow for more flexibility, and are often a good option for students who only need one or a few credits to complete their degree.
With the good comes the bad. The disadvantage to students learning at their own pace is that it’s up to the student to keep up and stay on track. Time management is especially a tremendous challenge for students in an online course.
In college, I took a mostly online course in which the professor gave us ten assignments, and they were all due the last week of the term. Naturally, I all but forgot about the class until the last two weeks of the quarter! I simply could not prioritize it until the last minute because I didn’t have to.
Finally, in an online course it is easy to forget that you are part of a class. It’s easy to feel like it’s just you, the computer, and a professor somewhere.
There’s a better way.
To enhance performance and remain actively engaged, students must feel like their class is comprised of a group of students and an instructor(s) leading it. They must feel part of a community, a collaborative learning environment that fosters conversation, shared ideas, constructive criticism, and considerations of multiple sides of ideas and interpretations.
How to build a community in your online course
Communities share something in common. In online courses, you won’t have your students sitting together in an auditorium and you can’t see them. You can’t ask a question and randomly call on someone in the back row. So here are some ways to create a community among distanced participants.
1. Get to know your students
You know that your students have some reason they want or need to take your class — find out what that reason is. Send out a survey at the beginning of the term (for participation points) asking them about themselves. Where are they from? Are they taking this class to count as credit toward their program, for a certificate, as a prerequisite, just for fun, or something else? What are their goals for taking the class? What do they hope to learn and achieve? Then publish the data so they can see where everyone else is at.
2. Build a technological foundation
To achieve a solid foundation that students can rely on and will want to frequently visit, first you need a reliable online platform, which often calls for exceeding the capabilities of the college or university’s standard Learning Management System (LMS).
There are platforms that can help you create discussions and allow others to post, comment, and attach resources to the board, truly creating a community. Some allow you to embed videos, audio, and more. Skype, Youtube, and Google Drive are just some of the additional tools you can use for free to make your class even more exciting and dynamic.
3. Embrace social media
Social media is your friend, especially in an online course. Having a Facebook group for your course is an excellent way for students to share ideas with each other and get to know each other. You can set up virtual events through Facebook and use it to share images, videos, and ideas. Remember, you and your students can adjust the privacy settings so that only the group members can view it.
4. Create a structure
Set your students up for success by giving a clear indication of what it means to be successful in your class. Create a roadmap for them that shows both chronological and goal-oriented benchmarks.
Let them know how they should expect to receive announcements and be made aware of any changes to the class – you can no longer deliver announcements at the lectern! Some online platforms have the ability to send students notifications, or even text messages, from the instructor to the students.
5. Put the pressure on
An online course should have a structure and protocol that is firm from day one so that your students are held accountable for assignments and deadlines. As I aforementioned, leaving students to their own devices to spread out assignments over the entire term will fail — you can almost guarantee they’ll leave it to the last minute!
This will also ensure that your students consider your class an important priority. However, keep the human side of you alive by empathizing with students who are challenged by the structure of your class — remember, many of them are taking your course for its flexibility!
6. Hold virtual office hours.
In smaller courses, Skype, Google Hangouts, Go-to-Meeting and other methods of videoconferencing can be used to hold virtual office hours, with individual students or with groups. In larger classes, chat rooms or email chat (or even Skype chat) can be used to converse with individual students or groups of students.
To create engagement between students, build a diverse learning environment: combinations of group efforts, discussions, and individual work. Students can use Skype and other videoconferencing forums to hold discussions and conversations with each other, or even the Facebook group you create. They can also use resources like Google Drive to collaborate on documents.
7. Make it interactive.
In a community, people help each other. Demand that students be critical thinkers by having them comment and give feedback on each other’s work. Grade them on the quality of their contributions to others’ posts or writing assignments.
Create ways for them to challenge each other. A friend of mine from college told me that in an online course she took, many students posted and commented on each other’s posts; she noticed that most people agreed or supported their classmates’ posts, truly building that sense of community.
8. Empower them to be proud
At the end of the term, tell your students what they’ve accomplished! Summarize their final assessments and ideas, and publish these summaries so that they know what their hard work and dedication was for!
The result is creating an unprecedented online learning experience.
By implementing each of these steps, your students will feel a heightened sense of commitment to a class where there is community and a collaborative culture. If they perceive their class to be a group of students they know and share something with, they will feel more connected to the class even if they aren’t sitting in it. Remember, you are their community leader; strong communication and feedback from you will strengthen the culture of your online community.
Soon your students will be entering a workforce that is complex and uses multiple interfaces and means of communication to work with others. I work for a company headquartered in Toronto, and yet here I am sitting in my office in Chicago, working in coordination with colleagues in two countries. We feel like a community because we share information, experiences, and goals.
With a strong structure, a collaborative culture, and the proper resources, you can turn your online course into a virtual community.
Looking for an effective way to build a community in your online course? Let’s talk. See a quick demo where one of our account specialists will walk you through how Top Hat can help you bring together the participants of your online course, increasing their chance at success.