Linda Dale Bloomberg holds the positions of associate director of faculty support and development, and full professor of education in the School of Education, Northcentral University, San Diego. Dr. Bloomberg received her doctorate in 2006 from Teachers College, Columbia University, where she completed the AEGIS Program in Adult and Organizational Learning. Her new book is titled Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners.
While studying online can be a lonely and isolating experience, online learning should not be thought of as “alone learning”! A sense of belonging is a key component that impacts student engagement and can act as a buffer against attrition. Therefore, a key goal is to make the learning environment conducive to active participation by implementing strategies that will increase student engagement not only with the course content and with the instructor, but also with their peers, thereby building a learning community. Instructors often fear that they will lose the interaction and sense of community they have when they teach face-to-face, but that doesn’t have to be the case! Developing learning communities has been at the heart of distance education since its inception, and the challenge of fostering community remains a focal issue. Below are my top 10 tips to optimize your teaching by encouraging a sense of community, resulting in a more effective and meaningful learning experience for you and your students right from the start.
1. View interaction and collaborative learning as central!
Creating strategic opportunities for learners and instructors to connect informally and formally has the potential to foster a culture of inclusivity, thereby developing a productive learning community. It is critical that you intentionally and thoughtfully work toward creating a collaborative learning environment. Collaboration is a way for students to work together on assignments or tasks, build knowledge collectively, think critically, and support each other’s understanding. Right from the start, be intentional in building interactive opportunities between instructors and students, students and peers, and students and course content.
2. Set the stage by creating an engaging student orientation:
Work with your institution’s technology and academic support teams (e.g., academic counseling, tutoring) to create a series of online events including (a) team-building (signing up to meet fellow students in a virtual “escape room”); and (b) online or hybrid learning preparation (building skills like self-directed learning, time management and managing technology for learning). Put the “unity” in community by letting students get to know each other. An introduction or icebreaker sets the tone for student interaction right out of the gate, with students sharing previous experience (or lack thereof) with course content, what they are looking forward to learning in the class, as well as some personal and/or professional information.
3. Create a safe, welcoming, and inclusive learning environment that is conducive to active participation:
Model the behavior you would like to see in your students by starting with a warm and enthusiastic welcome message. Sharing some information about yourself offers students the chance to go beyond seeing their instructor as a content expert teaching the class and to view them as a real person they can get to know and relate to. All learners should feel free to ask questions, share experiences, and work together by engaging in productive and respectful interactions. A safe course environment doesn’t mean there won’t be disagreements or differences of opinion, but it does mean that students will treat each other with respect. Share a set of course rules or expectations (which has come to be known as “netiquette”) that explains the behavior that is expected in the online classroom. To instill a sense of ownership, consider having your students help to develop and articulate those expectations.
4. Stay active, visible, and engaged:
Community does not just develop automatically, so it is essential that instructors encourage students to engage in discussion and collaborative learning. In traditional classrooms, interactions occur spontaneously. In the online environment, facilitation must be intentional, and your ongoing presence and availability are critical. A learning community begins with dialogue, and it develops and evolves over time as members participate and interact, thereby learning with and from one another. Remain present and visible throughout your course, so that your students will stay visible too. Maintain open lines of communication so that students will do the same. In addition to a guide and teacher, you thereby become a “co-learner” and a trusted partner throughout the learning experience.
5. Survey students’ interests:
Student interest surveys can be used to promote relationship building and community. Survey questions elicit personal information (e.g., what hobbies or activities do you enjoy?), school related information (e.g., do you enjoy working in groups? why or why not?), and future goals and aspirations (e.g., where do you see yourself in five years?). Knowing more about your students and their individual preferences can help you better interact and relate to them. Survey results can also be used to place students in appropriate groups for collaborative work or projects. Questions regarding what students might want to see covered in a course can result in instructors revising their curriculum, thereby enhancing engagement and ensuring an ongoing sense of ownership.
6. Create collaborative learning opportunities:
Build multiple interactive opportunities that are spaced evenly throughout a course so that students can collaborate and work together with their peers. Collaborative learning opportunities can be asynchronous (these do not occur in real time, such as discussion boards) or synchronous (real-time communication through Zoom, MicroSoft Teams, Google Hangouts, or GoToMeeting). While discussion boards allow students to demonstrate their knowledge, students typically seek additional synchronous engagement! Create activities that requires learners to work in small groups, share experiences, and actively communicate in order to solve problems or address learning issues. Employing content that allows and encourages students to become facilitators’ themselves will not only benefit every member of the group, but will also empower each individual within it. Peer review is one way to develop collaboration by offering opportunities for students to read and respond to one another’s writing, and this is a valuable activity in online coursework.
7. Use synchronous tools thoughtfully and intentionally:
Skillful use of your LMS and synchronous tools will ensure that students never feel alone on their learning journey, but rather a part of a thriving learning community. Your ability to use technology to build teaching relationships and develop a sense of community will depends greatly on the type of learning management system available. Some platforms can lead to greater interaction and connectivity among users. Be sure to log in to synchronous meetings several minutes before class and greet students as they come in. Whether in-person or online, those precious minutes before and after class are critical for answering questions and connecting with students. Zoom breakout rooms can be used to create student-student interaction for think-pair-share or team-based exercises. Remember to make sure that all directions and requirements are extra clear before you send your students to their virtual rooms, and post in your Learning Management System (LMS) ahead of time any worksheets or instructions they will need. Zoom also allows you to “float the room”, checking on groups as they work.
8. Build community beyond the course experience:
Social check-ins build community! You can leverage multiple social media options to create virtual community spaces, including Instagram and Facebook for student life, and LinkedIn groups for soon-to-be graduates and alumni. YouTube can provide a gallery of videos by graduates talking about their degrees, how they reached their goals and overcame obstacles, and what they will do next. Encourage students to create their own groups to promote and amplify their work. All of these activities can serve to meaningfully enhance community connections and engagement, and establish bonds beyond the actual coursework.
9. Monitor interaction, communication, and discussions:
Most communication will take place via discussion forums within the learning management system (LMS). These discussions occur on an academic level (as required in coursework), and a social level (through social media platforms). As an instructor, it is your responsibility to monitor trust levels and respectful interaction in all communications, and promote the factors that can enhance a sense of belonging. Making sure that all communication and interaction is productive, and following up as necessary when you are concerned, will create a positive and inclusive learning environment.
10. Make appropriate changes as needed!
As with all aspects of the learning experience (content development, assessment etc.) there is always room for ongoing improvement. Be sure to include a feedback or student-review component, throughout and/or at the end of a course. Be willing to address feedback that you receive from your students, and make any needed changes or revisions. Seeking feedback ensures that students view themselves as partners in the collaborative learning process and that their perspectives and input are welcomed, heard, and respected.