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.
As I write in my book Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners, building community among learners is a foundational inclusive teaching practice, because it helps to establish and support a class climate that fosters belonging for all students. Intentionally building community with your learners is particularly important in online or hybrid courses because these practices can help reduce feelings of isolation students may experience due to the physical distance; bringing students together, fostering respect, and celebrating the diversity of learners as peers.
The notion of a learning community is predicated on the value of connection and collaboration among learners and instructors, where interaction and participation are ongoing, regular, and focused around common goals. Shared collaborative experiences allow learners and instructors to value other’s perspectives, thoughts and ideas, thereby learning with and from one another. When learners sense their school environment to be supportive and caring, they are more likely to develop a sense of “connectedness” and this is associated with increased engagement.
A primary goal is to make the online learning environment conducive to active participation by implementing strategies that will increase learner engagement not only with the course content and with the instructor, but also with peers. Offering opportunities for students to engage with each other, co-constructing community guidelines for online engagement, and soliciting feedback from students about the online environment can help create a climate that supports all learners. Online interactive technologies, used wisely, can serve to foster meaningful interactivity, social connectedness, and community. To create a collaborative environment that encourages and fosters a community of learning, it is an instructor’s thoughtful facilitation that will pave the way for the quality of the interaction and connections.
Facilitating Group Work and Collaboration
The following activities can contribute to learners’ greater sense of belonging by connecting them to a broader learning community:
Asynchronous Discussion Forums
Discussion forums (sometimes referred to as “discussion boards”) are a significant part of online courses, facilitating communication and interaction as learners ask questions and respond to discussion prompts. The asynchronous format removes technical hurdles and ensure that learners are able to engage with peers in a discussion-based class at a time of their own choosing. Discussion forums can be used with small group activities, replacing research-based assignments with opinion pieces, and incorporating thought-provoking topics. To generate increased interaction, you might consider assigning specific roles so that learners are provided with greater responsibility and autonomy, and also serves to enhance the sense of community. For example, they might “role play” as particular kinds of respondents or you might ask them to undertake particular tasks, such as being a summarizer, a respondent, or a connector with outside resources. Overall, be sure to closely monitor the conversations, making sure that the discussion is useful, relevant, appropriate, and that the tone of the conversation is inclusive and respectful.
Synchronous Discussion Groups
As an alternative to asynchronous discussions, consider offering your learners the option to interact synchronously with their peers. In this way they can move away from standard written replies and engage in real-time conversation. This is also a good way to cater to those who prefer the spontaneity and organic nature of face-to-face discussions. Numerous online collaborative tools can be harnessed for the purpose of bringing learners together and encouraging a sense of community, such as online productivity suites and social media platforms. Your LMS will undoubtedly also offer course specific applications, thereby providing you with a variety of ways to create community by connecting learners with others who have similar interests, or who are working on common projects. Be thoughtful and proactive in encouraging meaningful interaction, and providing appropriate and supportive guidance. Be sure to sign in several minutes before your class and greet learners as they come in. This period of time before the class actually begins offers an opportunity for informal peer interaction and community building. Many synchronous tools that are currently available include virtual “breakout rooms” can be used to create additional learner-learner interaction for think-pair-share or team-based exercises.
Making the writing process more collaborative provides learners with opportunities to learn from one another and helps them build connections, thereby fostering a learning community. Studies have shown that even strong writers benefit from the process of peer review, with learners reporting that they learn as much or more from identifying and articulating weaknesses in a peer’s paper as from incorporating peers’ feedback into their own work (van Popta et al., 2017). Opportunities to engage in peer review, when well planned, can help your learners improve their reading and writing skills and learn how to collaborate effectively; thereby learning with and from each other. More specifically, participating in the peer review process can help learners read carefully, clarify their own ideas as they formulate questions about their classmates’ writing, learn how to strengthen their writing by taking into account the feedback they receive. Approach peer review as an opportunity to identify and teach these skills and allow learners to practice by guiding and supporting them through the peer review process. By creating an explicit peer review plan you can provide your learners with the instructions and guidance necessary to provide one another with helpful and substantive feedback. In my book Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners, I offer guidelines for conducting effective peer reviews.
Peer Dialogue Journals
Journal writing is a means for learners to reflect on new knowledge learned in class, solidify their learning experience, and formulate new opinions and perspectives. Moreover, research shows that learners who reflect about their writing processes and decisions can essentially become more able and careful critics of their own work (Stevens & Cooper, 2009). Used as a pedagogical strategy, the insights and awareness produced by peer dialogue journals take learning and critical thinking one step further by exploring learning experiences collaboratively, thereby fostering connection and community (Bloomberg, 2005). In this type of journaling activity two or more learners work collaboratively as “thought-partners” about issues related to the course material, and “speak through their writing”. In this way, peer dialogue journaling becomes a learning tool that encourages engagement and connectedness by fostering reflection and dialogue (Bloomberg, 2005). By using effective prompts in the way of critical questions that are related to the course content, you can provide your learners with a springboard to critical thinking and reflection, giving way to deeper learning and meaningful insights. In my book Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners, I offer guidelines for conducting effective peer journaling.
Lock in your Learning!
In the online environment, social belonging and a sense of community are associated with increased engagement and motivation. Developing a learning community has been at the heart of distance education since its inception, and the need to foster community on the online environment remains a focal issue. By implementing specific strategies you will increase learner engagement not only with the course content, but also with peers. It is an instructor’s thoughtful facilitation that will pave the way for the quality and meaningfulness of the interactions and connections.
Reflect on the following
- Are you making an effort to connect learners to each other by pointing them in the appropriate directions?
- Are you explaining to learners the value and benefits of being part of a learning community?
- What tools are you using to create community and foster collaborative learning?
- What more can YOU do to raise the bar on collaborative learning?
Bloomberg, L. D. (2005). Learning from a distance: Creating connected communities through peer dialogue journals. Perspectives: The New York Journal of Adult Learning, 3, 2, 33-44. http://www.transformationed.com/journal/perspectivesonlinevol3.2.html
Bloomberg, L. D. (2021). Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners. Teachers College Press, Columbia University. https://www.tcpress.com/designing-and-delivering-effective-online-instruction-9780807765289
This publication has been nominated for the 2021 Division of Distance Learning (DDL) for the Association of Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), one of the premier international organizations for instructional design and ed-tech.
Stevens, D., & Cooper, J. (2009). Journal keeping: How to use reflective writing for effective learning, teaching, professional insight, and positive change. Stylus.
van Popta E., Kral, M., Camp, G., Martens, R. L., & Simons, P. R. (2017). Exploring the value of peer feedback in online learning for the provider. Educational Resource Review, 20, 24-30.
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