Creating Community in Your Online Course

Building community in online courses takes thinking intentionally about where students can connect with each other and with their instructors. But there are many ways to establish and sustain community in an online course, and many places in the course to facilitate that. Consider how you might structure your class to encourage not just class discussions but informal interactions between students or with you in: 

  • Synchronous class time
  • Asynchronous discussions
  • Group assignments or projects
  • Study groups or other means for students to work together informally
  • Office hours or other outside of class meetings with your students

 

What follows are common ways of building community in online courses as well as some suggestions about tools that you might use.

 

 

Setting the Tone: Communicating the Importance of Community to Students

  • How will you let students know that you would like to create a sense of community in the course?
  • How will students know what "community" means within your specific course?

If community is important for your course, consider starting there; frame your initial assignments and discussions around establishing connections and helping students get to know each other and you.

Possibilities include:

  • Student introductions in Canvas discussion boards or, for smaller classes/sections, live during synchronous sessions.
    • Ask students to let the class know something about themselves, such as their preferred name/nickname, pronouns. Some instructors like to include something outside of course material, such as hobbies or interesting facts, to get to know student interests. Ice-breakers can also be course-related, such as why the student chose the course, what they've heard about the topic that they find interesting, etc. Students can also embed images in their discussion posts.
    • Canvas also allows for video or audio introductions; these introductions can feel more authentic. Some students may find this task more intimidating, especially in larger groups, but if students are expected to speak/present throughout the course this can also be good practice!
    • For large classes, consider breaking students into smaller groups for introductions and discussions; it can be easier to engage with and get to know others in a small group. There are multiple ways to design student groups.
    • Be clear about how formal/informal these introductions should be. Are they casual, no-practice-needed, or would you like students to use this to practice more refined introductions they may expect to do at a conference or in their future careers? This will set the stage for the type of community you develop in your course.
    • For any introductions, it's helpful for the instructor and TAs to participate and model the posts they'd like to see. If you would like students to introduce themselves on a discussion board, start the discussion off with your own post.
  • Collect and share anonymous information about students. Ask students to submit brief reflections or introductions to you, or a complete survey. Topics could include their background, goals for the course, what they're most interested in, or what they're more concerned about. You can use these to get to know students (and for creating student groups), and/or collate aggregate anonymous results for the class; students may find it helpful to know that they're not the only ones anxious about something in the class!
  • Involve students in creating the norms for the course. Ask students to share ideas and come to a consensus on how to engage with the course and each other.

 

Setting Virtual Classroom Norms

Many of your students in the Fall of 2020 will have some experience with online courses from last Spring; however, these experiences will vary widely, and students may be accustomed to different norms than those you would like to set for your class. Some students may experience synchronous online class sessions (such as via Zoom), online discussion boards, Canvas in general, or other online course components for the first time in your class.

Consider:

  • Setting aside time in the first week of class to discuss expectations for the online space with your students
  • Providing students with a guide such as these Zoom Tips for Students, or asking students to collaboratively create rules of engagement for the course.
  • Providing students with tips for how to do well in your course online. The best strategies may vary by course, but the Penn Online Learning Initiative has a few Tips for Students to get started.

A few questions you may want to ask yourself:

  • What does good participation and discussion mean online, whether during live class meetings or asynchronously in discussion boards or other assignments? How do I let students know what that looks like?
    • For example, do I want students to turn on their video cameras during synchronous sessions? (You can encourage students to turn on their cameras (especially if you tell students why), but keep in mind that some students may be in environments that make it challenging to share video).
  • How can students communicate that they are engaged with the material? How can they communicate their understanding (or confusion) with the ideas we cover?
  • Do I want students to get in touch with me during synchronous sessions, or hold questions for a specific time? How should students ask questions, through the chat or using the mic, or both?
  • How can students get in touch with me while they work on asynchronous tasks? When should students expect a response? When should they contact a TA instead?
  • If students are having issues with technology or difficulty in their personal lives that impact the course, should they get in touch differently, or with a different person, than they would for class content questions?
  • How and when should students set up meetings with you or a TA?

 

Asynchronous Community

  • Start the semester with an online introduction forum where students are encouraged to talk about themselves. Make sure you participate too so that students see your human side. Some instructors relate this discussion to the course's material, while others prefer to focus it on community building. 
  • Create discussion questions or structure peer reviews in ways that allow students to interact meaningfully with each other.  Provide clear deadlines and expectations so that students know how to get the most out of discussion.
    • In discussion boards, ask students to reply to the posts of one or two other students, and let students know what a helpful reply should include.
    • Be clear on the purpose of peer review; if students know their role is to help someone do well on an assignment rather than just checking a box, it can be easier to engage and provide meaningful feedback.
  • Have students share using a variety of text, images, and video when possible so that they see something of each other. Pictures and videos can begin to bridge the sense of isolation students and faculty feel in online classes by showing the face behind the text.  Using video tools for assignments both adds variety for students and allows students to see each other and you. 
  • When possible, participate in discussion boards and other types of asynchronous activities regularly by posting your own comments, adding questions, and helping students see the purpose of the activity. Your participation can model what you're looking for in student posts, encourage participation, and show students you value their ideas and work.

 

Group Work

Instructors at Penn regularly report that having students work in small groups helps build community and connection as well as increasing the amount students learn.  To create successful group activities:

  • Have a clear purpose for students. Identify a concrete and meaningful project that no one student could do alone so they have to collaborate.
  • Think ahead about the size and makeup of the groups. Groups of 3 - 4 tend to work  well in the online space. Groups larger than 5 can be challenging to engage with. Some possible grouping plans include:
    • Manually assigned groups
      • Grouping by interest, and allowing student groups to focus their work around that interest (for example, students interested in learning about a specific disease could choose a project on that disease).
      • Grouping by different perspectives; in courses where students have different backgrounds and goals for taking the course, consider whether it would be helpful for students to share these different perspectives and skills in their group.
      • Grouping by background; students who don't have as much background experience or course work in the topic may find it easier to talk with other students with similar background.
      • Grouping by time zone. This can be particularly helpful for students who cannot meet during the regularly scheduled class time.
    • Random groups. This can help students get to know new people in the class.
    • Self-assigned groups. This can be helpful for classes where students already know each other, but can be challenging for students who don't already have friends in the class.
  • Identify whether students should work in real time (synchronously) or interact on their own time with structured deadlines (asynchronously). Students who cannot log into live sessions will particularly benefit from group work so they feel connected to class too.
  • Structure the process that you want groups to follow, any roles students might take on, and how you will track their progress and participation.
  • Consider how you can provide feedback during group work. Occasionally joining student conversations or providing written feedback can help keep students on track and feel supported.
    • In Zoom or BlueJeans, you can temporarily join breakout sessions
    • Asking groups to record their work on a shared google document, Canvas Discussion, or Canvas Assignment allows you and TAs to see group progress at a glance. You can also provide comments on google documents and Canvas Assignments and Discussions.

 

Engaging Students Outside of Synchronous Time

  • Show students how and when to get in touch with you.
    • How can students get in touch with me while they work on asynchronous tasks? When should students expect a response? When should they contact a TA instead?
    • If students are having issues with technology or difficulty in their personal lives that impact the course, should they get in touch differently, or with a different person, than they would for class content questions?
  • Require that students check in with you. In some classes, instructors use very short (10 min) check-ins at least once a semester to get to know their students and help students feel comfortable reaching out should they have questions or need help. Apps such as calendly can interface with your calendar and allow students to easily sign up for meeting time slots.

 

General Considerations for Creating Community

  • Considering giving up some class time to acknowledge the difficulties and experiences that students are facing. Doing so will indicate to students that you are a human who is also facing difficult circumstances. This does not need to take a lot of time. Some faculty gave students the first five minutes of class in small groups to talk about how they are doing.  Other faculty simply stated “I know this is a challenging time and I appreciate spending time with you.”
  • Set clear guidelines and expectations for what you want students to do in synchronous and asynchronous sessions.
  • Connect the value of the class to the students' interests by providing students with real-life questions and examples as well as the opportunity to work on challenges and questions that they find meaningful.  When possible, give students some choice in their assignments.
  • Whenever possible use images, readings and other materials that reflect the range of students in your class. This way all students feel welcomed by the class materials.
  • Have “life happens” policies that allow students to skip some assignments, drop their lowest grade, or to turn in things late if they need to. Try to be flexible so that students can work around their own schedules and situations. Expecting that students have complicated lives respects them as people but also sends them the message that you are human too.
  • Particularly in online courses faculty presence matters.  Instructors who interact regularly with students (both in live sessions and in the asynchronous elements in the class) create a strong sense that there is a human who cares about the students in the class.
  • Showing students your passion for your subject matter can go a long way toward bridging the sense of disconnection students may feel if classes are partially or wholly online.