Community in online courses promotes active learning by provoking the students to participate and learn together. Learning is a social act by itself. We learn through contact and discourse with another person more competent in the field. Speech and conversation with one another generate knowledge negotiated and subjected to endless talk. As we also learn through an inner conversation with ourselves.
In his book, Thought, and Language, Vygotsky makes the argument that thought is an inner conversation with ourselves, a collaboration turned inward.
Online Collaborative Learning helps us explore ways to think, to innovate, to develop problem-solving skills and to seek conceptual understanding. Online collaborative learning engages students in higher-order thinking skills, such as critical and creative thinking, analysis, synthesis, planning, monitoring, evaluating.
Online collaborative learning can be either synchronous or asynchronous, and usually is instructor-led and text-based. The instructor is the facilitator of the group discourse and acts as a mediator between learners but also between meanings/interpretations. Online collaborative activities allow all participants to expose their ideas and thereby create an interactive canvas of diverse reactions and feedback.
However, building a learning community is neither automatic nor simple to achieve. The instructor has to understand the structural elements of learners’ communication and their motivational layers. That’s what this article is about.
So, how can I build community in my online course?
Most instructors struggle to make learners participate actively in discussion boards. The fact that learners attend the courses in their own time-space makes communication and social engagement even harder. However, there are ways in which a teacher can gradually establish participation and, in the end, a real community of learning.
Let’s see what you can do:
Establishing the Instructor’s Presence
Your initial postings in the discussion forum, your first messages sent to all by email, or the greeting you post on your course home page will do much to set the tone and expectations for your course.
– Convey a sense of enthusiasm about getting started the course. For example, you might say:
“Welcome to our course! I look at teaching…as a chance to share my enthusiasm about this subject with all of you, whether you are taking this class to fulfill a general requirement, have a personal interest, or because you are exploring whether or not to major in this area.”
– Personalize and provide some touchstones about yourself and encourage learners to do the same.
“I first became interested in…as an undergraduate. My particular interests are …
– Indicate your availability for questions and communications.
Don’t forget, the first impression is the best impression.
Making announcements can further establish your presence and build a strong rapport with your learners. Creating a uniform announcement area is essential. For example, in LearnWorlds, the social network area is the best. Let learners know from the first day of class that each time they log in, they should check for the latest announcements.
Depending on your preferences and those of your learners you can also send emails, text or social media messages to learners that repeat online announcements or merely remind learners to log in to view those announcements.
If you send a weekly message via email or some other format (eg., Twitter), make sure these are identical to any announcements in your online classroom.
“I am glad that so many of you are participating in the weekly discussion forums. During the next week, I will send your grades and comments. You can email me if you have any questions about how I determined your grade.”
News and announcements make you seem active. You are the half part of the equation.
Promote Ice-Breaking Activities for Making Class Introductions
During the early part of an online course, it is critical for class members to get to know one another, and learn to share things from an online class community. A good idea is to create a discussion thread called “Introduce Yourself.” It’s also fruitful to present yourself also.
“In this course, we will be working together collaboratively to achieve the course objectives we have set. I look forward to getting to know you. To get things started, please introduce yourself to the other learners. In this course what I want you to achieve…”
These discussion threads enable the teacher to identify learners with similar interests and help her to groups learners for collaborative work later on in the course.
Urging Learners to Ask Questions
Learners must feel free to pose questions either via email (directly to the teacher as a private
communication) or by posting a discussion forum (publicly). The drawback of the email approach is that the learner is relying on the teacher as the sole provider of information.
It is advisable, therefore, to set up a Q&A discussion thread for the duration of the online course. This saves time for the teacher and encourages communication:
“The purpose of this thread is for you to have a place to ask course-related questions. When appropriate, please feel free to post thoughts to questions posed by others as well.”
Synchronous communication provides a sense of immediacy and cultivates the feeling of responsiveness among participants. It also results in quick problem-solving. Real-time chat is probably the most exhausting and intensive activity an online instructor will ever encounter. Your attention must be attuned to rapid-fire comments and questions from several learners.
Attempt to plan a live collaboration chat with your learners early on. Concerning for example a Q&A session about the course and what the class will be doing.
Asynchronous discussion allows time for reflection and encourages more careful consideration but often lacks spontaneity and it may take longer to arrive at a conclusion or a decision. However, learners can reflect and think about their responses rather than having to respond immediately.
A discussion based on specific readings in the textbook, coupled with your guideline questions, will likely be more productive than merely pointing learners to the forum and expecting them to find their direction. The shaping of discussions takes some proper forethought.
One way of promoting meaningful dialogue and questioning is to provide a set of rubrics of the kinds of questions students may want to ask each other.
“Your point about…is not clear to me. Can you state it another way, or provide an example? ”
“Do you have any additional evidence to support your thinking about…? ”
“You describe how your thinking has changed. What influenced that change? ”
“ What assumptions are you making about…? How would your statements change with different assumptions? ”
“What are the implications of your statement?”
“What evidence is there to support your point of view?” “Does anyone want to dispute or verify that?”
Tips for great asynchronous conversation:
“Anyone else wants to comment on Jill’s observation?” “Did anyone reach a different conclusion about this issue?”
Promoting Team Activities
In your discussion board, you can create group conversations where smaller groups of learners will be able to interact and also produce crafts. Here are a few strategies for promoting interaction among learners:
As an extension of your course topics, you can create a blog, where learners will have the ability to post articles, reflections, diary entries, etc. Also, in a blog learner will be able to share images, links to websites, audio, or video clips.
A community of learners can co-exist and co-develop in several social means concurrently. That will make it even more coherent.
Sharing is caring. Sharing is thinking together, negotiating, collaborating, co-creating. These are the main elements of productive communities of learning. The cycles of sharing, commenting, responding, synthesizing among learners promote community-building emotions since learners no longer focus solely on their understanding.
Give it a try to apply the techniques we describe here in your course and give us feedback on how it goes!