Build Learning Communities Throughout an Online Program

Nova Southeastern University’s Master’s in Health Law program is designed to encourage the creation of learning communities in which students view each other as partners rather than isolated individuals who happened to be working toward similar goals.

The two-year program, which is housed in NSU’s Shepard Broad Law Center, uses a cohort model that features a combination of synchronous, asynchronous, and face-to-face learning, to encourage students to seek each others’ opinions and advice.

The program is intended to help working professionals understand and navigate the regulations governing the health care industry.

Summer Institute

Building the learning community begins with the Summer Institute where students meet as NSU for four-and-a-half days for both community building and instructional purposes. The Summer Institute occurs each year and provides students at different stages in the program to interact.

During the first year, students learn about the American legal system’s structure and history, the basics of the course system, and legal research and reasoning techniques.
In the second year, students present their Individual Research Project ideas to peers, incoming students, faculty members, and practitioners in the field.

In the third year, graduating students present the results of their Individual Research Projects, which helps others in the program refine their project ideas and gives them a clearer sense of the process.

“We start them off so they have some sense of who their classmates are. I really think that’s important in our program to help create a community,” says Kathy Cerminara, associate professor at NSU’s Shepard Broad Law Center and former MHL director.

Online community building

The program has several features that build upon the relationships that are begun on campus.

To provide continuity and the tools to build a community, each course uses WebCT and features modules that include reading materials, links to pertinent materials, hypothetical problems, lecture notes, video clips of lectures, threaded discussions, chat, and quizzes.

Each course offers chat at least twice per semester, but students are not required to participate to allow some flexibility. “Some professors use chat as a real pedagogical tool, asking preplanned questions, presenting hypothetical situations. Others use them as online office hours, asking questions like, How is the course going? What questions do you have? How does what we’re learning fit in with current events?” Cerminara says.

Ensuring that all the courses are structured similarly is important, particularly because the instructors, like the students, are from all over the country. To further ensure continuity, faculty are invited to the Summer Institutes to share online teaching ideas with each other. The program director also evaluates each course.

The program also features community building items that are not course specific. For example, in their final semester, when students are on their Individual Research Projects, the have access to a “course” that has not content but is set up to enable students to communicate with each other about their projects and perhaps share drafts with each other.

The student services staff also sends out periodic e-mail messages that might be of interest to the students such as news of student of faculty achievements.

“Students often start their own chatter as a result of that,” Cerminara says. “Whether it’s the in-person contact, whether it’s the tools we provide, they have taken it upon themselves to exchange their personal e-mails. I know that’s happening. I know they’re setting up chats outside of courses. I know they’re creating this class identity that goes above and beyond them being students in these individual classes.”

The program graduated its first cohort in 2003, and while there have been no formal studies about the effects of the community-building efforts, Cerminara points out that the student drop rate is low — in a cohort of 35 students, 32 or 33 will graduate. “Is it due to the kind of students we draw? Are we running some amazingly unusual courses? I’d like to think that part of it is that they have this network of people, and they really do support each other,” Cerminara says.

For more information about the program, visit Contact Kathy Cerminara at