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Building a Community of Learners in Online Classes

Online learning is becoming more prevalent in colleges and universities. When I arrived in higher education, I could not imagine how online classes would work since the connection to students and building an environment of community and rapport is so important in my classroom. I could not wrap my mind around this monumental task. Over time, I learned I can still build a strong community of learners and a strong rapport with my students—without ever having them on campus.

Frequent Communication

To begin building my classroom community, frequent communication is a must. Sending a welcome email at the beginning of the course, followed by weekly check-in emails and other reminders, goes a long way in building a classroom community. Do you have assignments in your class that are more in-depth and take more time? Those larger, multi-faceted assignments (i.e. final papers, unit plans, portfolios) require planning ahead. It is difficult for our students to see past the, “What is due now?” or “What do I have to accomplish this week?” Just keeping the larger assignments in front of them with friendly reminders helps them start to formulate a plan and reduces the panic that inevitably ensues when larger assignments are due.

Videos

Building videos into my courses for every online module has been a focus for my courses. While my Blackboard modules are full of videos, articles, assignments, and Google Slides, I have found that creating a video using Screencast-O-Matic to review the materials and the assignments has helped to build a strong rapport with my students. While my students generally do not “see” me, just hearing my voice each module gives them a sense of being “in” a classroom. I will often reference the previous module’s work, upcoming assignments, and current events in literacy instruction. It is a great way to teach the content, keep the students engaged, and even spark an interest or discussion.

FlipGrid

FlipGrid has revolutionized my online classes. Students from all over the United States enter our program and never get to meet face-to-face. By utilizing FlipGrid in place of the typical Discussion Board, students get to interact, share ideas, and put a face to the name behind the screen. Connections are built and fostered while discussions are taken to a new level. In one FlipGrid response a student shared a particular teaching technique she successfully utilized. She then modeled the technique in the FlipGrid discussion thread so others would see and better understand what she was referring to. The response was amazing!

Zoom

Zoom has been a game-changer in my courses this semester. I began the semester offering Zoom to review the syllabus and clear up any questions. This offers a more “face-to-face” setting to discuss any assignments and expectations, as well as provides me with the opportunity to offer advice based on previous semesters. Even though videos are provided to go along with each module, just having that “live” feature with the ability to interact has significantly reduced beginning of course questions. I also offer Q&A sessions throughout the semester as a form of drop-in office hours, or when I see trends of misconceptions emerge in their work.

Zoom has also made one of my key assignments possible. In my class, students review various dyslexia programs on the market. Previously, students came to campus one Saturday to do this. As we continue to grow outside of our own state, this is becoming less feasible. This semester, the program reviews were conducted via Zoom, and for each Zoom session I talked about a different program. I did an overview, shared the scope-and-sequence, reviewed a sample lesson, displayed materials, and answered questions. This has been a great change since Zoom has the ability to record the session.

After each session, I posted the video in Blackboard for students who could not “attend” or who would like to review the material again. I have enjoyed seeing the interaction among the students grow. They engaged in conversations about the strengths and weaknesses of the programs and any experiences they had. It has also prompted my students to want to share programs they are familiar with in their own school districts that are not part of our program review rotation. The students scheduling Zoom sessions are allowing a deeper level of collegiality to build, and in addition, our shared knowledge base is growing.

The results of utilizing frequent communication, videos, FlipGrid, and Zoom continues to inspire me to maintain building connections between my students, build an environment of rapport, and build a community of learners. All of these tools have enabled me to maintain a high instructor presence in a fully online environment. I challenge you to try something new to build your community of learners.

Amy Earls Thompson, PhD is an assistant professor at the University of Central Arkansas in the Department of Elementary, Literacy, and Special Education.