September 8th, 2014

Building Community and Creating Relevance in the Online Classroom


Remember feeling nervous before starting your first day on the job? You may have experienced butterflies in your stomach, had questions about expectations, or concerns about learning the rules and finding information. Students feel the same way with a new professor, regardless if the class is face-to-face or online. With technology, you can reduce new-class jitters and get your students on track for success.

According to José Antonio Bowen, author of Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning, students are comfortable (and even expect) constant e-communication. One could even argue that they crave it. You can provide this kind of communication to your online students via a weekly announcement that shares course expectations, class rules, and how to access vital course documents. Moreover, weekly e-communication to students can provide you with an extra opportunity to create connectivity in your classroom.

Recording weekly video announcements
To begin, create a weekly video announcement that best suits your students. You can do this by using technology that is appropriate for the learning management system (LMS) used by your school. If your institution uses iPads, make sure your video file can be viewed on iPads. Consider embedding the weekly announcements in the course on the LMS or a course website so students have an opportunity to go back and access material later if necessary. Remember, a video announcement does not have to be a video of you talking. Instead it can be a voiceover as you give students a tour of the online course shell or discuss important housekeeping tasks for the class. Easy-to-use technologies like Jing, screencast-o-matic, VoiceThread, and Camtasia Relay allow you to communicate visually without being in front of the camera.

Prime each weekly announcement by describing the objectives of the current week in a minute or less and highlights the location of the current week’s assignments along with relevant resources. Include links that enhance learning and clarify material. Share specific expectations of the assignment so students understand exactly what you want. Vague instructions from teachers will illicit vague material from students.

If a student did outstanding work in the previous week’s assignment, ask the student for permission to share the work with the class in the upcoming announcement. This is a wonderful way to acknowledge a student’s hard work and to demonstrate A-level work to the rest of the class. This practice may also cut down on student emails questioning the grade that was earned.

Building relevance in your courses
Students crave relevance, so consider connecting the unit material to current affairs. Share links to news stories, Twitter feeds, or articles that make the learning material applicable to life outside the classroom. If you teach business, marketing, public relations, among others, there are numerous opportunities to wrap an assignment or discussion around the public movements (or missteps) of high-profile companies. If you can make it applicable, you can even use celebrity news stories, as students enjoy hearing about this type of material. Perhaps there is a poetry slam or book reading you’d like your students to attend. Maybe a future art exhibit is relevant to your content or a well-known speaker is giving a lecture on campus. All of these strategies keep students apprised of current events and demonstrate your efforts to connect their classroom with the real world. Sharing this information via e-communication frees up valuable classroom time that you can spend engaging students in the content of course material rather than administrative details.

Finally, do not be afraid to have a sense of humor. Showing a funny side will demonstrate to the students that you are enjoying yourself and enthusiasm is contagious.

Formula for Success:

  • Provide an introduction each week and share your availability
  • Give feedback and answer questions from the previous week
  • Showcase exceptional student work from the previous week
  • Highlight the objectives of the coming week and any special preparation or required resources
  • Connect your coursework to relevant current events

By using a weekly announcement, an instructor is allowed to incorporate additional instruction, share feedback, create relevance, and add humor; all useful elements to creating a connected classroom.

Amy Erickson is an assistant professor at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Catz Neset is an associate professor at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota.

  • Sharon

    Excellent suggestions! Great article.

  • Amy

    Thanks for writing such a great article about online classrooms. This is very useful information!

  • Pam

    Thanks for sharing these suggestions. You have presented some very valuable, useful, user-friendly information. Thank you!

  • Marcia Scott

    This sounds like a great way to put students at ease. This is a fantastic article!

  • Holly

    These are great suggestions, especially as schools move toward more online learning and increased use of technology! Thank you for sharing!

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  • Write Learning Institute

    I love this article. These few tips are so quick and easy on the part of the instructor. As online instruction becomes more and more demanding, it's great to see some really practical tips that can create a win/win atmosphere for both students and instructors alike! Thanks much ladies!

  • Mary

    Thanks for distilling this very practical approach into five easy tips. I would only add, why wait until college? My son's kindergarten is using a very similar approach, iPads and all, right now. This may explain college students' expectations for online communication. Start 'em young!

  • Amy

    This is very useful information for the online classroom! Very practical and useful information in an era where online education is so prevalent and necessary, yet still has a lot of grey area in terms of structure and application. Thank you!!

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  • Maureen

    Great ideas! We all must realize that teaching is no longer a stagnant process. You have to engage the student and use multiple resources that you have at your fingers!

  • Pip Ferguson

    Great suggestions Amy and Catz. I'm planning to do a cartoon with voiceover to introduce myself to my new Irish students before they arrive, so they get used to my Kiwi accent before class starts!

    • Amy Erickson

      Pip, That sounds fantastic! (By the way, I am a Kiwi, too!)
      Best of luck to you!

  • Sally Ann

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Jess Blaisdell

    Well said, this is a great overview! With online education, weekly videos and connecting with students truly adds so much and can help students to learn difficult to grasp concepts. Thanks for the tips/ideas, ladies!

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