In order to be part of an effective learning community, online learners need to feel the presence of the instructor and fellow learners. Jane Dwyer, a senior lecturer at Rivier College, uses the following techniques to create this sense of social presence in her online psychology courses:
Introductory letter—Before the course starts, Dwyer sends students a letter explaining what they need to do to prepare for the online course.
Video clip—To supplement the letter, Dwyer includes a brief welcome video clip. This clip contains no course information; it is solely intended to make students feel connected and welcome.
Introductory questions—At the beginning of the course, Dwyer asks course-related personal questions to introduce students to each other and get them used to interacting in the online forums. For example, she might ask, “At what age did you become an adult, and how did you realize it happened? Is your adult personality the same or different than your adolescent personality?” Despite the personal nature of these questions, students typically answer them thoughtfully.
Pet gallery—Including a photo and profile of each student can add to social presence, but some students are uncomfortable sharing this information. So Dwyer asks students to post pet photos and information about them instead. (For those who don’t have pets, they can post photos of friends’ or relatives’ pets.) It is an effective icebreaker—“like mothers bragging about their newborns,” Dwyer says.
Bully session—In the fourth week of an eight-week course, Dwyer asks students to write three things they like about the course and one thing that could be improved. Dwyer makes it a point to implement any helpful suggestions in the current course if possible so current students benefit.
Shared leadership—Each student has the opportunity to facilitate discussions. For each unit Dwyer has a student come up with five or six questions, facilitate the discussion, and summarize it at the end of the week.
Question forum—Whenever a student emails Dwyer a question that she thinks is relevant to the entire class, she posts it anonymously and answers it in a forum dedicated to non-content-related questions and lets the student know that the answer is in the question forum. Students pick up on this quickly and begin to post questions directly to the question forum. And sometimes students answer each other’s questions in this forum.
Excerpted from Tips From The Pros – 7 Things to Personalize Your Online Course, Online Classroom, October 2008.