Fostering Student Interaction in the Online Classroom

When you first start teaching online, there’s the temptation to put on your Superman cape and try be ultra responsive and ever-present. So intent on ensuring that each and every student has a successful learning experience in your class, you answer student emails at any hour of the day or night, respond to every discussion board post, and design elaborate assignments that take advantage of all the latest technology tools available.

Unfortunately, this approach leaves instructors exhausted, frustrated and burned out; vowing to never teach an online class again. Meanwhile, the students wait passively for the instructor to spoon feed them every step of the way; never learning how to take an active role in their learning, solve problems or forge a bond with others in the class.

The good news is it doesn’t have to be that way. With proper planning and course design, online instructors can be more efficient and effective with their time, while implementing learner-centered activities that keep students involved and engaged.

In How to Balance Instructor Workload and Learner Needs Tammy Stuart Peery, assistant professor and English department chair at Montgomery College in Germantown, Md., and Samantha Streamer-Veneruso, an associate professor and English department chair at Montgomery College in Rockville, Md., provided strategies for establishing what they call “an invisible presence” in your online courses.

“I’m still present in the class – students know I’m there, they know I’m answering questions – but at the same time I’m not the whole course,” said Peery. “The students know that they are responsible for their learning; that they are responsible for themselves as well as for each other. That takes the maintenance load off me and allows me to focus on providing substantive feedback about the content of the course … and I don’t have to be in my class 24×7.”

Striking the right balance between instructor workload and student needs is a three-phase process that requires adapting course materials and assignments, fostering student-to-student interaction, and managing instructor presence. During the seminar, Peery and Streamer-Veneruso provided detailed guidelines for accomplishing each phase.

For example, in terms of fostering student-to-student interaction, they offered the following checklist to support the course design and implementation:

  • Provide guidelines for group participation and group roles
  • Provide low-stakes opportunities for groups to work together
  • Create a system to monitor group interaction to ensure that groups are not sabotaged by those who don’t participate fully
  • Include opportunities for students to assess their own participation as well as other members
  • Ensure that groups are neither too big nor too small
  • Plan for adjusting group membership if necessary
  • Provide enough time for groups to work together
  • Provide suggested steps and guidelines for completing work as a group
  • Create activities that require authentic opportunities to communicate
  • Provide clear goals for the group assignment
  • Use activities that encourage shared goals and cooperative learning
  • Give students feedback on their participation in the group