Seven Strategies to Promote Community in Online Courses

Students engage in online course that promotes sense of community

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with approximately 300 faculty who have developed and taught their first online course. One of the concerns I frequently hear from instructors considering teaching online is that they will lose the interaction and sense of community they have with their students when they teach face-to-face. That doesn’t have to be the case; many online instructors successfully create a sense of community in their courses. There are a variety of definitions of community. Most include wording or phrases such as “having something in common,” “feelings of being connected,” “shared goals or aspirations,” and “regular interaction.” This article will explore seven strategies faculty can use to promote and increase community in the online environment.

1. You serve as the role model

If instructors are wanting to promote community in their online courses one way to encourage that is modeling the behavior they would like to see in their students. This can start with a warm and enthusiastic welcome message. It can include responding to student questions promptly and respectfully. And, it can include the instructor sharing personal information about themselves so students have the chance to go beyond seeing their instructor as a content expert teaching the class and view them as a real person they can get to know and relate to. Additionally, if developing a sense of community is a goal for instructors, it is helpful if they let students know that it is. Sometimes instructors get frustrated that students aren’t meeting their expectations, when in reality, students might not be clear on what those expectations are.

2. Let students get to know you and each other

One way instructors can start to develop community early in a course is to use introduction or icebreaker activities. Having an introduction or icebreaker can set the tone for students engaging and interacting with one another and encourage social interactions right out of the gate. Many instructors use introductions but they are sometimes repetitive and mundane, asking students to share things like their name, year in school, and their major. Consider jazzing up these early interactions by having students share their previous experience (or lack thereof) with course content, what they are looking forward to learning in the class, or a bit of personal information. I’ve used icebreakers for courses in the past where I would have students search out misconceptions or mistruths about content that would be covered in the class. That was a nice way to expose students to topics they would be delving into over the upcoming months.

3. Create a safe course environment

Creating an online course environment in which students feel safe can have many benefits. It can help students be more engaged with their peers and instructor, it can lead to students being more open with their beliefs and values, and it can provide a valuable lesson on how to have productive and respectful interactions with others who might hold opposing viewpoints. A safe course environment doesn’t mean there won’t be disagreements or differences of opinion, but it does mean that students will treat each other with respect if they do arise. Most online instructors share a set of course rules or expectations (netiquette) that governs behavior in the online classroom, and some instructors even have their students help create those expectations. Dealing with disruptive behavior (e.g., an inappropriate comment from a student) immediately is another way instructors can help ensure a safe learning environment.

4. Survey student interests

Student interest surveys, sometimes called student interest inventories, can be used in online courses to promote relationship building and community. Questions on these surveys can elicit personal information (e.g., what hobbies or activities do you enjoy?), school related information (e.g., do you enjoy working in groups? why or why not?), and future goals and aspirations (e.g., where do you see yourself in five years?). Questions could even be related to what students might want to see covered in a course and could result in instructors altering their curriculum. This might help students feel more engaged and give them a sense of ownership in a course. Survey results could be used to place students in groups for collaborative work or projects. And, knowing more about their students (e.g., what type of music they listen to, academic challenges they might have) could help instructors better interact and relate to them.

5. Build in opportunities for student to share their knowledge and experiences.

I’ve had the pleasure of working in higher education for more than twenty years now and believe this idea of building opportunities into courses for students to share their past experiences is greatly underutilized. I realized how powerful this could be when I was teaching an online health course about 10 years ago and learned a young lady in the class was going to go to Florida (she lived in Wisconsin) the next week to participate in a powerlifting national championship. It ended up she took first!  The week after she won we happened to be in a unit on muscular fitness and resistance training and I asked if she would share her knowledge on the topic through a discussion forum. She was excited and thrilled to do so and her expertise likely exceeded mine. Students come into our courses with a plethora of experiences, from their families, jobs, military, work, prior schooling, etc. Utilize those past experiences for the benefit of everyone in the class.

6. Create social opportunities for students.

In addition to having an introduction or icebreaker activity (covered in #2 above) building in opportunities for online students to interact socially can help promote a sense of community in class. One way instructors do this is to have a discussion forum dedicated to personal interactions. Sometimes these forums or spaces are titled “Student Lounge,” “Student Cafe,” or “The Water Cooler” where students can interact and discuss non-course related topics. Topics could range from the weather to who won the big game the night before to interesting current local, state, national, or global events. Some online instructors use social media groups such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn in their courses to encourage social interactions among students. Some online programs even go so far as to add all program alumni to these groups so current students can interact with prior students who are often out working in the discipline.

7. Build in multiple avenues for interaction and engagement.

If an instructor wishes to develop a sense of community in an online course, they will likely be more successful if they create a variety of opportunities for this to occur. These opportunities can be purposefully designed and integrated into the curriculum as an instructor is developing a class. In addition to some of the things already mentioned in this article (e.g., having an introduction or icebreaker activity, creating social spaces for students) other ways instructors can build in student-to-student interaction in a class might include online discussion forums, peer-review activities, collaborative work, and video conferencing. Also, these interactive opportunities could be spaced evenly throughout a course, so for example, if a student is taking a 15-week online course there is some interaction occurring every couple of weeks instead of all happening in the first 2-3 weeks of class.

Join Brian Udermann on Tuesday, June 18 at 1:00 pm Central for 7 Indispensable Strategies to Build Community in Your Online Courses. Brian will discuss a variety of strategies for online instructors to use to build and maintain a sense of community in their online courses, and how doing so will result in a better course experience for both student and instructor.