The convenience and flexibility of the online learning environment allows learners to develop new skills and further their education, regardless of where they live. However, for all of its benefits, online learning can sometimes feel isolating for students and faculty. The question is: how do you build a sense of community in your online courses? One approach involves cultivating more interaction—between you and your students and among the students themselves. Here are five practical tips for increasing the human connection in your online classrooms.
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engaging online students
Many instructors feel that they need to be experts in mathematics in order to understand analytics. But according to John Vivolo, director of online and virtual learning for New York University, every faculty member can learn to use the course analytics available through their LMS to improve student learning.
Students like online classes due to their flexibility and convenience. But not all students do well in these courses; the statistics indicate that online classes have a much higher dropout rate compared to traditional face-to-face classes. The attrition rates in online courses tend to be 10 to 20 percent higher than in face-to-face classes. While there are some personal factors that could influence a student’s decision to drop out, many of the factors are related to institutional and course level support—and these barriers can be addressed with thoughtful planning and implementation. Institutional level factors like technical support, academic support, advising, and availability of resources can support student success in online courses. At the course level, there are many simple strategies and techniques that instructors can use to support students’ success in their online classes.
During the past year and a half, our faculty development unit has been gathering data from students about how engaged they felt in their online courses. We wanted to use this data to develop a variety of strategies for faculty to use to better engage their students. Research provides evidence for the connection between higher student engagement and persistence and retention in online programs (Boston, et al., 2010; Wyatt, 2011). Encouraging student engagement is especially important in the online environment where attrition rates are higher than in the face-to-face setting (Allen & Seaman, 2015; Boston & Ice, 2011).
What does it mean to be a wallflower? Such a person might be thought of as shy and might sit apart from others at a party or social gathering, choosing to listen and observe rather than participate. And in the online classroom, a wallflower might be the person who reads course information and discussion boards regularly, but never posts. So how do instructors know if this online wallflower is really engaged in the course?
As instructors, promoting learning is, or at least should be, our primary task. As an online instructor, I must enforce deadlines, respond to requests for accommodations, post announcements, provide guidance and clarity, assess student performance, provide feedback, and post grades. Instructors have a variety of duties inside and outside the classroom to meet the standards required by the university, yet our primary mission should remain ensuring that students are gaining new knowledge.
In their 1995 Change magazine article, “From Teaching to Learning—a New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education,” Robert B. Barr and John Tagg described the Learning Paradigm, which emphasizes learning over teaching and student discovery and construction of knowledge over transfer of knowledge from instructor to student.
Valerie Powell, assistant professor of art at Sam Houston State University, decided to supplement her face-to-face courses to extend the classroom and provide opportunities for students who are not comfortable speaking up in the face-to-face environment. Rather than demanding that students interact using a specific tools, she offers options “to meet students where they are.”
Threaded discussions can provide excellent opportunities for students to engage in critical thinking. But critical thinking isn’t an automatic feature of these discussions. It needs to be nurtured through clear expectations, carefully crafted questions, timely and useful feedback, and creative facilitation.
Online discussions are often implemented in college classes to allow students to express their understanding and perceptions about the assigned readings. This can be challenging when the reading is particularly complex, as students are typically reluctant to share their interpretations because they are not confident in their understanding. This can inhibit meaningful interactions with peers within an online discussion.