As we adjust to a new reality of social distancing and working from home, many of us are finding new ways to build and sustain community online. Re-envisioning community is just as important in the classes we are transitioning to an online format, and this post explores some ways we can sustain a sense of classroom community as we move our classes online.
In a recent letter, IUB Provost Lauren Robel wrote, “We are a residential campus that believes deeply in the relationships and presence of face-to-face instruction, and we are doing our level best to replicate as much of that experience as possible in our move to online instruction.” Maintaining relationships and building a sense of community in your courses can help counter the isolation and disruption that many students will experience during the COVID-19 outbreak. Also, decades of research indicate that students are more likely to succeed online when they feel connected to the instructor and to each other (Dolan et al, 2017).*
Happily, online learning offers many opportunities to connect with students. However, because of the differences between online and face-to-face interaction, building community online requires you to make an extra effort to reach out to students and help them interact effectively and meaningfully with one another and with you. An additional difficulty in the present situation is that not all students have the equipment and internet connection needed to participate easily and fully online. Students lacking a high-speed internet connection, for example, may feel excluded because of problems streaming or downloading course videos.
In light of the opportunities and challenges, this post will show you ways to maintain or build a sense of community in your courses as you go online. We will explore how to reduce barriers to participation by helping students get ready to go online, letting them know where to get help, and making course components accessible.
Get students ready to go online.
As soon as possible, survey your students about their technology, internet connection, and possible barriers to participating in the course. You can create surveys using Canvas Quizzes, Google Forms, or Qualtrics. Work with students and the CITL to find ways to help each student participate as fully as possible.
Let students know where to get help.
Making it easy to contact you and get needed help reduces student frustration and dropout. The course Home Page is a good place to post your contact information and links to other assistance. At a minimum, include:
- The best way to reach you
- How long it will it take you to respond, and whether you’ll respond on weekends
- A link to the Keep Learning website
- How to contact the UITS Support Center
Make course materials and activities accessible.
To reduce streaming and downloading problems, favor short recorded videos over live lectures. Instead of having live discussions, which also can pose streaming issues, use asynchronous tools such as Canvas Discussions. Finally, do what you can to make your course accessible to students with disabilities.
Foster Student Interaction
This blog post is the second of three posts related to building and sustaining community in your course as it moves online. This post looks at how to foster student interaction by setting expectations about students should interact in the course, using assignments to get students to interact, and incorporating asynchronous discussions.
Set expectations about how students should interact.
Most students are used to interacting online, but they may not know how to interact effectively in an online class. Let them know the behavior and level of discourse you expect in online interactions. Provide netiquette guidelines and step in when students fail to follow them. If students need to collaborate on projects, remind them of the tools they have available for collaboration—ranging from text based tools like email, Box, and Google Docs to synchronous tools like Zoom and the telephone—and urge them to find a tool that works for everyone in their group.
One way to ramp up interaction in your course is to give students assignments that require it. Online discussions, discussed below, are probably the most common interactive activity in online courses, but there are other simple ways to get students interacting.
One way is to require students to collaborate to create something larger than the sum of individual pieces. For example, individual students might become experts on particular topics, then come together to produce a group report.
Another relatively simple interactive assignment is to have students give each other feedback on drafts or parts of assignments. Be sure to give them guidance about what to look for and how to give helpful feedback.
Use asynchronous discussion to foster sharing and interaction.
Online asynchronous discussions have several advantages over real-time discussions, including that there is broader participation, contributions tend to be better thought out, and there are no bandwidth issues. As in a face-to-face class, some online discussions may concern course content, others may be around course logistics, while still others may be social “water coolers” discussions.
The Canvas Discussions tool can be used for any type of discussion. It allows you to assign points to the discussion, which will increase participation, and you can view and grade student Discussions posts and responses in the Speed Grader.
Other discussion tools integrated into Canvas work especially well for more casual interaction and for asking questions. They include CN Post, which creates a social media space for your class and awards points for participation, and Piazza, which enables students to answer each other’s questions about homework or other aspects of the course.
Maintain an Active Presence
This is the last of three blog posts related to building and sustaining community in your course as it moves online. It examines how to maintain an active presence online by helping students stay on track, participating in online discussions, and getting to know your students (and letting them get to know you).
Keep students on track.
In Canvas, you can use Announcements, the Inbox, the Home Page, or weekly overview pages to communicate with the class as a whole. For example, you might post a video in which you tie what students learned the previous week to what they will learn during the current week. Or, you might send an announcement to remind students of an assignment that’s coming due, give tips for completing it, and solicit questions about it. Consider having a discussion board where you can post answers to frequently-asked questions about assignments. You can also use synchronous tools like Zoom or the Canvas Chat tool to hold virtual office hours and conduct review sessions, but be mindful that some students may not be able to participate at the scheduled time.
Participate in discussions.
Model for students the type of participation and netiquette that you want to see from them. You don’t need to (and generally shouldn’t) respond to every post, but do occasionally summarize the conversation and ask questions to help clarify students’ ideas and promote deeper thinking.
Get to know your students, and let students get to know you.
If you haven’t done so already, get to know students’ names, and have them use NameCoach so that the other students and you will know how to pronounce their names. Use students’ names when talking with them, responding to their emails, or giving them feedback on assignments. Talk about what is happening and how it’s affecting you, and give students the opportunity to do the same. Be yourself, be real, and don’t discard a lecture video just because your pet or child photobombed it.
* Dolan, J., Kain, K., Reilly, J. and Bansal, G. (2017), How Do You Build Community and Foster Engagement in Online Courses?. Teaching and Learning, 2017: 45-60.