6 Strategies for Building Community in Online Courses

As an online learner, I value the connection I have with my classmates. Sometimes, we click and work well as a team. We support and motivate each other. Other times, we barely talk or cooperate. We don’t feel any sense of belonging. I wonder what makes the difference, but I think it has something to do with community. Having a community makes us bond and collaborate better. This is especially important for online courses, where we can feel lonely and disconnected.

Online courses are different from traditional ones, because we use technology to communicate. We mostly text instead of talk. We can’t always see who is more or less influential in the group. Some people think that online courses are inferior to traditional ones, but I disagree. I think online courses can create deeper relationships than traditional ones, but they are different. The way online community forms affects how we learn and how we teach.

It’s not easy to create a community in an online course, and it’s hard to know if it exists. Sometimes, it happens behind the scenes, through private chats and emails. If we don’t see these interactions, we might think that online courses lack community, but that’s not true. There might be a strong community hidden in the background.

Community is not just about showing up; it’s about getting involved, engaged, and active. I like to think about what makes me feel part of a community, online or offline, and use that to create community in my online courses. Here are some tips that I find helpful for fostering community in an online course.

1. Communicate Regularly and Effectively

Communication is the key to community, and it is a good idea to set an example of good communication from the beginning of the course. Make a plan of when and how you will contact your students, individually or as a group. Send messages at the start of each module with announcements or reminders. Check in before major assignments or exams. A regular and effective communication strategy is the first step to encourage community.

2. Create a Sense of Social Presence

Social presence, or the feeling that we are interacting with real people, is an important factor for developing community. Several related aspects influence social presence. These include immediacy – the psychological distance between communicators; interaction – when actions affect each other; and intimacy – the idea that individuals will adjust their behaviors to maintain balance. To create and enhance social presence, consider the following:

  • Make an introductory video and ask your students to do the same; these can be simple smartphone videos where everyone introduces themselves and shares 2-3 facts about themselves.
  • Give your students a reason to visit the course site often.
  • Let them share work that represents them.

3. Meet in Real-Time

It’s not always possible (or even desirable) to schedule live meetings, but interacting at the same time can boost community. Students get to know each other, recognize faces and names, and share information. Consider having several live sessions on the same topic, all at different times of the day and week so everyone can join one. Alternatively, make the sessions optional.

4. Provide Opportunities for Information and Expertise Sharing

One thing that attracts us to communities is the rich resources that members provide. Providing opportunities for students to share information is a useful way to help develop community. A few options include:

  • Create study groups for the course. Assign students to small groups. Suggest that they use the learning management system to work together. Doing so can help them learn to work in groups and to make connections with their classmates.
  • Include a “relevant resource” section for the course. Ask students to post information that’s happening in the world that is related to the course content. If students see the relevance of the content, they will be more engaged with it. Online articles, essays, YouTube clips, and so on can add extra value. You can post in this section as well. Consider using Contemporary Issues Journals. In Contemporary Issues Journals, students look for recent events or developments in the real world that are related to their coursework, then analyze these current affairs to identify the connections to course material in entries that they write in a journal. Ask students to share their ideas in a central forum.
  • Create a common space. Instructors can encourage informal interactions by creating a common space such as a student lounge for discussion.

5. Use Collaborative Learning Techniques

Collaborative learning requires students to work with each other, which can help reduce feelings of isolation. In addition to being glad to know that others are in the same situation, many online students appreciate interacting and forming relationships with peers. Getting to know their peers in an online setting can improve students’ overall experience. Online collaborative learning provides a solid basis for such relationships. Consider collaborative learning techniques such as the following:

  • Peer review. Ask students to review each other’s work and provide feedback. This can help them improve their writing skills, learn from each other, and build trust and rapport.
  • Group projects. Assign students to work on a project together and present their results to the class. This can help them develop teamwork skills, learn from different perspectives, and create a shared product.
  • Discussion forums. Ask students to participate in online discussions and respond to each other’s posts. This can help them practice critical thinking skills, learn from diverse opinions, and create a dialogue.

6. Develop sub-communities

Some online learners may feel overwhelmed or intimidated by participating or sharing in a large online course. Developing sub-communities can help. These are smaller groups of online learners who share similar interests, goals, or backgrounds. Sub-communities can help create a sense of community by providing a more personalized and comfortable experience for online learners. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Use surveys or polls to identify and group your online learners based on their interests, goals, or backgrounds. For example, you can group your students by their majors, hobbies, or locations.
  • Use separate discussion forums or chat rooms for each sub-community. Encourage your students to use these spaces to connect, interact, or collaborate with their sub-community members.
  • Use live sessions or events to showcase or celebrate the sub-communities. For example, you can invite your students to present their sub-community projects, share their sub-community stories, or join a sub-community social.

In summary, creating a strong sense of community in your online course can have positive effects on your students’ engagement, motivation, and learning outcomes. By following the tips and strategies in this blog post, you can foster a sense of community among your online learners and enhance their online learning experience.

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