By Susan Marshall

One aspect of online teaching that I feared would make it less enjoyable for me as an instructor is that my students and I wouldn’t get to know one another as well as we do in our in-person courses.

I thought that it would be difficult to replicate the interaction and dynamic atmosphere of a classroom where we all exchange ideas, participate in thoughtful discussions, challenge each other’s beliefs and positions, develop an understanding of and respect for one another, and come to care about each other as fellow humans.distorted overhead view of laptops and phones at a table

As I have developed new courses and adjusted and redesigned old courses, though, I have found that creating a real sense of community is possible. To do that, I keep coming back to three general areas. I use them from the start of my online classes, but they apply just as well in a class that is moving online midterm, as we all are doing now.

These are easy to implement, are viewed positively by students, and can even help to reduce the grading burden on the instructor in some instances. Additionally, these techniques do not take away from the time and attention needed for students to interact with the course content in a fast-paced term. In fact, the engagement that results benefits students’ processing of the material as they interact with their classmates.

Establish early contact with students

Reach out to students as soon as possible  and  encourage them to familiarize themselves with the course components, and establish an expectation that they will be involved in your online class community.  It is important that students “hit the ground running” on Day 1 and this early admission into the online course allows them to get ready for what can be a busy and demanding few weeks.  It also establishes that you expect them to do a little work up front to be prepared to participate in your course and to interact with you and with their classmates.  Here are some examples of how I encourage this early participation and preparation by my students:

  • Welcome email: When I turn on the course, I post an announcement and send an email that welcomes students to the course.  This email gives them the basic information about how to get started by accessing the course website and where to go from there.  I also express my enthusiasm about teaching the course and getting to know them. There is plenty of room for policies and procedures in the course website and syllabus. Use this first contact with students as an opportunity to be friendly and approachable, not to warn them about all the pitfalls of not being prepared or doing the coursework.distorted overhead view of laptops and phones at a table
  • Getting Started section: Once students log into the course website, it is important that they have a detailed roadmap for what you expect them to do before Day 1. Taking the time to build this roadmap for your students will ensure that they are prepared and understand your expectations.
  • Welcome video: Making a welcome video seems somewhat unnecessary from a course content perspective but it can go a long way toward students’ seeing you as an approachable, real-life person who wants to engage with your students. This may not be possible in the short time you have to make your class available online this semester, but look for ways like this to remind students that the same person is running the class.

Have an assignment due soon after the course goes online

This assignment is not about the course content.  Rather, it is a chance for students to re-introduce themselves to you and to each other. It also helps them become familiar with some of the tools you will use on Blackboard.

Create your own example to share with your students about yourself.  Students then get a feel for the people they are interacting with.  They can share pictures and learn about families, interests, backgrounds, and jobs.  They can see connections between themselves and the life experiences of the people with whom they are enrolled in the course.  They can even comment or interact with one another as a way to say hello.  Here are two ways that this would be easy to implement and also might allow students practice at using a system or technology that you use later on for actual coursework:

  • About Me slide: This version of the assignment asks students to create a slide where they share information and pictures about themselves with you and their fellow classmates.  I have used PowerPoint to create my example slide for my courses, but some students simply paste pictures into a Word document.  For my example, I include pictures of my family on vacation, pictures of pets, lists of hobbies and interests, and background information about my life.  I post my slide as an example with the assignment description.  Students can post their slides to a discussion board and then might be required to introduce themselves to another classmate or even find some similarity with a classmate to ensure early interaction.
  • VoiceThread introduction: Instead of creating a static slide with pictures and text information, you could use VoiceThread for these early introductions.  This method would be especially useful if you plan to use VoiceThread as a course component as it would allow practice with the technology.  Students could introduce themselves to one another using their computer webcam.  They could show pictures and talk about interests, family, and experiences without it being time-consuming to build.  This format also has the potential to increase student involvement.  Students might be more likely to watch their classmates’ videos because it is easier than clicking through and reading individual slides for each person

Create smaller communities within your online class

Thus far I have focused on how to set the expectations for engagement early on.  Maintaining that feeling of community and requirement for engagement is the focus of this last area.

Many students take online classes because they want to work independently and learn the content in a way that is most efficient and flexible given their life circumstances. However, learning in isolation is not always the best way to fully master and understand the content. Therefore, it is my job as the instructor to build this engagement between students into the course design. I have found that creating smaller communities within an online class can be very effective. Students can get to know a subset of their classmates and participate in assignments and discussions with the same people throughout the semester. This can be accomplished by forming groups or teams of 6-10 students.  Assignments that require peer interaction can then be designed to work within this smaller group as opposed to on a class-wide scale.  Here are some ways I have used this approach with different assignments in my courses:

looking down on table of laptops, phones and hands
Marvin Meyer, via Unsplash
  • About Me slide. I have students share their About Me slide only with their smaller discussion group and not with the class as a whole.  This feels like a more intimate introduction and helps to establish this smaller team from the beginning.
  • Written assignments with peer review. We all want our students to practice sharing their thoughts about the course content in written form.  However, reading and providing feedback on weekly written assignments can be a very big time commitment for the instructor.  Instead, it can be useful to have students peer review each other’s assignments.  This system helps to ensure quality without the instructor having to read every assignment every week.  Even better, students not only receive very timely feedback on their assignment but they also get to experience what a classmate thought about that week’s topic.  This engagement with one another is like having a conversation in class where they can agree or disagree on some topic.  Students then can write a reflection that highlights those similarities or differences that they identified.  This system can be introduced at the smaller discussion group level, which ensures that students are interacting with the same group of classmates and that those feelings of community can be strengthened and maintained throughout the course.
  • Group discussion assignments. Another option for creating engagement with the smaller community is to have weekly discussion topics or prompts that all students must answer within their group.  Students must respond to the instructor’s discussion topic(s) by an early due date within that week’s schedule.  Group members must then return to the discussion board later in the week to respond to and engage with a classmate about the topic.  Again, doing this in a smaller group setting allows for a sense of community, and students get to know one another better than if it is designed to encompass the entire class.
  • Afterthoughts assignments. An important goal in my classes is for students to connect the content to their daily lives. I have also used this smaller discussion group setting to get students to make these connections and to decide, as a group, what example might be the best that is presented in a given week among their members.  Students are required to post an “afterthought” about the topic(s) we are covering that week on their group discussion board.  This post could be a picture or video that illustrates a concept.  It could be a link to something they came across on the internet.  It could be a text description of something that happened to them.  Students must post their “afterthought” to their discussion board and then all group members must return to vote on which one they think is the best example presented that week.  They also comment to justify why they voted for a given post.  In this way, the smaller group can come together to make a decision about what post might be one that is highlighted by me to the rest of the class.

I feel like I am constantly searching for new ways to engage online students.  I want this engagement to benefit their learning and experience in the class and also to make teaching online classes more enjoyable for me.  In that search, I have tried many different techniques and some have failed miserably.  The ones I have discussed here, however, have stood the test of time and have lived on in various forms, in a variety of courses, and have been useful for different types of content.

Susan Marshall is a lecturer and academic program associate in psychology and a member of CTE’s Online Working Group.

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