Join us this month for blog posts about blended and online learning. Adam Holden, head of the Department of Teacher Education at Fort Hays State University, kicks things off with strategies for building community in online learning.
For years we have extolled the benefits of developing learning communities within the courses we teach. Regardless of delivery method, students learn best when they are active members of the learning process, and this is even more critical when the learning takes place in a virtual setting.
Developing a sense of community in an online course is almost universally well-received, and often results in an increased comfort among students sharing their viewpoints and observations, and in developing a more positive attitude towards both classmates and the course as a whole.
Enhancing online learning communities is not complex, but does take time and planning to get it right. Consider the following:
Good announcements are critical. Good online instructors need to allow students to get to know them as people as well as instructors, and the easiest way to do this is to share real conversations as you would in class. The need to use class announcements to connect — simply to tell stories — is just as important as the need to give academic direction. Share the simple things about your life: a TV show, the weather, your dog, exercising — and you will soon have students giving you a line or two back at the end of their assignment submissions about why they don’t understand the cat person in their life.
Make it visual. Good connection only happens when students can relate to the others in the class. Seeing classmates is a vital element of this connection, and so having profile photo’s or introductory videos is a really important practice. A sense of community always allows “a face to be put to a name.” Some students may resist this, preferring to remain anonymous, but if it is integrated into the course appropriately the vast majority will see it as a useful connection to others in the class. Listening to other student’s introduce themselves and give a little background can truly make the difference.
Use the right tools. Social media is a bit like music; everyone has their own preference. Great learning communities use the right tools to go where the students are. This requires the development of a single hub for connection — perhaps a central class webpage or community page. It also requires students to be able to connect with this using their own media. The choice of hub is important as it will need to interact smoothly with a full range of social media including: Google+, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and more.
Make it student-centered. The very best online learning communities involve all members, and if you are looking for active involvement it is important that instructors do not have the loudest voice in the room. Student interactions should be as spontaneous, inquisitive and candid in nature, as they are academic, and often benefit from spaces where they can communicate about class activities without instructor oversight.
Keep it simple. Don’t overcomplicate it. Students like to connect, and will do so willingly online, as long as the tools work, the connection has real meaning to them, and the tools are not too complicated. All students will benefit, even those who are a little reluctant at first.
Adam Holden has been a school administrator in both the private and public education systems of Europe and the United States for more than 25 years. Adam is a two-time recipient of the National Blue Ribbon of Excellence, is a qualified IBO Head of School, an authorized Google Education Trainer and now heads the, nationally ranked, Department of Teacher Education at Fort Hays State University. Adam is a proponent of innovative, creative, culturally diverse, and blended educational experiences.
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