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3 Keys to Fostering Community Online

A sense of isolation is a leading cause of dropout among online students. CT looks at proven strategies for building an inclusive, collegial atmosphere in online classes.

3 Keys to Fostering Community Online

One by one, students file into Sam Mistrano's 6:30 p.m. Policy and Practice in Social Service Organizations class, a required course in the University of Southern California's master of social work program. With a big grin, Mistrano gives an energetic wave. "How is everybody doing today?" he asks. Responding with their own smiles, his students glance around at their peers. A number of them wear headphones, but in this particular classroom it's not disrespectful. They need these devices to drown out competing noises--their dog barking or their families chatting in the next room.

This story appears in the November 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the magazine.

That's because this particular classroom is a virtual one. Students attend via webcam from their living rooms, bedrooms, and kitchens. Their images fill the screen in small boxes in a kind of Brady Bunch display. Everyone can see one another, talk with each other, and watch Mistrano as he lectures from his office.

Because the course is live, Mistrano's students do not typically experience the level of isolation that many distance learners feel. "They are fully engaged," he says. "You create a case study or an example, you call on people, and the conversation flows naturally. You bond with them and really get to know them."

At the USC School of Social Work, every online class is handled via real-time video streaming. The approach is effective--and expensive. Many synchronous online learning systems cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. More important, synchronous learning doesn't always suit online students who are juggling schedules already filled with work and family. To serve students like these, many schools pursue an asynchronous approach to instruction. And it is in this mode that distance learners can most easily become trapped in a bubble of isolation, which can ultimately lead to poor performance or failure. To help pop the asynchronous bubble and get students fully engaged--with both faculty and fellow students--here are three tactics with a track record of success:

1) Assign Group Work
One way to encourage interaction is to place students in group situations. Lisa Marie Blaschke, program director of the Master of Distance Education and E-Learning (MDE) program at Carl von Ossietzky University in Germany, actually examined how student participation changed based on group size. "When we looked at the participation within the classroom, there were some students who did not interact at all within the main classroom," says Blaschke, who is also an associate professor within the MDE program at University of Maryland University College (UMUC). "But once they got into a group environment, they would respond more. It was almost as if there was this separate, smaller area within the class where they felt more comfortable."

Not only does online group work spur a sense of community, but it helps prepare students for the workplace. In the business world, employees work in teams more than three-quarters of the time, notes Jeff Borden, an enriched lecturer with Chaminade University (HI) and VP of instruction and academic strategy at Pearson. "Unfortunately in education, most students are not in groups more than 10 percent of the time," he says. "However, putting them in groups starts to give you a degree of social learning."

When an online class is broken into smaller teams, students can teach and learn from one another. They not only benefit from the community experience, but they also remember and contextualize the content better. "If you put people in a group where they are all interdependent, everyone gets a chance to be a teacher," Borden explains. "Everyone gets a chance to hear the information through a new filter--one of their peers as a teacher--and they start to experience things such as mutual respect. That dependence gives them a sense of community."

Team-based projects are an integral part of courses taught by Charla Griffy-Brown, professor of information systems and technology management in the Graziadio School of Business at Pepperdine University (CA). "Part of learning is how to be effective in a virtual team," she says. Projects focus on resolving real-life business conflicts and presenting them to the class--or actual company executives. Using a free tool such as Google Hangouts, Griffy-Brown's students meet in real time to address problems and brainstorm recommendations. Or they might turn to VoiceThread, where users can share comments, images, and videos, to collaborate on a presentation in a more asynchronous fashion.

2) Use Social Media
Remember when learning management systems were walled gardens, with no integration of social media or other community tools? Such a product today would be anathema to online educators trying to maximize student involvement. When Queens College, CUNY approached Nancy Mare to develop a hybrid course for adult learners in Vietnam to learn English, the longtime ESL instructor listed two priorities for the course-management system: something visual that would be easy for her to learn and for her students to navigate; and an assortment of social tools such as group chats, wikis, and discussion forums.

Ultimately, she chose ConnectEDU's E-Portfolio, and built a course around its web 2.0 tools. For example, students were charged with writing blogs based on articles assigned in class, and they also created a wiki that focused on new vocabulary words. Scheduled real-time chats became so popular that Mare increased them to weekly rather than the one or two sessions she had originally planned. The popularity of scheduled, real-time chats surprised Mare, given the makeup of the Vietnamese student body. "They were all workers; they all had full-time jobs and had families," she says. "Sometimes, we'd talk about family issues or school issues--anything that they wanted to talk about. By the end of the chat, they were just talking about their lives, and it was a really interesting learning experience."

But simply giving students access to discussion boards is not necessarily enough to engage online students. According to Blaschke, instructors must ensure that communication is truly substantive. "The important thing is that students shouldn't just respond to the discussion question," she says, noting that UMUC recently switched from its own proprietary LMS to Desire2Learn, which offers discussion boards. "We really want them to develop dialogue. As an instructor, you need to be involved in the classroom enough so that you're intervening when a student is basically posting a mini-essay. You have to divert them away from just posting what they've got in their head to critically thinking about what other people have written and building on it."

While discussion boards have become much better over the years, Borden believes there is much more room for improvement in the adoption of social tools such as blogs and wikis to foster connectivity. And much of that improvement is dependent on faculty, some of whom have been slow to see the benefits of social media. "I think they don't see the value," says Borden. "They have a hard time seeing why Twitter matters when they don't use Twitter. The teachers don't see how to use it because they don't use it in their lives, and there's a disconnect."

Griffy-Brown agrees with Borden's assessment, noting that her business school is conducting several programs to show faculty the potential of social tools. For example, the Blended Learning Faculty Fellows Program encourages faculty to experiment with existing social tools, such as the school's Yammer platform. The private social network, which enables users to form groups, exchange information, and share files, also boasts analytics that allow professors to uncover communication bottlenecks, trends, and issues. According to Griffy-Brown, it's the online equivalent of observing students interacting on a project in a classroom. "You can track the same thing in a social network, and you can do it much more easily than in a linear LMS discussion group," she explains. "You can look for viral trends. I want to pique interest in these special areas that are of high relevance to that particular class."

3) Be Responsive
Ultimately, all the tools in the world can't foster a sense of community in a class if the instructor is simply phoning it in. According to Blaschke, teachers must work hard to create an environment where students feel comfortable asking questions. "Empathy plays a big role--understanding where your students are coming from," she says. For example, Blaschke keeps a biographical profile of each of her students and refers back to it when they post in class "to get a picture of who they are." Through learning journals, she also gives students a chance to communicate any difficulties they may be encountering. "It allows me to address their individual needs in an online environment," she explains.

Frequent and reliable interaction is also vital, as is social presence, says Griffy-Brown. "Teachers have to respond to communication very quickly--and prompt others to respond--to be sure you build trust," she notes. "As the leader of the team, you have to demonstrate and model that."

While students at the USC School of Social Work may not run into the same issues as asynchronous distance learners, Mistrano still takes steps to enhance a feeling of faculty involvement. Although student essays are submitted digitally, for example, he prints every one out in hard copy. "I take my blue pen, write all over them, scan each paper, and e-mail them back individually," he says. "They see my actual handwriting. They see where I'm drawing arrows. I do it to engage them and to show them that I'm interacting with their work with my own hand. That works fabulously."

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