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Creating Community in Online Courses

Decorative image of a group of students talking.
Image credit: Pixabay

Creating a sense of community where students feel engaged with their peers and comfortable talking about ideas is critical for face-to-face (F2F), hybrid, and online courses. Although students in online courses often lament having to participate in discussion board assignments, they also regularly comment that they feel like they are isolated or working alone when enrolled in hybrid or online courses.

Instructors in the online setting will need to cultivate and facilitate student-to-student interactions early and often in a course to create a sense of community, not unlike time dedicated to building community in any F2F setting. Although this page focuses on translating engagement practices to online courses, the Conrad and Donaldson model described below can be used in F2F and hybrid courses as well.

Practices that Cross Delivery Modes

There are many ways to build engagement and create community, and you are probably implementing these practices in your F2F courses already.

  • ice-breakers and introductions the first day or week
  • peer-brainstorming or peer-evaluation activities
  • peer-teaching or group presentations
  • group projects and role-playing activities
  • discussions, or student-led discussions
  • collaborative note-taking in a Google Doc

With slight modifications or through technology options, all of these practices can be used in an online or hybrid course, in both synchronous and asynchronous ways.

Synchronous or Asynchronous Activities?

One of the benefits cited most often for online delivery formats is that the asynchronous nature allows both students and faculty to work at their peak time. This may be because of work schedules, family and care-taking responsibilities, or even health reasons. Allowing each person to come to the class when they can focus and study best is ideal.

Asynchronous activity also provides participants time to reflect on their responses and for everyone to engage, rather than just the students who type the quickest (in chat, for example) or who are most willing to speak up (in Zoom, for example). Limited internet access and bandwidth can prevent students from engaging in synchronous online activities. If you choose to include synchronous activities, consider making them optional and recording them for the benefit of students who could not attend.

Zoom is a good option for real-time performance or interaction like one-on-one and small group instruction. Optional synchronous Zoom sessions once a week can work well as a way to check-in with students (like F2F office hours), or to have an open forum where anyone can log in and ask questions about the course or course content. These sessions can foster great discussion and community in upper-level or graduate courses where students want to understand the topics in more depth. However, if you’re considering a synchronous activity only to deliver information or a lecture, its is best to record those in advance and provide links for students to access asynchronously.

Ultimately, deciding on synchronous activities depends on the type of engagement you are trying to foster and whether or not the same instructional goals can be achieved through an asynchronous activity instead. If immediate interaction or response is not required for the instructional goal, asynchronous may be best.

Encouraging Students to Engage Online

Getting to Know Each Other

Introductions are best practices for online courses and an important step in helping students to feel like part of the learning community and to potentially find peers with similar interests that they may want to work with for subsequent peer- or small group-activities.

It is important to allow some leeway in the questions or prompts that you provide so that students can share only what they want to share with the class. For similar privacy reasons, it is best not to require students to post a picture of themselves. If you would like students to share a little of their personality or hobbies/interests, you can ask them to post an image that describes themselves in some way as an alternative option.

A learner formative assessment, worth participation points for completion, is also an excellent way to understand prerequisite skills, experience, or prior knowledge your students are bringing to the course, and for you to adapt the course as needed.

Peer and Group Activities

Paired- and small group-activities can be a great addition to any level of course, from survey and General Education courses through upper-level or graduate courses. Students can exchange an assignment with one or two peers (in instructor-created groups) before it is due to gain feedback for improvement. This works well when used in conjunction with a simplified rubric provided by the instructor, so that students are responsible for analyzing the work on specific measures.

Students can also post a preliminary idea for an assignment a week before it is due in a discussion board forum. The discussion board allows students to learn from observations and suggestions made by classmates, just as they would in a classroom, and improve their own work before submitting the final version. This technique is especially effective where students are investigating a variety of approaches, perspectives, or topics in a specific chapter, but individually only delve into one in-detail. This can be expanded into a small group presentation where students teach their classmates using a wiki or shared slideshow that is collaboratively built after individuals research the specific topic on their own first.

Other ideas for collaboration online include:

  • Collaborative note-taking in a Google Doc
  • Using Diigo to collect digital resources and annotate websites
  • Using Padlet to curate and comment on digital collections of files, images, websites, or videos (or using the platform itself as a discussion board)
  • Using Flipgrid for turning discussions into asynchronous video posts and replies
  • Slack is excellent for project management in education (similar to its use for teams in business) or as a way to collect discussions and resources in one place without a learning management system

Rubrics and Evaluating Engagement or Participation

Regardless of the engagement tool or activity, students need to see a rubric that outlines how you are defining active participation or what elements need to be present in their assignment. If it is a discussion board, tell students how often you expect them to check for responses, how many responses they need to make, and what a substantive initial post and replies to their peers should include. It can help to keep an anonymized student example from a prior course in the discussion board or assignment area for students to reference.

For grading group assignments, one option is to include a portion of the final grade that is based on individual participation in addition to a portion that is based on the final group project or item. Some faculty weigh the individual portion higher than the group portion, as much as 60-40 or 70-30, to ensure everyone contributes. Wiki tools and Google Docs allow you to track changes and see who contributed, but you can also have students self-assess their own performance and the performance of their peers. When creating group projects, also provide guidance on how to collaborate and resolve issues, which students may not have experience doing.

Remember Instructor Presence

Instructor-student engagement is just as critical as student-student engagement. Providing your own introduction early in the course allows students to get to know you and feel like their instructor is “present” in the course. You can continue building this presence by guiding or participating in discussions, providing formal and informal feedback on coursework and reflection assignments, and regularly making announcements or providing updates as the course progresses.

One Model for Developing Engagement and Trust Over The Semester

Image with the 5 phases of Conrad and Donaldson's Phases of Engagement outlined in sequential order. The information is discussed in the text below.
Conrad and Donaldson’s ‘Phases of Engagement.’ Image Credit: Jessica Cannon.

One method of developing trust and a sense of community in a course was developed by Rita-Marie Conrad and J. Ana Donaldson. Called the “Phases of Engagement” model, it essentially breaks a semester down into four segments where the instructor develops and facilitates certain types of interactions with the goal of increased student responsibility for their own learning. This model can be used in F2F, hybrid, or online courses.

Phase 1: Connect

Phase 1 covers the first and second weeks of the course where the instructor is creating opportunities for the students to get to know one another and orient to the course.

Introduction discussion posts are ideal ways to allow students to introduce themselves, and for you to get to know more about the students as well. This is also the time to explain the value of active-learning and to establish your expectations and guidelines for how students will participate in the course. Providing netiquette guidelines like this example, providing a rubric for discussions, and establishing course rules for respectful dialogue are important steps during phase 1.

Phase 2: Communicate

Phase 2 takes place during the third and fourth weeks of the semester. Based on information gathered in phase 1, the instructor creates groups of 2 to 3 students for low-stakes collaborative tasks. This can include things like peer review of work, group critique or brainstorming activities, document or case study analysis assignments, or reflection activities.

In Phase 2 students begin to know their classmates on academic-focused projects, not simply “getting to know you” activities. The faculty or instructor’s role here is to create pairings based on students that have similar interests or goals, or students whose skills can complement one another on a team or collaborative task.

Phase 3: Collaborate

Phase 3 occurs during weeks five and six of the semester, and in survey-level or General Education courses may last through the rest of the semester. The instructor is still leading and facilitating student learning, although students are beginning to become co-collaborators in content-knowledge creation and synthesis. To build on community established in Phases 1 and 2, you can combine one or two smaller groups from phase 2 into a group of 4-6 students using your observations of groups and individuals.

Activities in Phase 3 might ask the groups to solve problems, debate an issue, participate in a role-playing or hypothetical activity, or synthesize and reflect on information and varying perspectives. It is important here for faculty to also provide guidance on how students should collaborate and work together, including appointing a group leader or assigning group roles. Students may not have worked on teams prior to this course, and helping them understand how to share ideas, listen, and arrive at a consensus are important skills. The class, or group, can also participate in defining the communication and task ground rules so that they have greater ownership in the process.

Phase 4: Co-Facilitate

Phase 4 lasts through the second half of the course. It is ideally suited for upper-level and graduate-level courses because students begin to develop research questions and lead inquiry on their own, with the instructor serving as a fellow community member and guide when necessary. Student have greater autonomy in designing or leading the path they explore and presenting their findings to their peers.

Group projects, group-led discussions, and presentations are common activities for this phase of the model. Ideally the groups created in phase 3 continue into phase 4 (with 4-6 students who have worked together now for several weeks), unless an issue has developed that would necessitate moving one or two students to different groups. Students often find this phase the most rewarding because they can begin to see how active-learning allows them to explore and address bigger questions or issues collaboratively.

Phase 5: Continue

Phase 5 was added to the model in 2012 and is simply to encourage students to become active-learners and transfer the skills learned during this process to their other online or F2F courses. Continue simply implies these skills and processes extend beyond a single course or semester. The goal is for students to lead discussions and model this type of engagement for their peers in subsequent courses in the program or at the university.

The instructor can explain from the start of the class how active-learning ultimately leads to deeper learning because students are the ones analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information covered in the course. Faculty can also explain the value of learning from peers, who bring a wealth of experience and perspectives to the class, and how these collaborative and communication skills translate to other courses as well as real-world work situations.

Survey and General Education versus Upper-level and Graduate Courses

Although not discussed by Conrad and Donaldson, a logical modification to the model is necessary depending on the level of the course that you are teaching. Some of these engagement activities, like student-led instruction, would be best suited to upper-level or graduate courses. Faculty in General Education or survey courses may want to focus on phases 1 through 3. This will develop the expectation for students to engage in active-learning with their peers, working collaboratively and constructively on activities that are still ultimately led or facilitated by the instructor. Faculty leading an upper-level or graduate course, where students are more experienced with the topics and self-directed learning, could focus the second half of the course on phase 4 activities where students initiate and lead projects and discussions.

Additional Resources

  • Conrad, R. and Donaldson, J. A. (2012). Continuing to engage the online learner: more activities and resources for creative instruction. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Conrad, R. and Donaldson, J. A. (2011). Engaging the online learner: activities and resources for creative instruction. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cite this page: Cannon, J. A. (2021, July). Creating Community in Online Courses.

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