Learners can develop new skills and further their education online, regardless of where they live, with the convenience and flexibility of the online learning environment. However, despite its many benefits, online learning can sometimes feel isolating for students and faculty. In your online courses, how do you build a sense of community? Creating more interaction between you and your students, as well as between the students themselves, is one approach. Here are five practical tips for enhancing the human connection in your online classroom.
As online courses are completely asynchronous, there is rarely any interaction between you and your students. Think, for instance, about the fact that real-time conversations don’t take place during video lectures, when you post announcements, or when students post on a discussion board. Response times that are too slow can kill the momentum of a back-and-forth discussion and cause misunderstandings.
Including real-time interaction in your online course can help change that and develop a sense of community. Think about how impromptu discussions outside the traditional classroom can build relationships, clarify ideas, and spark new insights. These interactions will be facilitated by establishing opportunities for class members to meet online synchronously, both formally and informally. In webconferencing applications, you can create opportunities for synchronous interaction, such as office hours, small-group discussions, whole-class discussions, and study groups.
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Discussion boards are a great way to get creative
It has long been common to have discussion boards as the primary method of communication for online courses, but there are ways to make this experience more interactive for wider and deeper participation. It is common for a small percentage of students to participate in class discussions in a traditional classroom. Using an online environment, you can structure your discussions so that everyone participates, and they have more time to consider what they want to say before responding. The size of the class influences how you organize discussions. You can create smaller discussion groups of 20 or so people in a class of, say, 100 students so that the students can get to know each other better. For more intimate interaction, you can also create smaller groups (5-7 people) and rotate these groups. It also works with smaller classes.
A technique that fosters richer dialogue is to create discussion prompts that are open-ended, such as asking students to give examples or to interpret a concept from a variety of perspectives. You could also set up student-facilitated discussions, where students craft the discussion prompt and guide the ensuing conversation.
Increase engagement with non-task interactions
Non-task interactions help build a supportive learning community and are not part of the direct learning process. These types of interactions can be facilitated by utilizing the social networking features available in many learning management systems, such as chat and webconferencing. Students can create study groups or special interest groups by using the group functionality. Even if your LMS doesn’t support social networks, you can still create one with a private Facebook page, or you can use one of the many group messaging apps available, such as Telegram and Slack.
It is important to note that academic social networks require ongoing planning and maintenance. Before a social network becomes a common destination, its value must be clear. Many schools ask students to create bios and add profile pictures, but these activities alone will not encourage students to stay on the network. In order to transform the social network into a destination, content must be shared frequently (weekly or if possible on a daily basis) and contributions to the social network can be incorporated into classes (e.g., use social network tools for group work; have students post their discussion contributions to their social network feed).
Utilize multiple communication tools
You’re not the only one who wants to enhance student engagement and interaction. Schools can create a program-wide social network that allows students to maintain relationships across courses. Using this private social network, the administrators and support staff can use direct messages, announcements, and live events to enhance student engagement.
However, this type of support is not necessary for your class to be interactive. In addition to external social networking tools, such as Facebook, Telegram, Slack, and WhatsApp, students can meet in real-time using Skype and Google Hangouts. Although preprogrammed communication, such as introductory videos, content presentations, and email, remain important components of online learning, student interaction can speed up the process.
Plan how you will use the tool
From a pedagogical perspective, a tool is only as good as how you use it. You should consider how interaction will support the course’s learning objectives when you move a face-to-face course online, or create an online course from scratch. By improving the interaction opportunities in your online classrooms, you can take an already powerful learning opportunity to a whole new level for all of your students.