Finding Community in Online Education

Finding a Sense of Community in Online Education Graduation friendsTaking an online course is far more than sitting in front of a computer. To get the full value out of the experience, you need to go deeper – real engagement involves becoming a part of the community of learners. In fact, research supports the development of community in online education as an important factor for maximizing student satisfaction with the experience.

This study has shown that there are five key peer-to-peer interactions in online learning are most predictive of sense of community. They are introductions, collaborative group projects, contributing personal experiences, entire class online discussions, and exchanging resources.

In this post, we’ll talk about how we implement each of these interactions within our UNE Online courses, what our programs’ faculty members are doing to facilitate these experiences, and what additional steps students can take to build their online community.

How does faculty build community in online education?

Course introduction

At the beginning of the course, your instructor will introduce themselves and tell you a little about themselves and the course. Many instructors are scholar-practitioners and work in the field in which they are teaching, so they will include a bit about their background as it pertains to the course. This is where the instructor often communicates how they wish be addressed as well.

Weekly announcements

At the beginning of each school week, your instructor will post announcements about the upcoming week’s course content and assignments. This reminder is a great opportunity to reach out to your instructor and ask any questions about and concepts presented thus far in the course, or any expectations involving your grades or coursework.

“Ask the Instructor” – a dedicated discussion board

The “Ask the Instructor” discussion board is a place to ask general questions of the instructor. This is not a place to ask about grades or other academic information specific to you. If others may benefit from the answer, this is the best place to post. You may even find that one of your classmates is able to answer the question before the instructor.

“Share the Resources” – a dedicated discussion board

Some courses also have a “Share the Resources” discussion board. Research has shown that it is important to allow students the opportunity to contribute brief stories about their own experiences through threaded discussions. As a non-graded, optional channel of communication, not all students will want or need to contribute, but the chance to connect personally to academic content will benefit those who do participate.

When students share learning resources with one another, experienced online learners can support novice learners, and students with expertise or skills in a particular professional area can contribute to the success of their peers. Everyone benefits from sharing resources such as documents, research articles, formatting tips, or links to topics of academic interest.

Small group assignments

Several online courses at UNE Online feature group-based projects, because among other reasons, the use of collaborative group projects can encourage students to work as a team.

According to Dr. B. Jean Mandernach, Professor of Psychology and Senior Research Associate in the Center for Cognitive Instruction at Grand Canyon University, instructors must provide four key elements to improve the chances that this teamwork will be positive and contribute to sense of community in online education. They are: (1) Designing a task that is worth doing; (2) Motivating students to want to do it by emphasizing the importance of the process by grading it, keeping group size small, and starting early with them in groups; (3) Teaching students how to collaborate online; and (4) Having a management plan in terms of checkpoints.

What can students do to build community in online education?

Put some thought into your class introduction

Give your fellow classmates a way to get to know you. This enables you to establish commonalities and connections, which in turn increases your comfort with contacting one another. If your initial contact with your classmates is meaningful, it encourages further interaction throughout the semester, leading to an increased sense of community.

Introduce yourself to your instructor

Your first day of class, you want to introduce yourself to your instructor. Even a simple message like, ‘Hi, My name is Monique Gaudet, I live in Maine and work in marketing. I’m looking forward to being in your class, and looking forward to submitting my first assignment.’ Your message to your instructor doesn’t need to be War and Peace – write something simple.

You want to know your instructor early, before something potentially happens later. It’s easier for your faculty to make a decision to your benefit if they know who you are. It’s kind of the way the world is too. In graduate school you are constantly producing work. If faculty don’t know who you are, you may not thrive as much as you would if you were to be in touch with them.

Find your tribe

Identify one or two people right at the beginning of your class that you think that you might get along with, and reach out to them in the course message or in an email. Bond over something that you read in their introductory discussion board, or ask them a question about something related to one of their interests. Other students are much more likely to be awake at 11pm on a Wednesday deadline night, struggling with a particularly difficult assignment, and are likely to answer your message right away if you find yourself pressed for time and in a tight spot.

Student colleagues are key. Besides the quick assistance when you’re stuck, think of the community that you are creating and becoming a part of. By building these relationships, you’re not only building your professional network, but you’re more motivated to write a good discussion board post when you know a couple people in that classroom. Of course you have other external motivators, but adding another motivational element is always a good thing.Tutoring for online students

Three tips for making connections

  • Be open minded about sharing life, work and educational experiences as a part of the learning process.
  • Be willing to reach out to someone if you find yourself facing obstacles to your academic success.
  • Participate in live workshop/tutoring sessions and take advantage of office hours.

Learn to work well with others

Many UNE Online students come from brick and mortar post-secondary degree backgrounds, and are first-time online learners, so it may be the case that you don’t have the skills to collaborate in the asynchronous online environment yet. Not to ruin the surprise, but the key to online group work is frequent communication. Here are 6 Communication Rules for Success in Online Student Groups from our Student Support team.

Frequent communication with groupmates may happen in a number of ways. It may be a shared Google Document, with comments and a chat built in. It may also be synchronous Skype or Google Hangouts sessions – or any other tool that provides similar services. It may be scheduled or ad hoc – where it helps to see who is currently online and available.

You and your group members may also choose to attend weekly office hours with the instructor during which you can address your questions and discuss the assignment. Office hours are often at a consistent time each week, and in a consistent format, such as a Hangout or a video chat. Gathering during office hours can function very similarly to study rooms in brick and mortar buildings.

Additionally, your instructor is there for you should you need more guidance on working in an asynchronous team. They are more than happy to help you build those skills.

Always be learning

In this age of technology, there is still no substitute for interaction.

UNE Online has built in a multitude of opportunities for students to interact with their peers in the online environment. Through purposeful use of activities that incorporate interaction among students, we are striving every single day to create a welcoming and accepting online course environment in which students have a sense of belonging and trust.

Online learning communities can be academically and personally transformational when intentionally created, fostered, and sustained by all involved. Just ask any of our online students, or read about their experiences for yourself!

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