Daniel Stanford

Building Community in Online Courses: Three Strategies

A professor told me recently that he’s taken nearly a dozen online courses (as a student) and has never felt a strong sense of community in any of those courses. He asked what practical suggestions I had for building community online, and I found myself struggling to offer him any tips that were truly revolutionary.

When I began my career in distance learning back in 2003, it was a given that every online course should begin with an ice-breaker activity. These ice-breakers typically consisted of a plain text discussion forum where students would answer questions like, “What do you hope to gain from this course?” and, “What hobbies or interests do you have outside of school?” Fast-forward to 2016 and we’re still approaching ice-breakers in much the same way, creating text-based discussion boards full of the same job-interview questions.

Community building is challenging enough when we have the luxury of frequent face-to-face meetings. With that in mind, is it realistic to believe we can foster meaningful connections in online courses? A friend who teaches in our Modern Languages department likes to answer this by saying, “People are falling in love online—or at least feeling enough of a connection online that they know they want to meet and invest more in the relationship.”

Students should be able to establish strong connections with their peers online, too, but designing an environment where these connections can flourish requires careful planning and structure. The following strategies might not be mind-blowing when taken alone. However, when used together, I believe they provide a solid foundation for community building in any online course.

Ask Better Questions

In January of 2015, an article appeared in the New York Times titled, “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This.” The article quickly went viral and drew attention to a 1997 study in which pairs of strangers spent 45 minutes responding to 36 questions designed to help them get to know each other. Researchers found that participants who only answered “small-talk” questions (e.g., What country would you like to visit? What is your favorite holiday?) felt significantly less connected than strangers who answered a more personal series of questions such as, “What do you value most in a friendship?” and, “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?”

While some of the questions from this experiment are a bit too personal for an online course ice-breaker, many of them would work quite well in spicing up an otherwise bland self-intro discussion.

Stop Asking Every Student to Write a New Post

Somewhere along the way, online instructors (and instructional designers) got the idea that everyone should begin an online discussion with their own original post, then respond to a certain number of their classmates’ posts. Imagine for a moment if we set up our face-to-face discussions this way.

“I’d like to go around the room and have all 30 of you take a few minutes to respond to the following question. Once each student has shared his/her original thought (two hours from now), please respond to a few of your classmates.”

This is how students feel when they see a massive list of original posts on a discussion board. They’re overwhelmed as they struggle to think of something new to say. Then, they have to decide how to choose from that massive list of replies (which they just made even longer) and engage one or two people in a conversation.

Instead of forcing all students to create an original post, why not simply ask 10 students to post something? Then, the remaining students could review those posts until they find someone they have something in common with and reply. Alternatively, you can also break students up into small groups throughout the term so they have a chance to interact with their peers in a more manageable, meaningful way.

Don’t Limit Community Building to Week One

One of the biggest obstacles to building community in online courses is the lack of time students have to get to know one another. Many instructors only include informal bonding activities in the first week of the term rather than thinking of an online community as a muscle that must be exercised at regular intervals in order for it to grow. While there’s no simple solution to eliminate this problem completely, there are multiple ways to mitigate it.

  • Open up the course and contact students early. Encourage students to participate in an ice-breaker before the official start date of the term so that they have as much time as possible to build on their initial connections as the course progresses.
  • Incorporate additional bonding activities throughout the term. These could be as simple as an informal discussion forum where students can share their interests or as elaborate as a group competition in whichstudents are dependent on each other to solve a problem, answer quiz questions, or complete a scavenger hunt.
  • Provide a space where students can keep in touch after the course ends. This might consist of a Facebook or Google group or some other tool outside of your institution’s learning management system. While not all students will take advantage of these spaces, you’ll make things much easier for any students who want to maintain contact.
Let Students See and Hear Each Other

A short video or audio introduction is more personal and humanizing than a series of text-only responses to the usual ice-breaker discussion prompts. Tools like VoiceThread make it relatively easy for students to post audio and video comments in a private space that only their classmates can access, and students can always post a text-only comment in VoiceThread if they’re particularly shy or concerned about privacy issues.

In addition, holding periodic synchronous meetings (whether mandatory or optional) can go a long way to help students match faces and personalities with the names they see in the course site. My current preferred online meeting tool is Zoom, which allows anyone with a free account to host a meeting for up to 40 minutes with up to 50 participants. Some faculty prefer to use Skype or Google Hangouts for these types of meetings, which can be a smart choice if most students are already using one of these platforms. Just keep in mind that Skype limits group calls to 25 participants and Google Hangouts are limited to 10 (or 15 for institutions with a Google Apps for EDU account).

Daniel Stanford

About Daniel Stanford

Daniel Stanford holds an MFA in Computer Art from the Savannah College of Art and Design with a concentration in Interactive Design and Game Development. Since 1998, his interest in interactive media and education has led him to take on a variety of professional roles—from website designer and graphic artist to teacher and online-course developer. His work as an instructional designer has received multiple awards from the Instructional Technology Council and he has been both a course reviewer and finalist in Blackboard’s Exemplary Course competitions. Daniel is currently Assistant Director of Faculty Instructional Technology Services at DePaul University where he oversees multiple faculty-development initiatives, including the DePaul Online Teaching Series, which won the 2012 Sloan-C Award for Excellence in Faculty Development for Online Learning.

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