Initial Publication Date: October 19, 2017

Develop Communication and a Sense of Community Among Participants

Multiple types and frequent interactions (student-instructor as well as student-student) are important to establish and maintain a sense of community in a virtual classroom. Developing that sense of community will help students stay engaged with the content and each other and can help support student success.

Student-Instructor Interactions

Student-faculty interactions are an important part of developing community in any classroom. In online contexts, such interactions necessarily have to be more intentional.

There is a wide array of tools and communication platforms available - message boards, apps, text messages, email lists and many others. See the Resources page for some common apps and technologies. Some faculty focus on one method in their classes while others adopt several simultaneously. Choose a combination of communication methods that serves the needs of you and your students.

Susan Schwartz, University of California-Santa Cruz
"I make extensive use of the discussion forum tool, Piazza. Piazza allows students to pose questions anytime and have them answered by fellow students (validated by instructor and/or TA) and/or the instructor or TAs very quickly. Students use this discussion forum to form study groups and produce joint answer keys to practice tests and quizzes."
Jennifer Sliko, Pennsylvania State University- Penn State Harrisburg
"Creating short videos that include an image of the instructor is a meaningful way for the students to connect with the instructor in an asynchronous course. These videos can be created as part of the learning materials for the class and only need to be updated periodically. Additionally, weekly communication (typically through email) can include a brief comment about any current events relevant to the learning material in addition to tips about upcoming lessons."

Whichever modes you decide to work with, frequent communication with students is important. Many faculty find that posting video or audio messages to their students several times a week helps develop the sense of community and see the instructor as someone who can be approached with questions.

Blair Larsen, Utah State University
"One of the key components is faculty communication. Students respond to frequent, personal, and helpful communication from the instructor. This practice helps the students feel connected to the instructor, and they feel the class if more personal. This feedback can come from assignments and/or grading, and it can come from announcements and discussion."

Timely communications from the instructor on assignments and discussion posts is also crucial. Feedback that is personalized to the needs or specifics of the student can help improve student-instructor interactions. Reaching out to students who are struggling (for example not turning in assignments on time) is often easy to do inside of the learning management system (LMS) and can help direct the students to needed assistance.

Beth Hallauer, Sinclair Community College
"Announcements of what to expect at the beginning of each week for the entire class, e-mails - both to the class (when something needs to be addressed with the entire group) and in exchanges with individuals, plus detailed feedback on assignments and discussion assessments are the primary methods of student engagement."
Megan Pickard, Brigham Young University - Idaho
"For discussion boards, we find that instructor involvement is critical to the effectiveness and engagement of students. When instructors participate by prompting and guiding student discussions to be meaningful, student engagement increased. "

Student-Student Interactions

A sense of community between students is just as important as between students and faculty and there are ways of structuring the course that will help develop those interactions.

Provide low- or no-stakes opportunities for students to communicate and work with one another, loosely monitored by instructors, so that students can begin to build a community among themselves. This could take the form of a general peer-to-peer discussion board for asking questions about things they don't understand. Such a board allows the students to help each other and get to know one another at the same time. Another option is giving students the opportunity to self-select study groups to work with more closely over the course of the term.

Blair Larsen, Utah State University
"In addition to that, though, I developed my course to encourage peer engagement (student-student). I achieve this by requiring a discussion post (based on a detailed discussion prompt) on each module in the course, and requiring each student to respond to at least 3 other student's discussion posts."

Incorporating activities where students peer review each other's submissions to a graded activity can also be great way for students to interact. In such cases it's a good idea to use a discussion rubric to guide students not only in their own answers but in their evaluation of others' answers. Building in other collaborative activities is also helpful. Cooperative lab activities, homework sets, and cooperative exams give students a chance to learn from each other and become comfortable working together. Another idea is to have the class as a whole collaborate on making a shared study guide for the course. This activity can build community, engages them all in creating a valuable resource, and can save the instructor from having to re-teach content ahead of the final.

Kathleen Harper, University of Montana-Missoula
"Discussions also provide opportunities for students to share aspects of their past knowledge, experience of the world, or independent web research with me as well as with their classmates. This adds an element of richness to the online course that doesn't always emerge in the classroom."
Rachel Walters, University of Florida
"For each practical lab we set up peer group discussions monitored daily by the instructor. Each discussion is a forum for sharing challenges in the development of practical skills and their solutions. This context provides three useful extensions beyond the how-to videos. Firstly, students who have just learned how to make a certain observation or interpret a certain feature can provide useful feedback to other students. Their advantage over the instructor is that they likely just solved, or overcame, the challenge that others are sill struggling with. ... Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, students often find their groups member's experiences very validating when they discover that they are not alone in the challenges they are facing."

As with student-faculty interactions, there are many technological tools available to provide communication and interaction between students. Several tools are aimed specifically at building community among participants. For an extensive listing of useful apps and technologies, see the Resources page.

Similarly, there are practices that set the tone of engagement early. Designing meaningful opportunities for interaction during the first week of a course can set bar set the bar high and pay dividends for the rest of the term. For example, set up a forum or discussion board where everyone has to post an introduction of themselves including information about career goals, hobbies, a favorite book, or similar information. Using some aspect of these introductions in a subsequent quiz or lab (e.g. a graph of shoe size) will help ensure that students complete the introduction. If your LMS supports individual student profiles, use this as an opportunity to have them complete those profiles including a picture. Have students submit selfies with outcrops or projects to generate a sense of sharing in each other's experiences.

Al Trujillo, Palomar College
" For example, I use a first week of class discussion board that allows students to interact and introduce themselves to the class. An extra credit assignment follows, where students are quizzed on some of the ocean-related characteristics of their classmates."