Online learning brings students together across time zones and geography. But it can also leave learners feeling isolated. Without casual interactions and face-to-face communication, learners may not get the support they need to thrive. It’s up to instructors and administrators to help students overcome the digital divide and create community in online classes.
Doing so is easier said than done. Every instructor has tricks for community building in a classroom, but those methods don’t always translate to an online space. Fortunately, in this case, the problem contains its solution. If you start early and act with intention, technology can help you create community in online classes. We’ve curated the advice from online teaching experts to provide a few ways that you can build community in your programs and classes.
Why is building community in online classes important?
Generally speaking, a community is a group of people who share goals, attitudes, or interests. Students who identify as members of a learning community feel psychologically safe, meaning they can ask questions and make mistakes without fear of social rejection. Members of a community help and support each other. They trust that others in the group are there when they need something and are rooting for them to succeed.
When learners feel like part of a community, both they and your program benefit. Learners who feel supported by peers and instructors are more likely to stick with a class, even when it’s challenging. They’re also more likely to ask for help or notice when someone in the group is struggling. Students enrich the group by offering their unique perspectives and personal insights. Such positive experiences make them more likely to enroll in other classes you offer and to recommend your classes to friends and family. Plus, evidence suggests that learning communities help improve the retention of students from populations that are typically underserved.
Unfortunately, many students struggle to connect with the community when learning online. They might feel like they’re learning alone or like no one in the class knows them. It’s easy to forget that the words and profile pictures on the screen represent real people. In short, online classes present some unique challenges for community building.
Unique challenges in online classes
During in-person classes, the shared experience is sometimes enough to spark community building. Instructors can help with ice breakers and other activities. But online classes start with several challenges that can make community-building more difficult.
First, many are asynchronous, so students aren’t necessarily learning the same thing at the same time. They’re not sitting in a room together, even a virtual one. This can leave students feeling isolated or disconnected.
Second, technology filters communication. Nuances like tone of voice and body language may get lost in videos or text-based interactions. So, learners may struggle to forge connections.
Third, casual interactions don’t happen as often. Students don’t run into each other on the way to class and strike up a conversation. They don’t cast each other sympathetic glances when the material gets difficult. The natural opportunities for community building don’t exist online unless you make a space for them. Technology can help you do that.
1. Use social media and your website to prepare space for community
To create community in online classes, start before the student even enrolls. Your earliest communications about the class, your programs, and your instructors set the groundwork. When a student views your course catalog or checks out your program on social media, they should be able to visualize themself as a member of your class community.
On social media and your website, you can prepare space for community by:
- Sharing photos and bios of instructors in online course catalogs.
- Posting quotes on social media about why instructors enjoy teaching this class.
- Publicizing reviews on your website and course catalog that mention how previous students feel about your learning community.
As learners get to know instructors through social media posts and website content, they start building a connection. By getting to know other students who have taken the class before them, they can see the kinds of people they might meet. These early digital communications also confirm that the student is in the right place. It tells them, “Yes, we love gardening / cooking / programming / dancing too!” Such shared interests become the foundation for community building.
2. Email and message boards forge early connections with online students
Use email to welcome students as soon as they enroll. A welcome email from the instructor can go a long way toward making a learner feel welcome into your community of online learners. You can use this as an opportunity to tell students a bit about the class, set initial expectations, and tell them how they can contact their instructor. CourseStorm can even help automate this process with tools that let you customize emails sent after a student enrolls.
Don’t forget to invite learners to join an online message board or social media group you’ve set up for the class. Ask them to introduce themselves to the group and encourage them to respond to each other’s posts.
Here are some icebreaker questions for introductory posts:
- What are your goals for this class?
- What do you hope to learn?
- Have you taken classes in this subject area before?
- Can you share one fun fact about yourself?
- What can you do today that you couldn’t do a year ago?
- What achievement are you most proud of?
- Do you have pets? Share a photo with the class.
In addition to these general questions, you can also gather class-specific information. You might ask learners in a cooking class about their favorite meal. For a dance class, you could ask about their favorite style of music. In an art class, you might ask about an artist or artwork they admire. These questions don’t just help students get to know each other, they also help instructors tailor their lessons to the interests of the class.
3. Use your LMS or video conferencing tools to keep building community
Providing more opportunities to connect means learners are more likely to create a community. You’ll help replicate the casual interactions of in-person classes when you:
- Embrace collaborative learning. Break students off into small groups of two or three to learn about a topic or craft a presentation.
- Check-in with students often. Emails or direct messages from the instructor remind students that they’re not alone. Include a video recording of your feedback in addition to offering written notes on assignments.
- Help learners share their knowledge. In your class message board or social media group, create a thread where learners can share resources or information related to the course.
- Offer real-time interaction. If your class is asynchronous, schedule a few synchronous class sessions or small group meetings to remind learners that they’re interacting with real people.
Most importantly, don’t give up. Creating community in online classes can take some extra effort, but it is possible. Keep exploring the technical tools you have available. Seek out new ways to help students interact and get to know each other.
Keep seeking new ways to create community
Like any new skill, learning to use technology to create community in online classes takes practice. But the learning curve will level out over time. Besides, the payoff is well worth the effort. Your students will be more likely to complete the class, enroll in future courses, and invite their friends and family into your community of learners.
CourseStorm’s built-in student customized emails and instructor communication tools can help you set a foundation to create a community in online classes. Join our community today.