*Most of this post is something I wrote for the Faculty Development Center at Murray State University (http://libguides.murraystate.edu/facdev/bourke) as a Faculty Teaching Fellow. My focus as a Faculty Teaching Fellow was online learning and teaching.

Challenges in Teaching Online

Phone, tablet and laptop computer with words mobile online learningOne of the biggest challenges I’ve experienced in teaching online is attempting to match the development of community that I often observe in face to face courses. Community is an important aspect of learning in college. In a face to face course, communities can form by students sitting near other and talking before and after class, or through instructor-designed interactions. However, with online learning, community is almost entirely reliant on instructor-designed activities.

This sounds simple enough: create opportunities for students to form communities in online courses. But how? And how do I make it relevant to the course? Let’s face it, we don’t want students spending their time logged into Canvas (learning management system) to engage in idle chit-chat. There are some principles of learning that I see as tied directly to the formation of community in online courses.

Approaching Experiential Learning

While asking students to reflect on their past experiences is indirect, it still draws in prior knowledge and experiences, and it encourages reflection, and then through interaction connects prior knowledge and experiences with current practices in the field of study.
Transformative learning – by grouping student responses into key concept areas, and asking them to reflect on their colleagues’ responses, my hope that is that students consider different perspectives, and challenge their preconceived notions of the course topic.
Collaboration and connection – I see this activity as a means to help promote collaboration and connection. In asking students to post a reply to a specific post of a fellow student, I am aiming to promote collaboration among students, and help form connections.  This assignment occurs early in the course to help spur connections and create an atmosphere of collaboration.

I most often utilize discussion forums to structure these interactions. There are a variety of tools available beyond discussion forums, some of which are apps available within Canvas. Some examples of Canvas-embedded apps that promote interaction are Hoot.me and Trello. Both tools offer spaces for student interaction in a whiteboard space, which can be a welcome departure from the doldrums of discussion forums. My advice is to try one out from time to time. I actually have a course development shell in my course list that I use to test things out before unleashing them on students.

Citing Prior Experiences and Online Learning

I’ve noticed something as students have had more than one online course with me and with other students: in the discussion forums, some students actually reference something a peer brought up in a previous semester. To me, this signifies an emerging community among a group of students. I want to see more this, so I make sure to jump into the conversation and thank students for their contributions and for making the connection to a past interaction.

New Approaches?

Much of what I’ve shared here is drawn from my experiences teaching asynchronous online course. In other words, courses that have no real-time interactions, and where students do the course work on their own schedules. I’m looking forward to weave some synchronous (real-time) interactions into my online courses. Even though students share positive reflections about feeling connected to classmates, there is something to be said for communicating in real-time.

Keep on Trying

chalkboard with text back to schoolWhile I’ve been happy to receive those messages from students, my worry is that the community ends when the course ends. My challenge moving forward is to explore ways to encourage students to extend their communal connections and relationships beyond the context of their course enrollments. We know that students who feel connected to other students (and faculty) are more likely to persist and graduate. Perhaps those in-course connections are enough, but I continue to wonder what opportunities exist for online learners. There are a couple of go-to sources for me when it comes to trying different things. First is the Online Learning Consortium – I completed their certificate in online teaching when it was named the Sloan Consortium. The second is the Canvas users community. Both are treasure-troves of information and great places to peruse ideas.

If you’d like to hear more about my reflections and thoughts online learning and teaching, tune in to I’m Curious, as it’s a podcast topic I’ll visit from time to time. I’ll also share my ideas for better connecting student affairs with online learning in future blog posts.