What is Community?
For the purposes of this course, we define community as the structure that encourages student interaction, participation and collaboration in the online environment. In both the physical and online environments, students feel connected to the classroom community through identity-building activities and projects designed to foster student/teacher and student/student trust. Predictability also contributes to a sense of well-being for students who may need routines in order to feel confident and capable in the group (Ragan, 2007). Community can be developed through synchronous or asynchronous communications, but is best developed through a combination of both.
Why Build Community?
Misanchuk & Anderson contend that participation in both social and academic conversations is integral to the development of community. "Without active participation in discussions and other class activities, the learner is not part of the community; indeed, the learner does not even "exist." This is one core distinction between online environments and being a passive member of a physical community where you are seen and your presence is noted and registered in the minds of others. In a virtual community, you must make a concerted effort to communicate with others in order to exist." According to Larry Ragan (2007), online learners have the potential to feel isolated, particularly at the beginning of a course. The development of a learning community can help to overcome this isolation, and make students feel more connected both to the instructor and to each other. When students begin to have conversations about personal lives or other things outside of the strict scope of the course, that is evidence of a successful community.– Teachers can facilitate mechanisms for informal communications using dedicated discussion forums, sometimes called "water coolers", to provide a space for students to talk about topics that are not directly related to the curriculum.
Strategies to Build Community
Online communities encompass both student-teacher relationships, and student-student relationships. The tone of the community is typically set by the teacher, who is responsible for making all students feel welcome and supported in the online environment. By using both academic and personal presence, and formal and informal registers of language, teachers can model expectations for interaction by the way they respond in different contexts. In a face-to-face classroom, teachers demonstrate personal presence and informal registers of language when they share personal anecdotes and provide real-world connections for academic content. In blended or fully online environments, teachers might use the same strategies in different ways to build personal connections with their students.
The first way in which students in fully online courses get to know each other is through profiles. Lisa Bloom & Sharon Dole of Western Carolina University recommend requiring students to respond to profiles in some manner that assures that students read each profile, learn about and interact with their classmates. Many teachers use scavenger hunts or quizzes to help verify that students have spent some time reading each others' profiles.
Students' sense of accountability to their teacher is directly tied to their relationship with that teacher. Online teachers can send personal messages to their students, or provide feedback that uses the student's name in order to reinforce that connection. Welcome emails before the course begins provide a framework for students, and can be a vehicle for providing information about extra support that students are unaware of, or afraid to ask for.
Discussion boards and chatrooms
Discussion boards and chat rooms are typically the first line of defense in online courses for building community, in which all students are expected to post and respond to each other in a forced interaction. Well-crafted discussions provide opportunities for students to branch out to include personal experiences and perspectives, which better allows students to connect to each other. Threaded discussions which include social interactions have great potential to replace some of what was lost face-to-face (Ritter & Polnick, 2008). Online threaded discussions are productive because of the time students are given to think out their discussions. In addition, threaded discussions can provide an opportunity for students to help one another to reach a goal and encourage students to support one another. Chat rooms have a similar dynamic, providing the ability for students to respond quickly to each other, which can aid in brainstorming and planning activities while developing a shared sense of purpose.
Group work is often used as a way to build online community. Working in teams assists students in developing their problem solving, communication and critical thinking skills, and allows them the opportunity to work with and learn from their peers. In the online environment, group work must be carefully structured and monitored to avoid problems with differing expectations, logistics of collaboration, distribution of workload, and conflict situations. Web 2.0 tools such as wikis and collaborative presentations provide clear documentation of the contributions of each team member. Peer commenting and editing provides a sense of accountability, and builds relationships between students. The use of collaborative learning provides a structure students to actively be engaged in creating meaning of their knowledge.