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Communication 102: Creating a Community from Behind a Computer Screen

"Good teachers know how to bring out the best in students."

— Charles Kuralt
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"Good teachers know how to bring out the best in students." — Charles Kuralt

Creating an online community of learners is a major challenge faced by online instructors in a virtual environment, and it is one that can be overcome with a commitment to establishing a firm, guiding instructor presence in the classroom. One of the great reasons to become a teacher is because you like people and enjoy helping others learn. The idea that technology and physical distance create a social barrier does not have to be true. The advanced communication made possible by the Internet makes interpersonal interaction at a distance easy, and taking advantage of these potential avenues for communication in the online classroom can make your virtual learning course an engaging, rewarding, and personal experience for you and your students.

A successful virtual presence can be established by implementing a strong communication plan throughout the course. How do you implement a strong communication plan in virtual learning?

  • Plan for success
  • Communicate early and often
  • Stay focused

One of the ultimate goals in a successful distance course is to build a community for the learners. As the "leader" of the community being built, the instructor is primarily responsible for doing the building. These guidelines will help, but remember that this is a human community, meaning that there are variables beyond the teacher’s control that can derail even the best-laid plans.

Plan for Success

Some universities will allow you to create your own individual courses, while others will have you facilitate predesigned course materials where you may or may not be allowed to alter the curriculum or set-up in any way. The former allows for more personalization and creative freedom, but it also requires a lot more preparation upfront. A predesigned curriculum doesn’t require as much preparation, but it does mandate that you become familiar with the course content and pedagogical approach used. Therefore, you should connect with your program’s team to ask questions about the approach and where you may be able to personalize the course. You should also consider ways in which you can become personally engaged in the course, even if you do not embrace the course structure used.

If you have control over the course syllabus, provide details to establish a sense of direction for the class. Some things you should include are clear, long-range objectives for the course as well as short-term objectives for each learning module. Articulation of how the short-term objectives fulfill the course objectives shows students how the pieces will come together. In addition, be upfront with the students about how and when you will communicate with them and how and when they will communicate with each other. While the amount of contact will vary by discipline, course level, the number of students and duration of the course, there is evidence that more frequent communication equates to higher student satisfaction and overall success. In addition, practice your netiquette to avoid miscommunication.

Another way to build an interactive community is to provide as much detail as is reasonably possible in the course schedule. Include a calendar of readings and assignments, making note of due dates, links to evaluation rubrics for assignments, reading guides, and other information to help students stay focused on the learning objectives. As one online instructor recommended, "Chunking information in small pieces and organization are key components of a good online course."

In addition to a comprehensive schedule, the details of assignments should be clearly communicated as well. Small group interaction techniques can be utilized to facilitate community. Brindley, Walti, and Blaschke summarized that "the literature reveals a significant relationship between participation in these experiences and deeper learning as well as the development of learning and teamwork skills. Further, collaborative learning appears to increase a sense of community, which has been shown to be closely linked to learner satisfaction and retention." However, it is imperative that ground rules for that work are established before the group work begins. Without guidance, the online community you have created may suffer from confusion and lack of motivation or direction.

Communicate Early and Often

It cannot be emphasized enough how important consistent communication with students is to establishing and maintaining your online presence. Research shows the importance of community building in online classes. Vesely, Bloom, and Sherlock shared a study in the MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching that showed how students and faculty perceived community. "Key elements included: a sense of shared purpose, purposeful communication involving encouragement and support, collaborating to learn course material, working for an extended period of time on a common goal, and a comfortable exchange of ideas in an organized fashion."

Therefore, from the very first day, give your students an opportunity to introduce themselves to one another. They should be encouraged to share their educational and career status and goals, the strengths they may bring to the course, the fears they may have about the class, and any personal information they feel comfortable sharing. On a voluntary basis, it’s often helpful to share a photo to help put a face to the online environment.

Throughout the course, you should use and model good social skills, especially those used in academia and the workplace. In fact, students in the MERLOT study ranked faculty modeling as the number one key element to good community building in an online course. How can you do this? Students’ names should be used along with greetings, and messages may be personalized even within a preloaded curriculum. It’s helpful to occasionally refer back to something a student has shared in the past if applicable to the present message so that students realize you see them as a person.

Social media is another great way to reach out to students. Establishing a Facebook page for the class is an excellent strategy for creating and maintaining a personal feel for the course and helps to facilitate informal interpersonal communication between students and the instructor. This can also prove to be a valuable tool for some academic discourse, sharing links, or as a way of communicating when there are technical issues with other communication tools. Be aware that some institutions may have guidelines regulating the use of social media with students.

To bolster a sense of community and to strengthen your connection as an instructor, you should provide regular general and individual feedback to your students. This includes prompt evaluations of assignments with full explanations of why the students earned the grade received. Often, the use of comments in the text of the assignment itself, a rubric inserted, and holistic comments that explain the students’ strengths, make suggestions on possible ways to improve, and offer encouragement are valuable. General announcements and emails when grades are updated do much to ease student anxiety. "Low-stakes questions, automated ‘check your knowledge’ or question forums can go a long way to keep students engaged and on track," a report by the Sloan Consortium suggested. Just-in-time instructional interventions are equally important and cannot always be planned for in advance. For this reason, feedback should be provided to students at a time in which they still have an opportunity to incorporate that information into their ongoing work.

Stay Focused

While vigorously planning ahead before the course begins is great, you will need to carry that commitment through the entire duration of the course. Stick to the schedule you establish and think of it as a contract between you and the students. In addition, consider laying out a communication plan — such as when and how to contact you for questions — in your syllabus and following it as closely as possible. This will give every learner a good structure as to how to best contact you and one another so that everyone receives a fair chance getting their inquiries answered. Your communication strategy should be tiered; email for personal communication, Web pages, video, or podcast for instruction, and discussion boards, Twitter, or other social media outlets for mass communication and large group interactions.

But in conjunction with simply planning things and carrying out your plans, being an engaged online instructor also requires you to know when your students are struggling with the course material. If you are tuned-in through email and discussions, you will know when intervention is needed by your students and you will make great strides in maintaining and strengthening the community you have developed. In the same vein, it is important to be aware if they are struggling with the technical aspects of the class.

Creating a virtual community is a significant challenge to the online educator, but it is one that provides the greatest reward for teacher and students. As the instructor, the one sure step that you can take to give community growth the best possible chance is to establish a strong virtual presence for yourself in the virtual learning environment. Having a strong and guiding presence in the online classroom will help students to engage and feel that they are part of a learning community.