I have been thinking a lot about community lately, particularly as I walk and run through the streets in our neighbourhood, looking at the
houses, watching the people go about their daily routines, envying other people’s landscaping or colourful front doors. I have also been thinking about what it means to be part of a community or neighbourhood. My family and I moved from Edmonton to Montreal about 16 months ago. It was a big move for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was leaving behind the neighbours we had gotten to know on our street in Alberta. In the time we had lived on the street, we had gotten to know some of the neighbours, especially as our kids all got older and started to play together. We could stand on our front lawns and talk to other parents. The kids organized epic street hockey games that involved equipment, nets, and sometimes even the dads! It was nice to know that we would all watch out for one another’s kids.
When we left our old house, we hoped that our new neighbourhood would offer a similar sense of community. What we have discovered is that it is hard to be the new folks on the street. In the 16 months that we have lived here, we have met only a handful of our neighbours, and mostly those are the families whose kids go to school with our kids. We are starting to see our kids organizing some epic street hockey games and play with some of the neighbourhood kids, but we have yet to meet our immediate next door neighbours. Many people do not even say hello when you happen to run into them taking the garbage to the curb or shovelling snow from the driveway. I don’t know if it is a language barrier (this is a city where English is not the primary language), or a general sense of busy-ness or something else that prevents people in our new neighbourhood from reaching out. I do know that it is a very strange feeling to live in a neighbourhood and not really feel like you are part of the community.
All this leads me to think about how communities are built in online classrooms. How can instructors in online courses ensure that their students feel like they are part of a community of learners? What strategies do instructors and students in online classes use to develop relationships that are supportive and strong and positive?
Over the 9 years that I have been teaching online, I have developed a few strategies that I think have been successful in building community. For example, at the beginning of every course, I spend at least a week doing activities to encourage my students to get to know me and one another. I introduce myself by sharing a Voicethread presentation I created of my home office (the presentation can be viewed here: http://voicethread.com/share/1641220/). I am thinking about using this same idea to have students take photos of their own work spaces and submit them to either a Flickr set or a Voicethread so that we can not only picture one another, but also visualize where we each work on course assignments and discussions.
In the early days of the term, I ask students to post their photos to their profile pages in the course management system (in Moodle and Desire2Learn, these photos also appear beside any discussion posts, which is a brilliant way of picturing who is speaking in a discussion) and then to post a personal introduction to the discussion thread. These two things are critical for not only ensuring that my students are all able to log on to the course and navigate their way around the various sections of the class, but also to ensure that from the very beginning we are starting to get to know one another. I also ask my students to complete a “Getting to Know You Form” which they share with one another. Their forms include personal information about where they work and what they do, previous courses completed, goals for and fears about the course, and their favourite cookies. These forms are helpful at the beginning of the course as we all get to know one another, and continue to be used by students as a yearbook of sorts that they can refer back to throughout the term.
Another strategy that I use is to share a lot of information about myself in my courses. I make use of regular announcements to my students (a Monday morning announcement and then other announcements throughout the week) to not only remind them of upcoming deadlines, important information, things to remember about the week, etc., but to also talk about my life and my work. I talk about my family, the weather, and just about anything else that I think is worth sharing. I am trying to model transparency but also trying to invite my students into my world a little bit and put a human face in front of the typed words of the online course content and discussions. Students have responded positively to how I use these announcements to keep in touch with them.
Another strategy I use in all my courses is a “Virtual Starbucks” area in the discussion forums which invites students to sit back with a cup of coffee (or tea, or hot chocolate!) and talk about non course related stuff with me and their classmates. I have a Coffee Talk thread (for anything that doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere else), a Favourite Restaurants and Recipes thread, a book recommendations thread, and a professional resources thread. These are places for students to share their ideas and recommendations on topics that are outside the course content. But using these informal spaces to connect with one another has been an effective strategy for some students to get to know one another better.
Building relationships in online spaces takes time and some planning. I always build in 10 days to 2 weeks at the beginning of the term as community building time. Some people might question my rationale for taking that much time away from the course content but I would argue that this is the best use of our time in those first days of a course. Laying the groundwork for a strong, positive community takes time, but it also ensures that the rest of the course runs more smoothly and that my students and I have a more successful and enjoyable experience working together. I only wish that my attempts at building community in my real worlds were as successful!
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